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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Painted Light

Paul Winstanley: Paintings 1989 -2007
Curated by Brian Butler
ARTSPACE, Auckland
26 April - 31 May 2008

In this wonderful little survey of English artist Paul Winstanley’s work, there are twenty-one paintings, of varied size, that ARTSPACE director Brian Butler has assembled from key collections in California. While it doesn’t say much about painting per se (in the sense of paint as tactile substance or subject of experimental technique – as with say Harding or Frize), it does say a great deal about the relationship between painting and photography as a tool. From an image in a book or magazine the simplicity of Winstanley’s forms might make you think they were digitally fiddled-with photographs, but when you experience them directly, the sense of pigment being worked into a canvas with a brush is strong. There is a softness. Totally different to chemicals on glossy paper or plastic, and methods of pixelation.

In the floor talk he gave at ARTSPACE, Winstanley mentioned his early admiration for the planar paintings of Brice Marden, the American painter, and you can see why. There is a sense of nuanced chromatic control and great restraint here, in the typically English way that one sees in Tate Britain with painters like Richard Hamilton or Paul Nash. To do with the English climate and light from many overcast days, the love of greenish grey and avoidance of bright saturation. A maverick art historian like Francis Pound might argue that this is the result of a learned visual style, not based on observation in unique regional conditions, but in fact it is a learned style acquired under certain geographical / meteorological circumstances, and then – as in Winstanley’s case – reapplied to works made in other countries like China.

The interesting thing about Winstanley’s paintings is their nod to the modernist picture plane, the way they reflect the shape of the supporting canvas in their composition. They have a strange balance between looking through and looking at. If you compare them with say, in this country, Jude Rae’s still lifes, her work draws you in, but it denies that the painting is an artefact, an object. Her canvas visually ‘dissolves’ and is not celebrated. Winstanley though, likes the rectangle and shows you so. He is not fixated on illusion, but enjoys the way the painting sits on the wall and interacts with the architecture and various fittings in the room.

Even when he tries something unusual, like round stretchers, they profoundly activate the wall. Two pinkish circular paintings (Pods 2 & 3) based on photographs made inside a viewing room at the top of a tower in a Chinese city, provide a strange tubular sensation - as if you are looking through two holes in the ARTSPACE wall that bend behind it and link up. The space between the canvases becomes part of the installation, and ARTSPACE turns into Kelly Talton’s. You want to walk into the circles.

From looking at this show it is very evident that Winstanley is besotted by reflected and atmospheric light, and that he loves rendering it as it is experienced inside public architecture. Three large paintings of a walkway over a motorway are based on photographs taken at different times. Each symmetrical work has its own distinctive qualities of illumination, a combination of pulsing haze from the distant end of the corridor (the cumulative effects of fluorescent tubes on the ceiling and their floor reflections) and shimmering reflections in the glass windows on each side.

The best works feature a warm white with grey or very dark brown, and avoid hot colour. Such stand-out paintings are cool masterpieces vaguely influenced by Hamilton and Hockney, but even better than those artists’ works. That is really saying something, but Night Office 1 (1996) and Still (1995) are compelling in their use of bleached out space and soft smoky edges. Their impeccable compositional placement and glaring smudgy light makes them profoundly and beautifully perfect for their size.

Some of the smaller city street scenes and office interiors are impressive too, having a jewel-like quality from details such as reflections on green plastic seats, or light passing through pink translucent umbrellas. They are intimate works, not muscular but gorgeously delicate. The bigger works involve you bodily. Both types are hard to forget.


Alexander Hoyles said...

Beautifully written review, thanks John.

It was a virtuosic, and distinctly sedate exhibition - quite a strange and enjoyable contrast to Roman Signer's works (which it followed).

I took a look in at 'Various Artists' at The Film Archive in the same outing and enjoyed some of the works in that show a great deal too - especially in light of the stillness of Winstanley's work next door.

Keep up the good work.

Alexander Hoyles

John Hurrell said...

Thanks Alexander, for your supportive comments.

Yes, as you say, it was interesting having Wynstanley after Signer. Such stasis after the frenetic. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did, because I often get irritated by 'realism', prefering paint to be used with an innovative process. I was won over by the works' elegance and understatement.