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A lunchtime chat in a bar with Peter Roche feels like the resumption of a conversation started years ago in the Kiwi tavern, avoiding classes at Elam over jugs and pies. Now we're in Roche's own "hobby" bar, in the foyer of the former Ambassador picture theatre in Pt Chevalier.

There's still the same tilt of the head, fierce gaze, ideas expressed as if for outrage, then dismissed with a laugh. The topic is a rare public showing of Roche's work, in a group show at Bath Street Gallery in Parnell.

Good Company Flash Lights is an exhibition more suited to a public gallery than a dealer space, with curator Jim Vivieaere pulling together a group of artists who use electricity in their work.

The indigenous component comes from Australian Aboriginal Jonathan Jones, whose elegant weaving of electric flex has overtones of basketry, ceremonial dance steps, and the whiteness that has overwhelmed his land.

Funding constraints means two of the artists could not be brought out to make work for the show, so Barcelonan Chema Alvargonzalez, who makes artificial light a central feature of his practice, is represented by one small lightbox work.

A plasma screen shows DVDs of Ivan Navarro, a New York-based Chilean, whose intriguing sculptures include shopping carts and deckchairs constructed of neon tubes.

Roche's contributions are four discs, paintings on Perspex mounted on satellite dishes and backlit, and a tall work on paper, again backlit so the layers of drawing, staining and rubbing are visible. "They're self-portraits in different persona," he says. "Light, movement, gestures, vomiting, letting it all out," he laughs.

Roche first made his mark in performance works, their increasing wildness leading to his being banned from presenting them on art school premises. Even then they were carefully calculated for effect (though one did end up in the emergency room).

Pushing oneself to extremes in such a way can give an artist's subsequent work a sharper edge than that of their peers, and Roche has never shied away from sharp edges.

Indeed, Occupational Safety and Health has not allowed some of his works owned by public galleries to be re-exhibited, for fear the combination of jagged metal, motors and electric lighting could zap an unwary patron.

It is several years since Roche has shown in a dealer gallery, although his profile is still high with the major work Coral on the side of the SunAlliance building on Shortland St.

A lot of his considerable energy is also going into Twister, a proposed 20m steel and neon spiral which will rise at the entrance to the Viaduct Basin. A trust has been formed to raise the $2 million-plus needed to realise the work, and Holmes Consulting Group has come on board to do the engineering.

"It's nice to get the work out there again, but showing in galleries is not a high priority," Roche says. "If people want to see the work, they come here. I've sold to every gallery in New Zealand, to the major collectors, so what's the point? I just make it now."

Given the performance aspect of his work, it's fitting that Roche works in a theatre auditorium. As we walk through the double doors into the studio, Roche walks around plugging in leads.

"We won't be able to do this for long. The fuse will blow," he says.

That doesn't mean he would think of only lighting up a section of the works at a time. He would rather have the massed effect and, when a fuse blows and a quarter of the works suddenly dim, that's the nature of performance.

One and 2m-diameter satellite dishes, assembled from kitsets, line the sides. Mounted on them like transmissions from the ether are discs painted with splashy self-portraits, stick figures or abstract gestures.

The technique of painting on clear Perspex doesn't allow for fiddling. It's action painting. If the image doesn't work, wipe it off and start again.

"The image itself goes on fast, and then I build up the layering and put the light behind. The light creates the layers," says Roche.

After the painting, making the surround seems a far more mundane activity, but even Roche has discovered that intensity can't be maintained for more than short bursts.

Another fuse blows. Time to leave.


What: Good Company Flash Lights, by Ivan Navarro (New York), Jonathan Jones (Sydney), Chema Alvargonzalez (Barcelona), Peter Roche (Auckland)

Where and when: Bath Street Gallery, Parnell, to Nov 25