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.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Too rigid

Darryn George: Pukapuka
Gow Langsford, Auckland
4 March - 28 March 2008

Darryn George is well known as a Maori painter in this country, but you know what, his earlier sculptural works are so much better. In the mid nineties he made a series of red/black/white sculptural wall reliefs, heraldic in nature, depicting motifs that examined colonial history from the Māori point of view. They had a fluidity of line and an organic quality that has long been lost.

George’s paintings in comparison have a busyness and rigidity, a harshness induced by their tonal contrast and geometry. Overcooked and wooden, they seem too earnest and too literal in their symbolism (a strange thing to say about ‘abstract’ works, I know.) Their excessive narrative layering makes them try too hard, and consequently they flounder.

Let me give an example: his use of thick white 3D paint in the borders is awkward – visually a mix of Jonathan Lasker and Max Ernst’s decalcomania. In the gallery’s very fine discussion of this show by Shelley Jahnke-Bishop, she mentions it is done to emulate the chisel marks of carving, but they actually don’t look chisel-like. The work is spoiled by its symbolic intent, which even if rendered impeccably, would still only overload the content. The ‘footnotes’ would have replaced the ‘essay’. The show’s title means ‘book’ so my literary comparison is apt.

The odd thing is that the best work of the show is in the gallery’s Wellesley Street window (bottom image above). It has an intriguing literal quality, looking like two rows of panels leaning against a wall. It also is comparatively simple, having no complicated background kowhaiwhai or tukutuku patterns. Plus there are grey panels that in the context of all the red, black and white, suddenly become visually refreshing.

This sounds like I’m trying to remove all the Māori components from George’s work, but not at all. I’m just advocating visual subtlety, and hinting that he could come at it from another direction. To my pakeha eyes it seems a bit heavy-handed and market-driven; devoid of intellectual risks. The earlier wave of ‘Māori painters’ like Peter Robinson and Shane Cotton are much more adventurous in comparison.

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