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.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Exquisite watercolours of calamities

Linden Simmons: In the passing of a night
Tim Melville
13 April - 8 May 2010

This selection of works by Linden Simmons showcases his extraordinary dexterity with watercolour, for his finely intricate, life-size copies of New Zealand Herald images really draw you in close so you can admire their delicate detail.

What is interesting about them is the combination of the sensuality of the transparent gum medium – made palpable with its nuanced overlaying of planes and forms – with the ramifications of the images he chooses. Though his titles are deliberately vague the information about each image source is easily coaxed out of his very approachable dealer, or seen in nearby filed photocopies of pertinent newspaper pages.

Why the indeterminate titles? Well obviously he wishes to emphasize the bodily experience of the image, and feels mental imagery within a label might overwhelm it. So why divulge the image origins to his dealer? Because he wants contextual information circulated – to eventually get embedded within the social matrix of the art world audience - even though he doesn’t want to appear too brazen about directly presenting it, or wants it to dominate so that the images become illustrative.

Simmons picks a certain kind of image to copy. Firstly they come from faded newsprint where the ink seems to have soaked in and not kept to the surface. They do not have the saturated colour or spatial depth of a glossy photograph.

Secondly these images are of a particular type. All taken overseas most feature calamitous highly destructive events that have resulted from the forces of nature. Of course now ‘forces of nature’ are no longer perceived as always isolated from human stupidity. Often there are direct ecological causal connections.

Simmons’ rendered images include the destructive results of tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and storms of land and sea. Sometimes the site or activity of a future disaster is implied, such as locations where uranium is planned to be mined. The pervading theme is mass human suffering – usually in third world countries.

What Simmons seems to be doing is commenting on the desensitisation of readers when they come across accounts of catastrophic tragedies in ‘foreign’ lands while relaxing at home or at work. He offers a form of escapism in the form of beauty and virtuoso technique while at the same time undercutting that release. This ‘reality trip’ occurs not so much through the descriptive properties of his painting as through the eventual dawning of the initial context through word of mouth or reading – gradually eroding the built-in mental distance. The beguiling works become disturbing.

How significant that is I’m not sure. The visual appeal of the work dominates, and while perhaps a sense of helplessness is caused by the enormity of these disasters, or feelings of guilt at one’s own comfortable privilege or security, ultimately nothing changes except perhaps personal contributions to aid relief.

Perhaps that is enough, and the precise point. That is all that can be expected, for the work is not just about manual finesse but a meditation on economic and geographic separation, and the psychology of an art-lover's self-awareness.

Work titles in descending order: Mosque; Princess Ashika; Legazpi; Forensics; Thursday January 7, 2010, Page A3; Tuesday January 19, 2010, Page A12.

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