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Fresh New Blood

Leave (2008) by Peter Madden. Robert Heald Gallery.
Installation view with Comfortable arc (2010) by John Ward Knox in the foreground. Robert Heald Gallery.
Mark Amery looks at a new dealer and new artists in Wellington. "Just when I’d started to de

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By Mark Amery

Just when I’d started to despair about not seeing spreads of fresh artwork from New Zealand’s up and comers in Wellington, this year has felt like something of a circuit breaker.

Apart from the nicely cherry-picked Ready to Roll show at City Gallery, there’s been an abundance of group shows of new artists in dealer galleries and project spaces across town. While dealers like Mary Newton, Mark Hutchins and Suite show a lot of Wellington artists, most others largely draw their clusters from a land called elsewhere - which currently seems to hover most of the time over Auckland.

A visiting Auckland dealer I bumped into on my rounds this week jibed that the group show is for a dealer ‘hedging your bets’ exhibition. I think that’s old thinking. Artists increasingly are working more fluidly across spaces, ensuring that there are more interesting and frequent group shows in dealer galleries than just the Christmas odds and ends stocking filler exhibitions of old.

As if to make this point, Enjoy Gallery has kicked off its 10th birthday celebrations with a show called the Casual Romance Club, which has all the social interactivity of a party, complete with balloons. Across the hallway Peter McLeavey Gallery brings two new Auckland artists into his stable, Gambia Castle’s Nick Austin and Andrew Barber. They both demonstrate McLeavey’s fondness for smart poetic takes on modernism and cultural histories.

Creating a direct pipeline from the north to the capital is new dealer Robert Heald, whose space in the Left Bank off Cuba Mall is showing a host of young artists we don’t see enough of in the capital. The exception is Peter Madden whose works here feel rather familiar in approach to those in past exhibitions in Wellington. 

Featuring five artists, the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ exhibition confirms the general shift by artists away from big acrylics and oils to small works employing the likes of watercolour, gouache, collage and paper. These are quieter, lighter works that show more affection for the meditative more domestically scaled painting that preceded big brash pop art and expressionism. Smart and absorbing, they are all the same generally rather polite, respectful and inoffensive.

Recent ELAM art school grad Dane Taylor impresses painting broach-like multi-coloured geometric blooms in gouache onto second hand prints of familiar early 20th century paintings and still lives. Reminiscent of tapestry or quilting, these painted fractal star clusters might be easily dismissed as doily-like decorations, yet they have an impressionistic magnetism. Akin to kaleidoscopes they soak up energy and colour from the prints, bringing new life and dimension to these flattened familiar forms - be they a Monet lily pond or Matisse’s Red Room.

Collages that see crystal-like geometric figures interacting with found scenes seem, like a rash everywhere at the moment (see the excellent work of Kate Woods and Andrea Gardner in another strong current group show at Bartley and Company around the corner), but Dane Taylor pulls it off well. 

Richard Bryant’s work recalls the minimalist abstraction of the likes of Milan Mrkusich, except instead of big gestures on canvas delicate washes of watercolour are made on small patches of paper. Like Patrick Lundberg’s work in Heald’s first exhibition, their apparent simplicity belies a delicate, intelligent interplay between paint and shapes. With thin layers applied to old blotted paper, Bryant allows the materials themselves space to breathe. The surfaces are alive, like rubbings, whispering all manner of coded suggestions.

This care with materials is also strong in ‘Life, Still’ by John Ward Knox. Essentially a drawing, employing shades of grey oil paint, a warm physical intimacy is created through the image floating as a small square peephole on the otherwise bare speckled calico fabric. The picture is of a bar from a visual perspective that suggests the eye of someone in a half conscious stupor, their head close to the gleaming curvature of the bar counter, blinking out at a fellow intoxicated customer. The air of intoxication and psychological fuzziness pervades the work. Beautifully painted, its seductive play in line and light between illustration and dreamy abstraction is a flickering illumination of the grey area for humans between ecstasy and overconsumption.

Ward Knox also provides a small white sheepskin on the floor with a steel wire curving in and out of it - an elegant but deadly trap. Entitled Comfortable Arc, as with his painting there’s the intimation that what we most find comforting will ultimately kill us, and it’s the closest the exhibition comes to disrupting the status quo. Yet, next to the painting, I found it a fairly unremarkable readymade.

The one non-Auckland resident here, Cantabrian Zina Swanson has four works on paper that are even more assured and resolved than her striking contribution to the Ready to Roll show. Held neatly between panes of glass like scientific slide samples, in her drawings she grafts human digits and tree branches together, placed within what look like Victorian scientific glass vials and chemistry kits. Streams or drops of blood and clusters of roots are extracted, as if human and botanical blight is being shamanistically cured in an artistic laboratory. 

Swallows and Amazons, Robert Heald Gallery, until July 31

Written by

Mark Amery

7 Jul 2010

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