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Letting Rip

Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Supporting Partick Thistle Paintings: Rob McLeod - pic by Kate Whitley
Wellington painter Rob McLeod deserves wider recognition as one of New Zealand’s finest, argues Mark Amery

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By Mark Amery

The arts and festivities provide a space to let all that is repressed hang out: to turn the tables and, generally let rip. From the grotesque to the carnivalesque, this is a time-honoured cultural tradition. In New Zealand it has had a muted history.

Enter stage left - with paintings leering, bulging and belching - Rob McLeod. Since arriving in Wellington from Scotland in the 1970s, McLeod has tarted up, tartaned and tested the dourness of our art’s self-enforced boundaries. And yet, as good as he could be, until ten or so years ago I always felt McLeod was still playing someone else’s game.

Moving onto cut-out plywood canvases in the 1990s, his fluid abstraction became increasingly bodily and figurative in its juiciness and line. As it explicitly took on the form of overlapping and mutating cartoon-inspired figures it became a game-changer. It owned its outsider status, and also had much to say . While once painting represented an industrial consumer culture that was all clean, shiny and new, McLeod’s painting shows a crowded pop culture curdling and cacophonous. Our cartoon heroes have sick on their ridiculously large shoes. 

With this solo show curator Aaron Lister brings together a beautifully tuned look at McLeod’s painting of the last ten years, and where in his practice it came from (for example, plucked from 1988, with its musical scratchings and bold folds, a large wall work Lanark is well chosen).

It is a barely contained riot. More a rogues gallery of dodgy characters than a gallery of portraits, figures prop themselves up around the walls. They posture like prostitutes, bursting out of their costumes and shadowed by Baconesque grotesque, metamorphosing versions of themselves. Trailing their feet below the gallery wall skirting, dumping cut-out cases down, and leaving pools of paint on the gallery floor, they behave as if they own the place - as defiant of the institution as graffiti is to a city wall.

A gang of them are designed to be stored in a door-shaped box and then arranged on the wall. McLeod has created a mobile portal to make up for them not having a permanent home. In the case of the impressive large group works, it is as if his characters have tumbled out from a cramped carny caravan, all elbows. A viral circus troupe stampeding into the gallery with their armoury the most showy set of magician’s tricks possible. Titled True Kiwi Content and Landscape with Exotics, their aim is to disquiet our restrained, polite picture of ourselves.

Like all great work they come with cavalcade of potential cultural references. I think back to the caricature and social criticism of Daumier and Hogarth’s drawings. This is most evident in a strong new series Small Man’s Problems, where hands squeeze a collapsing businessman with an inhaler, like he’s a rag doll. Mostly however I’m drawn to the theatrical references of it all - from the props of cartooning, pantomime and clowning, back to medieval Mummers plays, with their disguises and painted faces, and Morality Plays’ division of the ego, conscience and self into battle.

Yet focus only on content and these might as well be cartoons. Their charge remains in their painterliness. The compositions provide something to hang a rewarding push of colour, line and texture into daring combinations off. McLeod continues a deeply unfashionable, abstract expressive joy in paint, missing from much contemporary art elsewhere - Rohan Wealleans next door at City Gallery excepted.

Relieved of the need to have backgrounds and play with perspective, or stay within the frame of the cartoon storyboard, these works are also relieved of the need to make sense. They play to our emotions and senses. They bounce off their thinness on the wall. They demonstrate how, with an experienced brush, paint can take cartooning into a fat and rich complex space.

I do have minor quibbles. Some work, like Tweety Poses with Friends, remains wooden and thin. The wooden cases that stand on the floor are more decorative and reactionary against fashion than actually interesting. The most recent works float awkwardly, unmusically together on the high walls, failing to gel as large installation.

Back in 1995 City Gallery curated a survey of New Zealand painting, A Very Peculiar Practice. Inexplicably McLeod was left out, as he has of some other painting histories. Instead, a smaller group show was organised, Local Colour. The titles say it all.

Happily however this has clearly hardened McLeod’s resolve to play out painting’s rebellious potential to the full. He gives the impression of giving it his all, having stopped caring what others think. In his painting prime, providing genre-defying, eye-popping work, we’re all the better for it.

The title of this exhibition Supporting Partick Thistle comes from a joke in Scotland about always supporting a team that never wins. McLeod is finally winning on his home ground. Now he deserves to do so on every other.

Written by

Mark Amery

31 Aug 2012

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.