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, October 28, 2008

Austere, stacked panoramas

Basil Beattie: The Janus Series
Two Rooms
23 October - 22 November 2008

Basil Beattie is an English abstract painter who has been working since the late fifties, often presenting extremely large canvases. His images are symbolic archetypes characterised by a brutal rawness in their drawn dribbling lines - made with large house painting brushes. They avoid any namby-pamby finesse, revealing in a subtly sophisticated roughness that focuses on the materials of canvas and oil mixed with wax.

This show of new work, called Janus, as suggested, looks both ways – to the future and past. The dominant metaphors are a car window-screen and a rear view mirror, showing usually barren ploughed fields and railway lines that could also be jetties overlooking the sea. Incorporating distant horizon lines, Beattie’s painted window/mirrors are vertically stacked, in fours or threes.

This window motif has a well known history in Aotearoa, with McCahon using it in works like The flight From Egypt (1980) – a bus window that doubles in its figure/ground ambiguity as a twister - and also comic frame sequences much earlier like Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950).

With Beattie, though the play between past and future is clever, the images themselves mostly aren’t – at least compared to his earlier work which is far less literal and not symmetrical at all. I prefer the wonky, teetering vulnerability of that – it acts as a foil to the thick dark scaffolding-like lines. They seem about to collapse or topple over as forms, for all their allusions to physical strength. There is a self-effacing humour. Even a vulnerability, for all their brutishness.

In the Janus series the stacks of three ‘windows’ work better than those with four, due to greater simplicity – especially those with ominous black skies which suggest cavernous, subterranean spaces. Within his long career, I think Beattie’s works are more successful when they are ambiguous, more abstract and asymmetrical. They work best without narrative storytelling or symbolism, when he is relying on intuitively placed marks that come from playing with line for its own sake. When he is making paintings not pictures.

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