Richard Killeen
Richard McWhannell
Robin Neate

Autumn: the mercury has dropped and it's business as usual. Dealer galleries have reopened, dialogue has begun and an invigorating line-up of exhibitions is scheduled for the gloomy months ahead - 2004 is well underway. Richard Killeen set the wheels in motion with Ladybird, a collection of computer-generated paintings exhibited at the Brooke / Gifford Gallery in March.

The much publicised retrospective Stories We Tell Ourselves acknowledged an artist whose complex and varied career spans well over thirty years. Several years on and Killeen's oeuvre is such that it is wise to expect the unexpected.

RICHARD KILLEEN Animal Jar with Birds 2004
Pigment ink on canvas, 910 x 910 mm.

Not surprisingly, avid cut-out fans anticipate a continuation of the aluminium series; after all, these popular works defined the closing chapter of Killeen's retrospective. Just what his next move would be, was anyone's guess. Ladybird defies all predictions, instead unveiling a new pathway: a return to the canvas, a fixed composition and interplay of abstract and organic forms.

The ladybird is synonymous with good fortune, though one would guess that the symmetrical qualities of this lucky bug override such interpretation. This critter becomes a vessel for endless patterns, animals, automobiles and landscapes. Block colour is abandoned, replaced with a kaleidoscope of detail.

RICHARD KILLEEN Ladybird Fish 2004
Pigment ink on canvas, 910 x 910 mm.

Killeen's ladybirds are magnified as though placed under the scientist's microscope or likened to a pinned specimen taken from a museum collection: Jars painted within the ladybird frame contain a selection of images, suggestive of fragility, the risk of contamination or perhaps a need for protection.

Passing Time alludes to the story of Genesis: enclosed within a clock face, Adam and Eve gaze towards an uninhabited landscape and a heaven of animals, dinosaurs, even the fabled John Dory - a fish said to be touched by Saint Peter. The prehistoric creatures and mutated biomorphic forms of Ladybird Fish extend the 'Big Bang' theory even further, perhaps from the viewpoint of: an evolutionist. The interrelation between some imagery is obvious, but more often than not these visuals are cloaked with mystery.

Killeen's pictorial tools are infinite. Countless symbols and signs are stored in a rich visual archive. This repository is often pilfered: zoological motifs and abstract imagery from the 1970s, namely the comb and triangle, are renewed.

RICHARD KILLEEN Passing Time 2004
Pigment ink on canvas, 910 x 910 mm.

Readings are limitless and more often than not, Ladybird plagues the mind with innumerable possibilities. Killeen offers clues, never answers and just when you think the puzzle is solved, the narrative unravels.

Richard McWhannell's recent exhibition of paintings at the Campbell Grant Galleries exudes confidence. Until lately, McWhannell's series of distorted, dark and sombre selfportraits have defined his career. These gothic representations of self, included in the Wellington City Art Gallery's Prospect 2001 exhibition, critique the human condition.

In recent years establishing the connection between Tony Fomison, Goya, EI Greco and Rembrandt - portrait artists with whom McWhannell's work has been compared - has become increasingly difficult. McWhannell's new paintings are independent of these influences but remain fixed in the tradition of portraiture.

As McWhannell shifts away from the investigation of self to the representation of others, the manipulated caricatures, the enlarged and at times grotesque self-portraits that we have come to expect, give way to intimate portrayals of those closest to him. McWhannell's portraiture of friends and family is remarkably different to those featuring the artist as subject.

McWhannell does not paint on commission, choosing to work only. with sitters that he knows well. Portraits of Rhondda Bosworth, Kiri Lowe and Peter Hawksby are free of formality or pretence. The friendship between the models and the painter is best expressed through the body language of his subjects who appear relaxed and comfortable with the arrangement.

Darker tones, characteristic of McWhannell's Prospect 2001 series are resigned to the odd self-portrait. A lighter and cooler palette is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this new collection. Impasto is replaced with the smooth application of oil paint in shades of blue and grey. Bright light streams through the interiors, projecting long shadows and illuminating parts of the canvas.

The majority of settings are familiar to McWhannell - most featured are the artists home and studio. The rooms are sparsely furnished with the bare essentials: a table, bed, chair or perhaps a blank canvas which in reality is a work in progress. Such minimalism creates high drama as noted in Pierrot and Two Members of the Chorus. Three figures appear before us like actors on a stage; their costumes, props, expressions and relationship towards one another drive the scene.

While some subjects interact with the viewer, other portraits avoid connection, for example, Young Woman in High Heels. Faces are turned away, sometimes veiled in shadow. Facial features are often indistinguishable and more often that not the interpretation of the scene depends solely on the figure. Fortunately for the viewer, McWhannell knows the body well; its structure and movement are paramount. The artist's knowledge of form and gesture enables the viewer to read the sitter's psyche, mood or intentions. Perhaps McWhannell's concentration on self has been driven by insecurity, for these new works reveal an ability to look outward, beyond his own body for answers.

Robin Neate is the first of six artists who will exhibit with The Physics Room as part of the 2004 Sampler series; a programme which invites artists to respond to the unique architecture of the gallery's smaller space.

The brief was perhaps initially overshadowed by the fact this local artist has not exhibited in Christchurch for many, many years. Therefore, Sampler functioned on two levels: a site-responsive installation first and foremost, and secondly, a reunion of sorts.

Neate divides the gallery space in two with a series white plaster sculptures. Elongated and bulbous forms recall the spindly abstract designs of sculptor, Alberto Giacomelli. These protracted sculptures work in unison with Neate's portfolio: photographs of Christmas cracker trinkets are enlarged beyond recognition, a technique which transforms the original object to a series of fuzzy, unidentified organic shapes, not unlike Neate's sculptural spheres. In effect, these column-like constructions compartmentalise the site, packaging Neate's work into distinct categories: photography and painting.

ROBIN NEATE Woman with Pompoms 2003
Oil on canvas 500 x 400 mm.

Neate collects imagery which is considered dated, abandoned by a society driven by new media. Discarded magazines and books provide an endless supply of 'forgotten' pictures which Neate represents to his audience. Libraries and second-hand shops prove to be ideal outlets whereby Neate can source such material, for example a 1950s black-and-white photograph of a couple in front of the Eiffel Tower, discovered in a Christchurch junk shop.

The artist's appropriation of found imagery is deliberate, and stands to question the meanings we ascribe to imagery which is easily recognised and assimilated into the conscious of the viewer. A landmark of Paris, the Eiffel Tower is an impressive structure firmly implanted in the minds of romantics worldwide. It could be argued that an architectural achievement is thus reduced to a cliche, an icon of commercialisation, owned by the tourist industry - not by lovers.. The artist indulges in his own deconstruction of this image: rephotographed, enlarged and framed, the Eiffel Tower is an image which now belongs to Neate. Hung without title, the interpretation of this work remains open-ended, awaiting the scrutiny of the viewer.

Neate's approach to painting is deliberately aligned with the hobbyist: small mass produced frames and a style which borders on an amateur paint-by-numbers exercise. The application of washed out paints evoke a sense of time-sepia, pink, white and blue share the characteristics of discarded paper left to deteriorate and fade in the sun. Could Woman with Pompoms be the winter beauty queen of, say, 1967? Neate's style looks back to a time past and demonstrates how easy it is to regenerate 'cancelled' imagery.

Smaller paintings of quirky abstractions, a fluffy poodle, and a woman with a white cat are displayed together on a ledge. The canonisation of great art does not escape Neate's enquiry - Degas' ballerinas are a distant memory, modified and reproduced for popular culture, somewhat removing them from the art historical context.

The inclusion of the girl with a white cat is a direct response to Michael Harrison who shares Neate's interest in the prosaic and familiar. These images, the poodle, dancers and the white cat, appeal to the sentimental, even passing as ideal subject matter for a 1950s chocolate box or cake tin. However, irony is absent and at no point does Neate turn to a light hearted exploration of kitsch. The dissemination of imagery and our perception of currency form a hypothesis through which we can view Neate's new work.

Now we know just what we have been missing all these years, there is hope that Neate's name will reappear in the local arts diary sometime soon. As for Sampler, watch this space - as small as it may be it.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 111 Winter 2004