By T.J. McNAMARA
It takes courage and ambition to go against the grain of fashion. From his earliest exhibitions Zarahn Southon has devoted himself to figure painting, a neglected style of art amid a flood of DVDs, installations and conceptual works.
And he was ambitious. From the beginning, much of his work was on a large scale, strong and striking. You might find it grotesque but you could not look away.
Southon's show at the McPherson Gallery until September 4 follows powerfully along the lines he has established for himself, although it is closer to home than his previous work.
His last show had big, gross naked figures not far removed from the work of Lucian Freud, but set in surreal landscapes. This show is an unashamed display of genre painting in the Dutch manner. Paintings of peasants smoking and carousing in the 17th century are evoked here. So, too, are the grimacing portraits by Frans Hals.
What links these paintings with the Dutch masters is dexterity in handling paint to convey appearances, as well as some tricks of lighting and a low viewpoint.
It is all based on accurate observation of individuals who, nevertheless, work as a type. These are the people you remember from the freezing-works, the woolstores and the wharf. They sit and smoke in white singlets. Their wives wear print dresses and jandals. They roll their own cigarettes with the dexterity of long practice. They exalt in beer in the weekends. They sit on a beer crate playing guitar and singing along. They are fine people but a vanishing tribe.
In a typical work, The Couple, the details are fascinating. The flowers on the jandals of the heavy woman figure, the singlet of the man who rolls his own, the Middle Eastern rug that covers the table, the patterns on the dress, are all finely caught in paint. In one work there is a dog straight out of Rembrandt.
In The Drinkers there is the satisfied drag on the cigarette, some fancy boots, and an arm akimbo with the prominent elbow painted as solidly as in a Michelangelo fresco. Yet this is no sentimental paradise. Although there are moments of exaltation - as when the woman is singing almost in a trance in Te Whanau - she also appears in a moment of great sadness, looking downwards in Melancholy.
There are small slips, fingers that are not quite solid and oddities of proportion. It could be argued the portraits are grotesque rather than expressive.
Whether you like these people or not, the impact of the images, the splendid handling of paint and the individuality of the style make this an extraordinary show, summed up in the artist's self-portrait. This is seen from below and the eyes give the viewer a wicked glance. It is called Self Portrait as Cheeky Darkie.
Southon is still a young painter. What these days is expected of young artists is something quite different from what he does.
At Artspace, until September 11, there is a show of work called The Bed You Lie In, by nine young artists. There is only one painter and she is doing droopy sculpture about paint rather than painting.
What these artists demonstrate is thinking, not skill. They belong to the Damien Hirst school of Brit Art where the function of art is to give a new sensation the viewer has never felt before.
A typical work is a crate sent from Wellington and tipped out on to the floor of the gallery. What emerges is a deluge of pebbly earth and a creeping vine. The vine's common name is Wandering Jew and what Daniel du Bern wishes to symbolise is not only an aggressive encroachment but also a manifesto of persecution and a legend. The same artist letters Samuel Butler's Erewhon on the wall. It famously spells "nowhere" backward but not, as here, when it is in misspelled mirror lettering. Clever? Obvious?
Other works set out to criticise the art world - its galleries, its exhibitions, its difficulties and what is seen as its tired old cliches. Finn Ferrier has little bits of demolished galleries in plastic bags. Instead of a postcard you can take away a lump of concrete. Kim Paton throws up barriers between people and the gallery by crowding them against the wall and giving them nothing to see.
Marnie Slater mocks every pompous exhibition opening that ever was with a cheap rostrum, cheap speakers and a microphone.
And so it goes on - one smart, clever idea after another, with most of the young artists biting down hard on the hand that might feed them. Most gross of all is an installation by Tao Wells that references a whole lot of other artists by recreating bits of their work. It also comments on them by putting something to rot in an old filing cabinet so the whole gallery stinks, ha, ha. The gallery as rubbish dump.
The search for the new is in contrast to the work of two competent artists who work in a long-established, abstract manner. At Artis Gallery, Heather Hourigan has an exhibition called Presence and Absence, that runs until September 12. She applies paint to the surface as presence and then makes apparent the effects possible by its absence by abrading the surface so that lower levels of paint are revealed.
Her titles reflect the process. Residual Remains is a clouded work where an attractive surface is enlivened by glimpses of white.
At the Lane Gallery until September 4, Christine Matheson uses her long experience to build up layers on the surface with plaster, collage and gold and silver leaf. The effects are most impressive in the copper-coloured Eternal Flame, the glittering gold of Bosphorus and, among so much rich colour, the misty blue of Heron Water.