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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spirtual codings

Signs: the painted word of Abdullah Dougan
2 March - 22 March 2009

Expressions: Phil Dadson, Brent Wong, Melissa Martyn, Ross Ritchie, Harvey Benge, Peter Shearer, Pauline Thompson
2 - 19 March 2009

North Art, Norman King Square, North Shore

These two exhibitions celebrate the life of Abdullah (Neil) Dougan (1918 -1987), an influential teacher who lived in Auckland and made symbolic paintings that functioned as teaching aids for his pupils. His lessons blended the ideas of Sufi thinkers such as Hazrat Inayat Khan with the discussions around the theosophical doctrines of Gurdijieff.

One exhibition features about thirty paintings by Dougan from the early seventies. The other is a tribute show presented by seven of his pupils.

Abdullah Dougan’s paintings look abstract but are not formalist in function. They are heavily coded diagrams for psychological states, with every colour, shape and line having a specific purpose in guiding the viewer. They look akin to the works of Kenneth Noland or Len Lye but these visual parallels are coincidental. Dougan was not an innovative stain painter like Noland or interested in theories about ‘The Old Brain’, as Lye was. Yet formally many of his images make good viewing. He had a flair for image construction and placement, an intuitive talent despite his main preoccupation being spiritual symbolism. The show is linked to a book about to be published about the intended content of these images, paintings and prints he created over a period of seventeen years.

The other show is a collection of works that show how varied as artists his pupils could be. Paintings, music, videos, pottery, and photographs all are presented here. If one strained for a visual commonality one might start with Brent Wong whose works are clearly influenced by his teacher and not like the surrealist realism he is generally known for, though related chromatically. They have a flickering quality like light on water, and this theme, of sun speckled water with a canoe (as Self) travelling on it, is taken up in a video by Phil Dadson.

The circle motif occurs again with the clayware by Peter Shearer and the small drawing pin paintings by Ross Ritchie. Like Dadson’s canoe, symbols for the individual soul’s search for happiness can be speculatively guessed at in the birds on Melissa Martin’s jug-shaped paintings and Harvey Benge’s photograph of a jet high in the sky. Pauline Thompson’s imagery on the other hand, seems a little Blakean stylistically, though light again is of great significance.

My discussion here, clearly contrived, does point out the refusal by most visitors (like me) to accept that is no ‘artistic’ connection at all, except that the show records the fact of a search by seven individuals (a community of friends) for a psychological structure to underpin their daily lives. However exhibiting collectively as a group somehow implies a visual and symbolic meaning will be made apparent. That is part of the deal, as visual artists - or else seven names could have just been typed on a piece of paper and left on a table with testimonials provided.

The top three images are by Abdullah Dougan, while the bottom three are by Peter Shearer, Melissa Martyn and Brent Wong.

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