Exhibitions
Christchurch

Belinda Harrow
Heather Straka
Dean Venrooy

GINA IRISH

Time passes slowly when the art world shuts down for summer. The onset of winter is greeted with open arms for galleries have reopened and exhibition programmes are rapidly unfolding. Take delight in the line-up for 2005, for Belinda Harrow's solo show at the High Street Project over the months of February and March was a fruitful beginning to a new year.

BELINDA HARROW Plain and Fancy 2004-05
Installation at the High Street Project

Harrow's exhibition Plain and Fancy explores cross cultural living, a theme driving recent work and the foundation for Harrow's WA studies at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts.

Harrow was born in New Zealand and immigrated to Canada when she was three years old. In 1993 she travelled back to New Zealand to forge a connection with her birthplace. On leaving Canada, Harrow retraced the journey made by her maternal grandmother who undertook a similar voyage in 1946 when she immigrated to New Zealand after marrying a kiwi soldier who she met during World War 2. Harrow has spent several years travelling between her birthplace and Canada, negotiating the concept of home and the affection she feels for both places, a situation described by the artist as 'the privileged problem of longing (and) belonging to two countries.'

The front room of the High Street Project was transformed into a serene domestic space. Organza curtains hung from the windows and when opened, the breeze from outside shifted the curtains ever so slightly, cleverly evoking a sense of retreat and advancement, an exit point for flight. Stuffed pearly satin forms cut to the shape of planes hung from the ceiling, nose up and tail down, their sharp ascent skywards mimicked by the sketches of birds on the wall behind.

BELINDA HARROW Romantic Traffic 2004-05
Installation at the High Street Project

In stark contrast to the front space, the back gallery presented a dark and brooding consideration of Harrow's theme. Two pristine, white-quilted single beds pushed together and centred in the gallery beckon the viewer to slumber. Where you rest your head is home, or is it? Above the bed, a flock of black and grey stuffed fabric bird shaped forms soar. The arrangement of these soft sculptures into a chevron above the viewer creates a sense of claustrophobia, alarm and intrigue.

These soft sculptures, be they planes, fish or birds, hover like a storm cloud close to release. The very same forms blister through the surface of the mattress, seemingly bursting through the white satin to join the battalion of winged beings passing above. From a bird's eye view the quilted shapes resemble mountain peaks, continents and countries as seen through the window of a jet. The uneven surface of this mattress is a constant reminder for all who rest on this bed. that when caught between two realities, countries and histories, feeling grounded is near impossible.

Titled Romantic Traffic, the mattress sums up Harrow's affection for her homelands(s). The thread, cloth and stuffing she uses are not so much statements about craft art or the subversive stitch but rather an attempt to patch, fasten, strengthen and weave together Harrow's sense of self. Harrow presents an outstanding body of work that engages the viewer in sensing and connecting to her position as a young person negotiating her existence in multiple locations. While deeply personal, Harrow's experience is shared by those who faced with life in a new land, constantly long for home, wherever that may be.

Heather Straka's new work at the Jonathan Smart Gallery was a provocative show that has challenged and divided the punters. Paradise Lost is perhaps the most controversial and compelling series of paintings Straka has exhibited in recent times.

A group of Maori portraits copied from the paintings of Charles Goldie, Gottfried Lindauer and colonial photographer, W.H.T. Partington graced the back gallery walls in March and April. Elegantly framed in gilded and antique surrounds, each portrait unnerves the onlooker prompting feelings of sadness, distress and anger. The controversy surrounding these paintings makes Paradise Lost impossible to ignore.

HEATHER STRAKA Jesus in Furs 2005
Oil on stretched board

The startling representations of chiefs and anonymous Maori sitters, both men and women, are well executed in Straka's polished style. The fact that Straka did not seek permission from iwi has offended and outraged many, yet Straka raises some valuable questions about appropriation, and judging by the audience's response, the debates surrounding these contentious portraits is far from over. Just who owns the image? Straka, Goldie, Lindauer or Partington? The sitter or the model's descendants? Iwi? How can the individuals depicted by these colonial masters and now Straka, ever be truly reclaimed?

While Straka copies these portraits with masterly skill, the sitters are given new features: horns, red tinged flesh, tattoos and saintly halos. Hate a portrait of a Maori chief portrayed as Satan and the partner painting, Love certainly carry the potential to offend, yet both paintings recall the efforts of zealous missionaries who searched for godliness within Maori society. These are difficult paintings to ponder and this response, it seems, is precisely what Straka had planned.

Jesus in Furs or Lady of the Flowers, two paintings adapted from Lindauer's portraits of a Maori chief and a Maori woman are haunting representations of someone's ancestors, be they known or unknown. These figures seem displaced as they stand in a barren, dark and volatile landscape. The Lady of Flowers clutches a wilted flower in her hand, her likeness so real that this black and white painting is almost photographic. This painting, like others in the Paradise Lost series is riddled with grief.

Jesus in Furs shares the realism of Lady of Flowers. Every indentation of the moko is noted and knowing that this is the signature belonging to Rewi Manga Maniapoto, the famous fighting chief of the Ngati Mania-poto and once painted by Lindauer, creates a great sense of unease.

While instantly recognised as Rewi Manga Maiapoto, Straka 'dresses up' the appearance of this chief. What should be a kahu kuri or dog skin cloak worn by leaders with great mana, is replaced with a fox fur trim. These unconventional costumes, and the knuckle and bicep tattoos adorning many of the figures, remove the models from their original setting, positioning them in a time that is closer to our own than the colonial past.

The Sacred Heart burns in the chest of Rewi Manga Maniapoto, a kitsch addition, reducing this colonial masterpiece to a cheap portrait of Christ sold at the Church stall on Sunday. Two huia feathers, as noted in the original painting, break through the halo that circles the chief's head. Straka's renditions of the iconic paintings by Goldie and Lindauer dismiss the belief that the originals are honest ethnographic or historic records of Maori. Beneath the costumes and disguises the spirit of the sitter resides. The pendulum has swung, for Paradise Lost paints the story of a dying race as a misconceived fantasy.

An assortment of recent paintings by Dean Venrooy at the Campbell Grant Galleries in March and April adds to an expanding body of miniature landscape paintings created by the artist.

Based in Lyttelton, Venrooy largely paints what he sees from his harbourside studio, layering the landscape with fantastical, biomorphic figures and abundant birdlife. Known for its rich history, both Maori and Pakeha, Lyttelton Harbour is a distinctive area where industry, the environment and culture coexist. Venrooy paints Lyttelton and surrounding bays onto the smallest of surfaces and occasionally large canvases. These are not realist depictions of a Canterbury district but rather magical renditions of a landscape shrouded in mystery.

An untypical larger painting, Open Season, is instantly recognised by those who know the hills that flank the harbour and the milky blue water that can be deep green one day only to turn muddy the next. In this oval setting Venrooy places the land on a stage where books float and balance on an ocean of cascading blue. Two oars prop up the blue to reveal a rocky riverbed where nesting paradise ducks take shelter and eels spill fourth from an urn. In the sky above, swallows dart and bolt in a misty sky. The scenes Venrooy sets are rooted in myth and symbolism. Through these messenger birds, props and rocky biomorphic figures, this aspect of Lyttelton Harbour is observed and alluded to.

Smaller paintings, some applied to the base of broken bottles are keepsakes; painstakingly detailed and ordered within their miniature frames, the smallest measuring 40mm in diameter. Kereru, shags, kingfishers and gulls are arranged in perfect symmetry. Birds burrow in a glass nest, guarded by a rough and jagged edge, their tiny habitat commanding an intimate viewing experience. These pocket-sized treasures are admired for their technical ability and surreal representation of a wonderful world.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 115 Winter 2005