By T.J. McNAMARA
Art has three elements and this trinity is idea, emotion and technique.
In three exhibitions this week, one incorporates all three, one gets two, and the last scores only one.
The work of Julia Morison in the Jensen Gallery in Upper Queen St until the end of July has all three in full measure and her own special magic.
The basic idea is that the same material can be decisively human when it has a geometrical shape or, if it is loose and in flux, then it is part of nature.
Morison has always specialised in alchemical effects, changing one substance to another and evoking strange symbols. She has even transmuted floor mops into stunning and strange flowers. In this show she transforms polystyrene sponge into rock and concrete.
The emotion she evokes is wonder at how strange things are and how ambiguous they can be. How out can be in. How hard can be soft. How a hole can be a headland.
Everywhere in her show the material she uses is painted grey to make it look like rock. She shapes this rock-like substance into blocks. But every block exudes a loosely shaped mass. The geometrical produces the irregular.
There are a number of little works that are witty, especially when mounted in odd places such as high in a corner or perched on the narrow end of a wall, but there are only four works in the show that really matter. These carry the concept of the show to a point of intensity not found elsewhere.
They are called Quartos. The spongy material is used in great slabs tightly bounded by a framing device where paint smooths the surface. Within this frame are clouds in motion, a ceaselessly seething mass given energy by the handling of the paint and the porous surface of the work.
Cut into these clouds is an apparently solid form like a rocky headland or outcrop, sharp and solid at first glance. A close look shows this is not an outcrop but a hollow. Magically, the ambiguity of perception, the Hamlet-like play of appearance and reality is conveyed. Convincing technique triumphs.
Morison's works are rarely seen in Auckland. These Quartos demonstrate that she deserves her high stature among New Zealand artists.
Crags, rocks and stony ground are also the setting of the remarkable figure paintings of Zarahn Southon at the McPherson Gallery until June 29.
The rocks are a setting, not a flourish of technique. Southon's triumphs of technique are in the muscular force of his figure painting. He involves us emotionally with these figures by evoking both pity and a degree of horror.
These are no comfortable figures but bodies filled with high Romantic angst and marked with wounds, scars and sores. The paintings are powerful, sometimes melodramatic, and the ideas about isolation are not new.
There is heavy drama in Aroha, where a couple like Adam and Eve embrace in an apocalyptic landscape where only a few flowers flourish. An unconvincing eagle brings a ribbon, which is the symbol of the triumph of their love, but the marks and Christ-like wounds on the man's back and the woman's legs convey more pain than hope.
Aroha is love but the most successful work in the show is of love locked out. A mature female figure crouches in a landscape in a pose that recalls van Gogh's Sorrow or some 19th-century allegory by G. F. Watts. The setting, notable for a splendidly painted sky, is made modern by a power pole. Loneliness of the spirit is movingly conveyed.
Gripping emotion and the excellence of Southon's technique extends to his small portraits, which are almost as strange as his large paintings. Some paintings push too hard towards grotesquerie, notably a self-portrait in a skirt of skins, but this third exhibition establishes Southon as a gifted, independently minded artist. He is set to find his place as New Zealand's counterpart of Lucian Freud.
Another artist, this time with just one fashionable idea, despising technique and evoking no emotion beyond wry amusement is Richard Maloy who has teamed with fashion designer Karen Walker to present an exhibition which runs at the Sue Crockford Gallery until June 22.
It is called The Wedding Dress Project and part of the display is an album with photographs from the weddings of prominent people.
In the album are Walker's firm, clear drawings of the wedding dresses. These are transformed by Maloy into sculptures of paper and sticky tape.
The dress of Diana, Princess of Wales, is made into an awkward arch extending from ceiling to floor. You can walk between her legs if that gives you a frisson but you will not find much visual interest to make you linger. The rest of the show is made up of photographs of sculptures made from the dresses.
No doubt it is a delightful game to play tucks and drapes with the wedding dresses of famously transient marriages and give irony full play but really the show does not amount to a row of buttons.