By T.J. McNAMARA
Aaargh! That was the strangulated cry of an art reviewer back on the job and realising there was a shortlist of 18 substantial shows in Auckland worthy of review. There are local shows and international shows; shows that are pro-painting and others that are anti-art; shows that are purely abstract and others that are close to illustration.
The anguish was compounded by the way the work of two artists who have gained international recognition were desperately extreme exhibitions that would produce a response only in the most sophisticated milieu.
The response to the work of Francis Upritchard at the Ivan Anthony Gallery until February 22 was not so much a cry as a gulp.
The first impression is disgust. This New Zealand artist has recently gained recognition in Britain where she is a finalist in the Beck's Futures competition which is set to rival the Turner Prize. Her work is deliberately ugly. The sensations she evokes are both seedy and shocking. It is all of a piece with the work of Damien Hirst and the millennium Apocalypse exhibition of a couple of years ago in London.
There is a whiff of Hirst's formaldehyde about the show since this is art about museums; about dust, decay, death and dubious preservation, an art of artefacts. It relates to what we preserve from the dead past and how the preservation is often grotesque.
The most dominating and awful things in the exhibition are three heads that imitate the shrunken heads that might be part of an anthropological display. In a weird reversal of expectation these are not tattooed heads but heads with blond moustaches or dark beards with thinning hair and eyes plastered with something like clay and the lips shrunk from the bared real teeth. The plaster and paper mache of their making are at odds with traditional art media.
Also on display are museum-collection objects made of modelling clay. These are pins, combs and sticks carved delicately, with little Maori heads, and set in shabby velvet cases.
There is an evocativeness about the show emphasised by an Egyptian theme which engages obliquely with the Maori. Two generations ago every family had dusty Egyptian souvenirs brought back by troops from the Middle East. One piece in this show is a tiki in a dusty old case with some Egyptian money.
The Egyptian references are continued in a series of jars where only the lid is made by the artist and these have the faces of dogs, monkeys and birds so that they remotely recall the ancient Egyptian Canopic jars that held the organs taken from bodies being mummified.
The whole funky show reeks of mortality. It is not without precedent, except for its crude technique, in work by the Spanish artist Valdes Leal or the very strange Antoine Wiertz, who is given a museum to himself in Brussels which must be the oddest museum in Europe. A museum full of Upritchard's work would have the same horrid fascination.
Equally extreme in a different way is the rarefied elegance of the work of Gunter Umberg at the Jensen Gallery until the end of March.
Umberg has a big international reputation. The show is called Malerei which is German for "painting" and it is painting of the purest order. Most of the works are a powdery, velvet-black rectangle or square, simply a precious surface. They go beyond Ad Reinhardt and Yves Klein who are the ancestors of this sort of extreme minimalism.
Layers of pigment are brushed into moist resin that imparts the most delicate of textures. The gallery walls are immaculate white. Each paintings is a black hole of immense apparent depth. Their splendid surfaces are almost hallucinogenic when seen close up.
They should, by all logic, be completely unconvincing yet against the white background they have an undeniable presence. Inexplicably, beyond words, they are the extreme dead end of painting yet they are not quite dead. They reduce one to despair but somewhere in that exquisite surface there is a flicker of life and hope for that part of art that is painting.
It is with a sigh of relief that one turns to an exhibition such as that by George Baloghy at Artis Gallery in Parnell until February 23. These are local paintings, carefully drawn and painted in an orthodox way. They take on their full measure of witty comment only if you are acquainted in some measure with Auckland's harbour and hills. They do not just record these features but, as the title Arcadia/Antipodea suggests, they make an imaginative jump to the situation that might have existed if the Greeks or Romans had colonised New Zealand.
Typically, there is the amusing situation of a ruined viaduct with semi-circular stone arches where Grafton Bridge now stands and tiled Roman villas on the North Shore where North Head is crowned by a circular fort.
There is a further game in the best of these works - spot the quotation. Old Masters of one period and another are pillaged for ironic detail. The works that play this game and the antiquity game are much more entertaining than the straight topographical depictions, although nothing in the show is less than highly competent.