Elements of Maori and European traditions meet in Chris Bailey’s powerful work in wood and stone

Substantial exhibitions of sculpture are spaced around in three galleries this week. Although they are totally different in style and medium, space is needed because the viewer needs to be able to move around them.

Chris Bailey, whose sculptures are at FHE, works in wood and stone and they are linked with Maori tradition. The exhibition is called Turangawaewae and the work stands at the intersection of Maori carving and the sculptural qualities of the European tradition of Brancusi and Henry Moore in the 20th century.

One recognises the importance of special stones that take on a sacred or boundary-marking significance and the other a respect for the nature of the material.

Most of the pieces are recent but there are two examples that date back and illustrate how Bailey sees his work as a journey. Toki are highly polished pieces of black granite, true to the nature of the stone and expressive of its weight, yet the shape is the traditional adze.


More recent work goes deeper into the possibilities of the stone in the Toki Tetaha series. The sculptures recall the curves of anchor-stones, which Bailey has referenced powerfully in the past, but here the shape is concentrated on the nature of the stone itself. The granite is receptive to an extraordinary high polish, creating a deeply black reflective surface. Other parts of the work have a roughened surface that reveals the natural core of the material.

Chris Bailey's Turangawaewae exhibition.

Another work is a circular stone grooved systematically to reveal its primal nature and its potential for transformation.

The woodcarving also has elements of Maori and European traditions. The surfaces are frequently energised by patterns of hollow forms formed by a gouge rather than a flat-edged chisel.

The Ariki series, which take the form of ceremonial posts topped with a commanding figure, are carved from totara and lightly stained to give a smoky effect of age. These pieces are all done in Bailey's established styles and altogether make an accomplished exhibition showing concern for traditions and truth to material.

The use of bronze as a medium for sculpture also has a long tradition going back to early Greek civilisation. In the mists of legend the moulding process was said to be invented by Daedalus who also invented wings and made the labyrinth on Crete for King Minos.

Three thousand years later, it is the process used by Paul Dibble to make the birds that are a spectacular part of his exhibition at Gow Langsford. He perches his birds on geometric structures made in modern Corten weathering steel but the birds are cast shapes, stylised often with cut-out sections for wings but each a recognisable species native to New Zealand.

They include The Last Huia, whose spectacular long beak of the bird matches the zigzag of the perch. Its demise is indicated by golden flame rising from its back. The same kind of rhyme and rhythm make the other works that feature the huia particularly attractive.

Called Geometric Compositions with Huia, they capture the character of the animal while being strongly sculptural. Dominating the floor are works of monumental flowers of the kowhai. Most dramatic is a giant piece called The Gold of the Kowhai where the enormous blossom is supported by a branch and a leaf. The flower itself is gilded with 24-carat gold. There are several smaller versions. Much more complex are the two tall figures in the gallery window. These are human forms with bird heads, each holding a mask in front of his beak. In I Am a Tui the bird/man also has a violin over his shoulder as though the tui conferred the gift of song and music on New Zealand human kind. The strangeness of the work is emphasised by the peculiar crossed legs of the man. The sculptor must have a reason for this but the meaning is not clear.


Paul Dibble's The Gold of the Kowhai.

As usual in a Dibble exhibition the spectacular works are matched by small, inventive bronzes with an element of wit. Neatest of all is Coming Together where a tall human and a bending bird interrogate each other in a very quizzical manner.

Likewise, wit and good humour are the mark of work by Seung Yul Oh who is showing at Starkwhite. His previous work has included a huge inflated balloon that invaded the gallery and the egg shapes that are public sculpture in Newmarket. Their simple shape and high-polished car-lacquer colour which seemed curious at first have now become a familiar and admired part of the character of the street.

In the show at Starkwhite the colourful shapes are acorns. They are pale pastel colours, each equipped with a stalk in a matching colour with its squared-off end in a complementary colour. They tilt at various angles and their support is almost invisible. It is the tilt that gives them their energy. They balance like dancers, albeit very portly dancers, and have life and humour.

Around the walls are a series of paintings. They have no narrative or subject. They are immaculate white surfaces edged with narrow bands of colour. These bands are not a frame; there are both plain and mitred corners. Each interacts with the white, sometimes allowing the space it represents to quietly escape. At other times the colour is a barrier.

The interplay is intriguing. Such a playful approach is rare and refreshing.

At the galleries


Turangawaewae by Chris Bailey

Where and when:

FHE Galleries, 2 Kitchener St, to December 12

TJ says:

The subjects and feeling of Maori carving are matched with truth to material in these strong works in wood and stone.

What: The Gold of the Kowhai by Paul Dibble
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to December 6
TJ says: Native birds reign in this show of bronze sculpture complemented by exceptionally large, gilded sculpture of kowhai bloom and tall, enigmatic figures.

What: Memmem by Seung Yul Oh
Where and when: Starkwhite Gallery, 510 Karanghape Rd, to December 6
TJ says: Large, polished, humorous coloured acorns dance across the gallery floor accompanied by large abstract paintings animated by the same visual wit. Upstairs is an excellent film and photographs by Gavin Hipkins.