Abstract painter Stephen Bambury has an acute sense of space. His work borders on installation with its consideration of architecture, his Western Springs home was included in a 2001 Top 100 Homes list and his generous Eden Tce studio transcends its industrial exterior.

The modest building is divided into two open-plan floors with an office and extensive library at one end of the sunny upper level, and electronic jazz babbling from the rafters at the other end. Long walls and work benches provide space for his larger works and he is talking of extending the lower level to allow for even bigger projects.

Having spent seven weeks in Europe, where he has shows in Slovenia and Germany, Bambury has returned to his studio and is rediscovering forgotten work.


"There's something about having a space of this size that allows me to surprise myself," he says. "When I come in I'm looking for those surprises - what catches my eye or mind that particular morning."

Bambury's working environment has been a significant influence on his output and he recalls a period in a previous studio when his work seemed to get smaller and smaller.

"You paint for the space you're in, in a way. When I look back now at any photographs of my Titirangi studio, I can see how much contained energy was trying to burst out of the space. And when I look at the paintings from that period, they're incredibly angulated and sharp and awkward in terms of the spaces they set up; the tilting of planes and the forms that I was using."

Music is also obviously important and his conversation quickly turns to the minimalist drones of Tony Conrad and old Louis Armstrong soundtracks. He says his listening habits tend towards more ambient and complex music than hard-out rock'n'roll, but he isn't fussy and encourages his assistants to bring in music. Ruban Nielson, an Elam graduate who also plays guitar for the Mint Chicks, is currently responsible for diversifying the studio's soundtrack.

There is a vibrant feel of experimentation in the room and Bambury seems to be entering a fresh chapter in his career. Aside from the European excursion and having just taken over the lower level of his studio, he is also moving on from the 25-year retrospective exhibition in Wellington and Auckland a few years ago, closely followed by a weighty monograph.

"Having to assess and encapsulate your own career can be a challenging business that could easily leave you locked into your own history.

"There is definitely some crisis and pain in going through that moment because it also brings a lot of anxiety with it about how you proceed, how you keep going and what's the next big runway you can find.

"The great benefit of shows like that, is that it's about being able to put things down and to feel that a lot of that endeavour now has its point of record, which allows me to a) use it in another way and b) move on to new things. It's like when your first child or grandchild is born; your perspectives start to change."

Graduating from Elam in 1975, Bambury is one of New Zealand's first artists to have spent their entire career in abstraction. Inheriting abstraction through the eyes of predecessors such as Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich or Ralph Hotere resulted in distinct variations on the traditions evolving in Europe and America.

It is this perspective that German curator Leonhard Emmerling (curator of recent Gus Fisher exhibition Friendly Fire) found interesting when he combined a selection of Bambury's works with fellow painter Judy Millar and two Icelandic abstractionists for the exhibition IS/NZ in Ludwigsburg.

"The idea of being with another group of artists is also really interesting because you do get these ricocheting things that obliquely move around the show," Bambury says.

"The show's not set up in a way that everyone has their own separate spaces. Leonhard's idea was more that he was looking for those points of mingling and letting those lives cross through one another, and I find those things very rewarding. It gives you an opportunity to calibrate your own vision a bit. You get some sort of data which you can use to ratchet into some new points of thinking."

Bambury's latest show at Jensen Gallery includes new and old work. By operating this way, he isn't always sure where his work will take him, hence the exhibition's title.

"I'm suggesting to people to think about the interactive process of the blind leading the blind," he says.

"Even though I work with forms that I repeat and repeat, they are always different and it's only by bringing those things so closely together and pulling them apart and extending them and putting them together again that those differences start to become apparent."

Another element of uncertainty in Bambury's work is his use of unconventional materials like oil, rust and resin, which react in different ways. Heaped in the middle of his upper studio is a large mound of crushed glass, waiting for an opportunity to filter into his practice.

"I'm never too certain what the materials are going to do. I want them to do things that I won't expect. It's like trying to search for something but you don't know what it is you're trying to find. It's blind at every level but what becomes interesting is at a certain point you can own that blindness.

"That blindness is actually the only way to proceed forward."


* What: Painting Blind-Blind Painting, by Stephen Bambury

* Where and when: Jensen Gallery, 61 Upper Queen St, to Oct 16