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.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Seven by Five

Woke Up This Morning: Sarah Hillary, Johanna Pegler, Kate Small, Isobel Thom and Barbara Tuck.
Anna Miles, Auckland
1 – 23 February, 2008

Five painters present their work in Anna Miles’ intimate little suite in High St. Some might make something of the fact all the artists are women. I’m not so sure. There is a lot of variation here. Still the show's title comes from The Sopranos theme song "Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun" - apparently about a woman who killed her husband after twenty years of violent abuse - so there is a political edge intended by Miles to be a mental frame. You wouldn't think so though, from the paintings alone. In this millenium more than ever, it is foolhardy to make assumptions about the gender of an artist just by examining their work.

Kate Small at first glance seems to be a slightly more realist version of Riduan Tomkins – an artist well known in Christchurch where he taught painting at Ilam - but her works are without the modernist figurescape. Her similarly understated paintings instead allude to deep space through perspective, though seen through a haze achieved by an even manipulation of tones.

Her square painting depicts a scene at the Parnell baths, with two slightly elongated figures, women in swimsuits in a waterless pool. There is a suggestion of psychological interaction between the two women, and a palpable tension between them and the enclosed space, with its ceiling, walls, furniture and floor. The pastel tones suggest heat more than water.

Johanna Pegler’s painting has a psychological dimension too, but about nature as a spiritual force, and not humans. Instead of two people Pegler has two trees, a pine and a lemon, placed on a bank with the former towering over the latter. The drama in the work comes from the cracklike lines formed by the dark pine branches set against the pale sky. There is a found expressive quality in these jagged lines alluding to an emotional intensity that seems to come from nature as an everwatching moral power. This is pantheism of which Wordsworth would be proud.

Barbara Tuck’s painting connects with this, but in a more Blakean or Huxleyan manner, using the structure of the molecular (like Hanly) but with imagery from nature that is not microcosmic. Her work uses mapping shapes to enclose vistas from landscape or plant details, utilising a human scale and references to culture like cartography or particle physics. Tuck’s oil application is particularly sensual and painterly with this recent work being slightly larger than previously. The lush and delicately coloured shapes butt against each other like little islands of rendered rock or vegetation, huddling together in a sea of melting blossomy snow.

Sprigs of blossom also figure strongly in Sarah Hillary paintings, providing an implied grid on which to place seashells, fish, vases and the occasional scrawny bird. With her work the chunky white ornate frames dominate, bringing a needed physical presence to boost her small panels. Her rhythmic images are curious in the way they treat (or don’t treat) pattern, for the two panels divide the field up so regular repetition doesn’t take hold. The result is like a tantalising tune that doesn’t quite have a melody but is half suggested. Her placement of two panels side by side similarly creates peculiar tensions where the suggested patterns avoid a strident dynamic and remain anaemic, circumnavigating the muscular.

In Isobel Thom’s paired paintings her imperious gaze (at herself in the mirror) provides the structure for her grey and black marks. Her self portraits have a touch of Gabo’s constructivism without being hollow shells. They look almost like they are made from pieces of torn paper with their glowing, finely delineated edges. The work is admirably clinical and seems to be the result of some industrial process, especially in the modelling around the neck and head, where there is a complex but planned colliding of multi-sided and interconnecting planes. From her very limited palette, Thom manages to achieve an especially rich and absorbing image – mixing early twentieth century modernism with a very contemporary sense of the cybernetic.

While not a tight show, the connections between Pegler and Small, Tuck and Hillary, and Thom and Small (with their sense of alienation) prevent it from being too fragmented. There is plenty to think about. A cleverly nuanced exhibition.

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