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, July 18, 2009

Sweeping painting

Alberto Garcia-Alvarez
Curated by Leonard Emmerling and Alan Joy
St. Paul St.
16 July - 11 August 2009

Alberto Garcia–Alvarez is a Spanish painter who taught at Elam between 1972 and 95, a lecturer held in particularly high esteem by students and colleagues alike, and whose work I can remember a friend from the North Island raving about when I lived in Christchurch during the eighties. Despite this, his profile since his retirement has been virtually non-existent. Consequently this show is an important event.

This painter works all the time, every day. For him praxis is a spiritual, philosophical, ever-continuing intellectual search where theory and action are one. So what have the curators done with the results of all this activity?

For a start this is not a chronological survey, sampling all the varieties of visual investigation he has explored over the years. It is highly selective. Joy and Emmerling have basically picked seven kinds of work that they find interesting. Some of it overlaps so that at first glance it looks like three or four types.

First of all there are the painted assemblages of angled wooden batons where the colour on the side planes of the timber differ according whether you are positioned on the right or the left. Mostly made in the seventies they have similarities with the metal sculptures of John Panting and Polynesian navigation grids made of bound slivers of wood and shells. Their use of side planes and colour is derived I suspect from Don Peeble’s Victor Pasmore-influenced constructions of the mid sixties.

Second there are the large expressionistic works on heavy paper: vigorous, gestural interwoven marks made with what seem to be brooms with stiff straw bristles that create parallel lines. The surface is matt, with the richly tactile, striated and flicked paint consisting of ground pigment mixed with latex. Made in the nineties, these contain glimpses of Richter, but with earthier, more organic colour, and wilder wider vectors.

Third there are more large works on paper but with rectangular (black) or triangular (white) shapes created with narrow housepainting brushes or the occasional squeegee and with the paint a little more fluid and puddled than with the ‘broom’ works.

Fourth, photolitho metal panels with brushed on lines of paint. Hints of Polke but a lot smaller.

Fifth, folded cardboard rectangles with brushed on or sprayed paint. Clever ideas with form, folding and direction - alluding perhaps to Dorothea Rockburne.

Sixth, small panels on board with dripped on, poured glossy paint.

Seventh, pinned up canvases of brushed on perpendicular black rectangles or receding corners of right-angled lines.

I have numbered them in order of their success as paintings. (In my opinion, obviously). Nos. 1-2 categories are by far the most successful. 6-7 in turn are disasters but useful because they provide links between other series. They are ‘duds’ which help unify the whole project. They don’t work as composed paintings but as ciphers loaded with formalist and processual information they provide clues to Garcia-Alvarez’s thinking.

For the two St. Paul galleries Emmerling and Joy have mixed up the different varieties of work and different scales in their hang. This is a mistake. Gallery Two should have a long wall down its centre and that space only used for small works – so that the two scales can be kept apart. That way they can be analysed as sets and the degree of appropriate spatial intimacy consistently sustained throughout. However the hang does draw out connecting threads between different experiments.

The wooden wall reliefs show Garcia-Alvarez’s ability as an innovator trying to manipulate the movements of the viewer as they examine the planes, unlike the large paintings on paper that are flush with the wall and which although wonderful as providers of a bodily experience, are not ground-breaking. They are too reminiscent of Richter, Kline and de Kooning.

It would be an interesting exercise to bring to St. Paul St the Ilam Honours exhibition of another painter, Philip Trusttum, presented in 1964. It was reshown in the Mair gallery in Christchurch’s CSA in the late seventies - that was when I saw it. These huge works (well over 3 metres high) were panels layered with sweeping slashes of oil paint mixed with shaped sections of corrugated cardboard that had been doused in turps and set on fire. You could see the influence of his teacher Rudolf Gopas with the collage, but they were extraordinarily raw – with a hint of the apocalyptic. They almost make Garcia-Alvarez’s nineties work here look timidly genteel in comparison – because of their brutal physicality.

With that national art-historical context in mind, Garcia-Alvarez’s is nevertheless a refreshing show, one that is very unusual in the current art climate. His works remind us of how exciting paint can be as an applied, modulated, thoroughly integrated substance, and how nuances of bodily empathy can flicker through our minds recreating the artist’s movements. They stir us physically in a way that merely analysing say, spatial depth of tone or hue can’t. Like watching Len Lye films or kinetics or listening to rock and roll.

[Of the above three images, only the centre one is in the exhibition.]

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