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Three New Zealand Painters Exhibiting at the City Gallery

Lisa Kerr

Visual Arts


I hope these exhibitions put a stop to endless enquiries of ‘Where are all the paintings?’ at the City Gallery. The three exhibiting artists deliver an abundance of deliciously painted and diverse works. The talent of all three artists is undeniable, and City Gallery presents them in a clear and concise manner, perfect for whether you are an art connoisseur or just beginning to embrace fine arts.
Beauty, even: Joanna Margaret Paul 1945 – 2003
Beauty, even is a tribute show to the late Joanna Margaret Paul, and features a wide selection of different media including drawings, watercolours, painting and film. Subtle splashes of blue, rose and aqua fan across her works, and Paul chooses humble domestic interiors, weather, and the environment as subjects for her paintings.
In the Inventories series a clutter of perfume bottles, cosmetics and clothes are strewn across a room. The mess is viewed voyeuristically, as if peering through the artist’s bedroom window. The various colours and forms present a patchwork quilt-like abstracted surface, familiar, yet strangely removed. Paul uses the most simple and practical surfaces for the works Jerusalem Delivery and Beta Street: two large circular wooden tabletops, reinforcing the internal and personal resonance of her works.
The wooden screen entitled Screen Winter/Spring is especially delicate, displaying influences of Japanese calligraphy. Its simplicity is haunting, with black and white, and touches of rose and orange and green that seem almost apologetic. I enjoyed Paul’s short films the most, shot on super eight made during the 1970s and 80s. The films are filled with a sense of nostalgia and an interest in abstracting forms from nature. My personal favourites include the Maggie Documentation series, where Paul records her daughter on the merry go round and later at the zoo with tigers and birds. The Orientalist treatment of decoration and the clashing of patterns, notably chicken-wire against tigers’ stripes, provide a moving feast for the eyes.
Melvin Day: Continuum
Melvin Day is a Wellington artist and is still painting in his studio near the waterfront at Seatoun. Continuum spans over fifty years of his work and displays his dramatic shifts in style, from Cubism to Abstraction to Realism. Works such as Vertiginous seem almost sculptural, with thick impasto layers of paint and even the inclusion of the tubes and lids of oils. The decadent application of paint creates scars and deep grooves in the canvases, and one feels an enormous temptation to reach out and touch (but Gallery Etiquette Rule Number One: please, please do not touch the paintings!). Day’s experiments with modernist movements such as Cubism and Futurism are also on display.
The most powerful works would have to be those indebted to early Renaissance artists such as Ucello, Piero Della Francesca and Mantegna, inspired by Day’s European travel in the 1960s. The canvases seem to have arisen from excavation; their weathered, oxidised appearance has an architectural appeal. A basic knowledge of art history is helpful in viewing these works, as they are full of signs and elements alluding to previous art eras.
The painting I like the most in Continuum is Still Life with Silver Jug, Pomegranates, Peach and Quince. I found myself gawking in awe at a single peach in this work for hours. There is something so beautiful about it, the treatment of paint depicting the velvety skin, the delicious red/orange tones, and the placement – off-centre. Viewing this peach put me in a state of rapture beyond belief. The contrast of the warm glow of fruit with the intense chromatic greys on the canvas is simple, yet highly effective. The still life haunts me with memories of Francisco de Zurbaran’s work. It thrills and teases, tempting us into unravelling centuries of art. The intentional twelve white dots above the peach transport us into the world of abstraction, reminding us of the modernist tradition Day is so fond of. I admire the peach as a sexual object, its soft, sensual curves, plump exterior, and our carnal knowledge of its moist, juicy interior. The peach stands far apart from the dumpy pomegranates and tripod of quince. The visual fetish I have for this peach with not cease to exhilarate me.
Max Gimblett: The Brush of All Things
Max Gimblett is one of New Zealand’s foremost modernist artists and has been based in New York since the 1970s. International influences such as The New York School are apparent in his powerful abstract expressionist works. The Brush of All Things is most definitely the highlight of these three exhibitions.
Gimblett’s work incorporates an interest in the modernist traditions and in Japanese Zen painting and philosophy. There is an excellent DVD to view that accompanies the exhibition, which reveals Gimblett’s spiritual and often very physical processes in creating his latest works. One of my favourite works was Sword of No Sword, executed on a large circular canvas, the making of which is shown on the DVD.
Gimblett experiments with various media and techniques in his works, using large floor mops and carefully prepared acrylic paints. The result in Sword of No Sword is a beautiful, gestural swathe of black that seems to cut into the canvas and gives a very strong sense of movement. A melancholic black column emerges and the paint bleeds across the canvas. In 1984, Gimblett stated, “A working premise is that at the time of touching paint to surface, no thinking. No mind/all mind. The impulse is to feel. I paint without thinking, in an unconscious, free way.” The visual effect of movement in these mop paintings are really very mesmerising.
I found the treatment of paint in the work Blue/Red – to Len Lye extremely interesting. Gimblett used both oil and wax to create a work that seems indebted to the flat planes of colour of the Suprematists, such as Malevich. However, as you move around the canvas, heavy iridescent brushstrokes appear and tease the eyes. What seemed to be very calm and still was very much alive and had the most movement in the room. The visual lushness was alarming. In order to make the most of your visit to Gimblett’s exhibition, I think it is important to go with an open mind, leave your preconceptions about what art is at the door, and try to truly lose yourself in the works.
Three New Zealand Painters Exhibiting at the City Gallery until March 6th.
Reviewed by Lisa Kerr