Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mark Amery reviews the current Gerda Leenards show at City Gallery

Following the Blue Ribbon: Recent Work by Gerda Leenards
Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, City Gallery Wellington
27 November 2009 - 24 January 2010

If you can stomach the City Gallery compulsory admission fee that comes with the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, do also see Gerda Leenards’ impressive series of paintings in the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery upstairs. With Following the Blue Ribbon Leenards’ reaches a rhapsodic abstract high-water mark, after a several decades’ long practice of watery atmospheric landscape painting.

Leenards’ work has its inspiration in the water-soaked Netherlands of her birth, with attention to the light from the gloom in the work of the old masters, mingled with the salt spray coating her home in Wellington’s Breaker Bay and abstract expressionist movements out on the South Coast’s horizon line.

This last five years or so Leenards’ has raised her game significantly, finding her creative plein air match in the light-filled and saturated gothic grandeur of Fiordland. Lying beyond the picturesque veil we’re so familiar with conditioning our view of the south-west, she identified a landscape in paint with layers of ghostly sensation that shadows the fluid rhythm of our body’s internal movement.

This new series sees her inspired to work bigger and more rhythmically, responding to the new Michael Hirschfeld Gallery space. The work is also inspired by a landscape that tops Fiordland for sublime power: the mountain-lined Li River and Yulong in China she visited in 2008. Clearly also inspired by classic Chinese landscape scroll painting in fluidity and ribbon-like rhythm, Leenards’ synthesises a wide variety of influences into what is now a mature and distinctive style that revitalises landscape painting.

To visit the gallery space with blue mirrored light-bathed peaks beating around you is to feel be-stilled and gradually aware of your own body’s rhythms. Amongst slowly shifting cadences of green and blue, the surround-sound landscape is an abstracted sensual experience of being in a small boat at dusk, hemmed in all around by dark hulks of hills.

The installation is a realisation of Greg O’Brien’s description of Leenards' work once as providing echo chambers. My experience of this work, similar to that with some of the finest abstract expressionism, is of entirely entering the rhythm of a world and my energy being shifted as a result.

Whilst the opening Hirschfeld exhibition in the new gallery by Regan Gentry seemed almost built to emphasise the gallery’s limitations in presenting installation work, Leenards' series emphasises the space's great intimacy for painting. Fenced off from the rest of City Gallery with a well-placed antique painted screen, the intimate experience of painting offered here is rare in public galleries. This show has been very thoughtfully curated by the artist and gallery curator Abby Cunnane.

Emphasised is the sound and time based nature of Leenards’ painting. Karst Reflection (Yulong Panels) is a work of 30 panels, lining the two longest walls of the gallery. Above and below a time-smudged horizon line the undulation of peaks is akin to a heartbeat monitor and the flicker of the cinema, as line and colour move across vertical ribs of canvas. The landscape resembles sonic waves or a written piece of music - melody moving across the beats of the bars of a stave. The momentous mountain peaks are animated, nodding their heads this way and that. Teasingly their reflections never quite meet their original images, the paint sliding and shimmering away.

Most often when painters use multiple panels to break up a landscape it comes off as a rather banal technical trick masking their lack of talent, but here it actually works to lift the work further out of a realist reading.

Even better is the triptych Solitude on the far end wall. The three-panel structure, with a centralised large bush shape resembles an enormous Rorschach psychoanalytic ink blot test, or a diagram of a blossoming sound wave (a nod in both cases perhaps to fellow senior Wellington artist Vivian Lynn).

Far less successful is the painting on the large folding antique screen, Blue Silk Ribbon. More simple in its beauty and technically impressive, it is moodily picturesque. Working over six panels, jarringly the components don’t marry up. No doubt it would look extraordinary in any domestic boudoir, but as art it lacks the abstract sonic power of the others and is something of a disappointment by comparison.

Images of Gerda Leenards' Following the Blue Ribbon installation, Hirschfeld Gallery, November 2009. Photo: Andrew Beck.

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