This week is marked by virtuosity: skill in painting still life, skill in painting landscape and skill in painting portraits gives authority to three intriguing exhibitions.
The most striking is the work of Dick Frizzell at the Gow Langsford Gallery until December 16. Frizzell can paint anything in any manner. In this, he paints highly realistic still life and interiors without his usual touch of irony.
The exhibition is the result of his sponsored trip to Antarctica last year. Anyone else going to Antarctica would paint rock and snow and ice. In this, only one painting shows any snow and that is the least impressive in this otherwise remarkable exhibition.
Nevertheless, an oblique reference to snow is in the cold light that comes through some windows. The light reveals the warm brown tones of ageing timber and biscuit boxes.
The biscuit boxes feature in a big painting called Hanging Lamp. A stack of them are left over from Scott's expedition. In front hangs a crudely constructed lamp next to a shaving mirror. The textures of everything - the floorboards, the rafters and the lamp - are brilliantly conveyed. There is a sense of age and the sense that these are special relics.
The still life quality is carried over in a work like Scott's Patcher, which is a well-worn hand-propelled sewing machine. In a special touch, the plate under the foot has been broken and replaced with a cleverly contrived wooden repair. This raises the question - with so many of these historical relics so beautifully painted, how much of the interest lies in the painting and how much of the known background to the objects?
How much does a row of bottles gain in meaning when we know that it is from Shackleton's medicine chest? It is necessary to accept there is a huge documentary element in the painting which makes them something special whether they are a stack of tin plates or a large canvas of a hut interior.
Significantly, the modern, witty paintings, like the four Watties fruit salad cans called Dessert Scott Base, or the buns with pink icing called Chef's Treat, are clever but do not have the emotional jolt of the documentary paintings.
No one but Frizzell could have the wit to see that the subject for him was the human things in Antarctica, not the snow and ice, and only Frizzell could make an admirable painting out of a recipe for scrambled eggs, or paint a huge image of Shackleton's stove so vividly that its weighty presence dominates the gallery.
At the John Leech Gallery next door, also until December 16, Justin Boroughs comes closer to home with his small, lively panoramic views of scenes around Auckland harbour.
Once again he has painted several versions of the old boatsheds in Hobson Bay. He has returned to this motif repeatedly and he gets better at it, making great play with the colour of the doors, the reflections in the water and the moored boats. As always, he conveys vividly the tubby volume of boats and how they sit on the water.
This is an intensely Auckland show, from the boatsheds to Rocky Bay in Waiheke, Lion Rock at Piha, and North Head in Devonport. Boroughs is particularly good at Auckland skies. One excursion to Taranaki is curiously less convincing, perhaps because there is less love.
Throughout the 20th century, particularly in the 30s and later in the century, a heightened super-realism was always a valid option for contemporary painters. These two exhibitions show that such realism can still delight the mind and heart.
There has always been a place, too, for portrait painting, and in the exhibition by Simon Richardson at the Jonathan Grant Galleries in Parnell until December 8, the best things are the portraits. The study of Anton Oliver's back, the focus of publicity, is the least successful work. There is no context, and the background, particularly around the head, is filled in and sits on the surface of the canvas and denies the depth.
Yet there is no denying Simon Richardson's skill in achieving a likeness complete with liquid sparkling eyes in his portraits on linen and copper where he directly challenges the Old Masters by taking poses from Leonardo and Giorgione and transferring them to the New Zealand scene, reaching deep into art history for mentors.
At its best, this is fine work by a young painter who has chosen a path that is far from fashionable.
These three exhibitions show brilliant technique and are often touching, even at times moving. They are at the opposite ends of the spectrum from the kind of emotional expressionist painting that dashes the paint on the canvas vigorously as a symbol of drive and emotional involvement.
The balance is restored by four heavy painters from Dunedin at Whitespace Gallery in Ponsonby until Friday.
Philip James Frost splashes on wild masses of paint from which questions emerge, Greg Lewis creates grey mists of loose paint and asks questions in German about the nature of war, Pete Wheeler paints the dead and wounded in dark images matched by one huge painting of a skull. The most controlled is Michael Greaves, whose big painting of a stadium concentrates mass emotion. The young painters' form may lack subtlety but they have plenty of attack.