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Likeness and Character exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery
Portraits and figuration work in New Zealand
In the middle of the usual flurry of new work at the dealer galleries, Auckland Art Gallery's New Gallery in Khartoum Place has a show that is a reminder of the richness of its collections and the important functions the gallery performs in the city.

Until next April, the gallery is showing an exhibition called Likeness and Character made up of portraits and figurative work, with special attention to Colin McCahon and Tony Fomison. Many of these images are familiar because they are mentioned in everything written about New Zealand art and it is grand to see them on display.

There is also the incomparable work depicting Maori by Charles Goldie and Godfried Lindauer, which are special to this city and this country. Lindauer's famous painting Ana Rupene and her Son (1875) is part of the display. This is the original and best version, although there are about 20 copies. Goldie's Paris-trained academic abilities are shown here, not only in his portraits of Maori but also in a solid painting of city father the Hon. William Swanson, watch chain and all, with the little flourish of a greenstone pendant to show this is New Zealand.

Equally academic but much less well-known is Exile, a painting made in 1930 by Mary Tripe, showing an English woman in the colonies; sexy, assertive, strong and arrogant. It's a social commentary in itself.

McCahon is always associated with lettering on his painting but, in this show, there are seven religious portraits and only one with writing on it. His beautiful Annunciation gives a wonderful sense of a person receiving a spiritual message.

There is a big Virgin and Child (1960), where the Madonna towers protectively over her son, and another Madonna and Child, recently gifted to the people of Auckland, where the Madonna looks down at her son as if foreseeing a painful future. This is a strong woman and a strong child; it is our Raphael.

In the adjacent room is another generous recent gift - the huge Ponsonby Madonna painted by that haunted artist Fomison. This is his biggest painting and its size is justified by the solemn weight of the figures. This is not a specifically Christian work, but is all mothers and sons with lots of Pacific reference. It has immense dignity.

Other outstanding work includes Rita Angus' iconic, Portrait of Betty Curnow (1942) which has often been described as a portrait not just of a person but of an era. More recent work includes Francis Upritchard's take on role-reversal preserved heads and Yvonne Todd's demonic plucked roses in the person of young women.

Not since McCahon drew on New Zealand poetry to contribute to the power of his images has there been a work that linked art and literature as effectively as John Reynolds' big work, I Tell You Solemnly at the University of Auckland's Gus Fisher Gallery. Yet it is quite different in style and approach from McCahon.

This painted installation flows down the stairwell, made in the manner Reynolds used for his popular work Cloud at the 2006 Sydney Biennale.

It is made up of masses of small squares of canvas. Some squares have soft circles of colour; others carry the words of a poem by Anne Kennedy - an epilogue to her collection of poems about domestic drama which expands to speak about life in general.

What Reynolds has done as the work spreads down the stairwell, trailing out of sight, is to make each word an experience in itself.

The patches of colour act as visual punctuation and support the meaning and feeling of the words.

At times the relation is obvious - as when death produces a square of black. But other relationships are less obvious, like red for laughter.

This is a splendid work of maturity.

The Gus Fisher is also the venue for Reynolds' drawings to illustrate a book by Laurence Simmons called Speaking Truth to Power.

This portfolio of drawings also relates words and symbols, but this time wittily. Ramshackle ideas have ramshackle structures, strong ideas are things firmly nailed in place. Both shows runs until November 24.

That's not the end of interest at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

The main room is occupied by a first-class exhibition devoted to the life and work of Vernon Brown, one of our most influential architects and teachers whose ideas went a long way to creating a New Zealand vernacular architecture.

At the dealer galleries, there is one exhibition that has no links at all to literature.

It is the abstract work of Matthew Dowman called IN FLUX, at the Vavasour Godkin Gallery until the end of the week. This show is not only colourful and decorative, but visually very funny. Every area of colour is bounded by a line with little hints of modelling that make the patches of colour look fat.

All these fat, wormy forms dash energetically around the canvas, interacting with each other in a mad confusion unrestrained by a thicker black line that writhes among them.

Text by The New Zealand Herald
 


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