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 31, 2010

Vary and Umberg at Jensen

Gϋnter Umberg & Elizabeth Vary: New works
Jensen Gallery
16 March - 1 May 2010

We have here a visual ‘conversation’ between a German couple using different ‘sentences’ that consist of groups of paintings - something vaguely related to the earlier interesting project Gow Langsford did with Simon Ingram and James Cousins, but not using sequences of pairings.

Umberg and Vary don’t mingle their paintings physically in clusters, or collaborate on single works, or even juxtapose them. Instead – with the help of a new temporary wall Andrew Jensen has installed in the centre of his very large gallery – they talk to each other across space, chatting through various salient similarities and contrasts and even mimicries.

Both these painters make sculptural objects that project out from the wall. In Umberg’s case he shows you from the side the supporting screws sticking out from the wall - they are not hidden inside the painted panel they hold up. He paints on solid wooden panels that present the painted rectangular front plane parallel to the wall, with the sides tilting back diagonally and hidden from the front. Vary on the other hand, tends to paint on chunky blocks or slabs made of cardboard. Occasionally her separate components lock together, like in a puzzle.

Umberg’s paint is highly light-absorbent, dark, powdered pigment, applied repeatedly on to alternating layers of sprayed on dammar varnish. In contrast Vary uses thin liquid oil glazes that dribble over the sides and which sometimes are mixed with smeared or daubed thick paint. She prefers a glossy surface with a full range of chroma and tone, often using metallic and fluorescent paint as well. He likes matt velvety monochromes: in this show, subtly varying blacks or greens. Her sides are just as important as the fronts, whereas he paints only the occasional narrow strip of the side-angled, laminated strata.

The details of their painting placements are such that Umberg occupies the centre of the long wall opposite the gallery entrance, with Vary having an unusual projecting tray-like work positioned near the righthand corner. She also occupies the two shorter end walls of the huge gallery while on the new moveable partition bisecting the gallery space, he has one side and she the other.

As you'd expect the dialogue between these two painters incorporates various lines of sight, sideways viewing of the wall reliefs, and overall vistas – as well as of course, close ups. Some of her dark planes at a distance could be muddled with his, and sometimes she has made fake Umberg bevelled panels. While he never touches block forms, she occasionally paints on little angular chunks with dark colours, and spikey angular slabs with pastel hues. She also likes to cut into the sides of thick rectangles and remove geometric shapes.

Umberg and Vary here have created an intriguing and whimsical hanging arrangement that is fun to explore. It is a visually rich and intelligent exhibition you could spend a lot of time with, moving around the five walls and zeroing in on the paintings from unusual angles. For a Jensen experience, with the new wall, it forces you to be quite mobile. One of their best.

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