Quick Quick Slow
Bernadette van Dalen
D.B.G. Goodwin
Geoff Thornley
David McCracken

With a dearth of interesting art on show in Auckland dealer galleries over the last few months, I was tempted to devote this review entirely to the long-running installation of Victorian paintings in the Auckland Art Gallery (works from their collection) plus some paintings I saw in a bloke's shed out in the wop-wops. This would not have been a bad thing. Many of the former are by little-known nineteenth century British artists, but they beat the pants off the majority of stuff that has been produced in this country to date. The paintings I saw in the shed have never been exhibited, but I decided pretty quickly that they're a major achievement in the history of New Zealand art. That's rather a grandiloquent pronouncement. I'll come back to it. But it was while I was pondering these paintings by Mr D.B.C. Goodwin that along came the Auckland Festival of Photography.

DARREN GLASS Waitin' for my train 1999
75 metre resin-coated black-and-white photographic negative

During June, photographs were shown all over the place, not just in dealer galleries, but on websites, and in venues as disparate as the (ghastly) Aotea Centre and the Avondale Bowling Club. The photographs on display were similarly diverse, from the quick-click kitsch of the participants in Auckland City Photo Day ('capture a day in the life of New Zealand's biggest and most diverse city') to the 'fine art' photos of Marti Friedlander and Deborah Smith at the John Leech Gallery. In Auckland we seem to be starved of the consistent, high-calibre photo exhibitions to be seen at, say, the McNamara Gallery in Wanganui, so this deluge of diversity in 'New Zealand's biggest and most diverse city' was both welcome and apt. It was super to see a profusion of photographs, not least because what one expects will be bad sometimes turns out to be good, and vice-versa.

D.B.C. GOODWIN In the Wake: Kaiaua Plane Crash-detail 2005
Oil on canvas, 2000 x 2100 mm.

The high point for me was an exhibition at the Anna Miles Gallery called Quick Quick Slow. It included a 1999 work by Darren Glass called Waitin' For My Train, a series of negatives wrapped around a 24 metre high cylinder or drum. These long strips of black-and-white images - an assortment (yes, more 'diversity') of landscapes, interiors and people - were obtained using a pin-hole camera during the artist's travels around the country. They were not only blotchy but botched-stricken with dark streaky lines and, as a result, aesthetically enhanced.

Really, the experience of looking at Glass' work was notable, not the images themselves. There was no logical point at which to start looking. One could walk and 'read' around the cylinder, or up and down the stacked negatives, and one's looking was interrupted either by the gaps between images on a horizontal band, or by the upper and lower edges of the negatives when read vertically. It was necessary to get up close to decipher the images, but ultimately they were all contained by the single cylindrical object with its own physical presence. The experience of looking at the work was jumpy and exciting, and long.

Waitin' For My Train has a lot of time in it - layers of time. This makes it more compelling than many other photographic works. I'm surprised that more people haven't explored this aspect of the medium, but then photographers are a funny lot; they tend to fuss about trivial things to the point where they can't see what's important. Consequently, the ideas and innovations of David Hockney have passed them by, or merely gotten up their noses. Hockney recognises that most photographs are dull because they contain merely the fraction of a second it took to push the button. He is right in saying that a photograph is a more primitive picture than a painting.

However, at the Anna Miles Gallery, Allan McDonald's digital photographs of half-finished suburban houses were anything but primitive (and, in seamlessly combining multiple images, McDonald adds that time factor to his work), while Isobel Thorn's paintings appeared more backwards-looking. Back to Cubism, in fact. Like Glass and McDonald, Thorn deals with multiple moments or perspectives. What am I doing and where am I going II (2005) is made up of twenty-one small paintings, representing twentyone positions from which she has looked at, and represented, someone's head. Here are the greys of Analytical Cubism, and the sharp-edged facets, but how about condensing all those viewpoints into a single image? Well, that was Cubism in about 1910.

Thorn separates out a number of these different sensations and moments of time. Her paintings are interesting, a small achievement, because of this. Consider: a single painting of a person's head has time in it. And it has multiple viewpoints. The eye moves, scrutinising. And you (the artist) know what the other side of that head looks like - you saw it a few seconds ago, and it influences your perception of the view that you have now. And the hand moves, following the brain's instructions -thoughts, impulses, feelings - all going into a line, a brushstroke.

Paintings contain time. Photos generally don't, or at least not very uch and this is often to their answer, since it cannot seem to coalesce its 'illusionism' with the necessary jumps and layers of time. Bernadette van Dalen, in her exhibition West Eyes East at the PPg Gallery, got around this problem with a video called Hanbok Mayhem - effective because it was, in fact, a series of animated drawings. It related to the drawings on scrolls also exhibited. I spent more time with these drawings, following their anxious articulation of hanboks (traditional Korean garments worn by women), hair and rice, than I did with the video, appealing though it was.

Video is a medium in which it seems unlikely that really good or significant art will ever be made. There may be examples that are good in their use of effects available within the medium, and others may be good to watch on television, or on a computer screen, or at the cinema, but this doesn't mean that they will be good to watch in an art gallery, as art. Art galleries are the places where I least wish to watch a video.

I am drawn back to painting, then, as a field in which new art experiences may be on offer. D.B.C. (Dave) Goodwin has painted some big open landscapes, with broad bands of land, water and sky, and a few figures on the shoreline. He painted them last year, but they were not included in his recent exhibition at Ferner Galleries. They record the aftermath of a small plane crashing into the Firth of Thames, killing the two men on board, but this event is captured, more than recorded, in the sombre mood of the paintings and the demeanour of the figures. Representational forms here function equally as abstract elements, and are easily grasped in terms of both space and flatness. The remarkable tonal control, the shifts and gradations of grey, bring to mind Whistler's riverscapes.

Even more striking is Goodwin's way of putting on paint, loosely, thinly, easily. Areas are judiciously left unpainted, and there are stray strokes of paint around the edges where the brush has been wiped. Since the Plane Crash paintings, Goodwin has developed these formal qualities with different subjects from his in-unediate environment. In the best of these works his peculiar 'touch' is obvious-that is, the paintings are not worked up to a high degree of 'finish'. They are vastly different from Geoff Thornley's new abstract paintings, exhibited at the Vavasour Godkin Gallery under the title first episode - listening to sight.

David McCracken's Romantic Portraits of Raw Materials at McPherson Gallery with Cold Rolled Plate with Vertical Shear (2005) in foreground

Thornley's paintings were four, pristine off-white squares, quite large, within the white-walled art gallery. The question is: would the gallery look better without the paintings? The paintings are closed. They make their own frames. In contrast, I saw a door in the wall of the gallery, no longer used as a door, but experienced as a white rectangle on a white rectangle, like an inverted Robert Motherwell 'open' painting. The door didn't open, but the wall,'considered as a piece of painting, was an open, expansive, pictorial composition, not a closed-off surface. A single dark line, describing a white rectangular form on a white ground - and it works! Thornley's paintings contain so much effort, all those layers, that meticulous, polished surface. And they're like photographs of nothing.

At the McPherson Gallery, David McCracken's seven steel sculptures also featured polished, or rather burnished, surfaces. However, they had the advantage of mass. The title of the show was Romantic Portraits of Raw Materials. They were big, planar hunks of steel, twisted and torn as if they were clay-remarkable feats of workmanship. In Cold Rolled Plate with Tear and Diagonal Shear in Cold Rolled Plate, the rectangular plane divides and parts towards the bottom, so that the sculptures stand on their own two 'legs'. But these works seemed less 'true' (fuzzy word, I know) than those with a more continuous curving facade, like Cold Rolled Plate with Vertical Shear - best in show, to my mind. Perforated Sheet would have been better without the perforations, which looked arbitrary, not aesthetically 'right' or 'felt' (more fuzzy words, but I think I'm right). The perforations in A Part made more sense, in tune with the upward lift of the work.

David McCracken's Romantic Portraits of Raw Materials at McPherson Gallery - all works welded stainless steel

The appeal of McCracken's sculptures is in the relationship between their blunt, physical presence - the raw act of manipulating mundane materials-and their more sensuous, aesthetic qualities. The same applies to Goodwin's paintings. It was with some surprise that I gained such a compelling and new experience from a row of unstretched canvases in a Skyline shed in Kaiaua. I always thought I'd prefer sophisticated abstractions, rather than buy into that Kiwi obsession with the backblocks bloke and brooding landscape.

Thornley's paintings are clean and pleasing, smooth and sumptuous, and ethereal, and suave, and monotonous, and decadent. (They are superb pieces of painting, but that's not enough.) Goodwin's landscapes are unassuming - unselfconscious, not forcing a style - but they are among the best paintings produced in this country.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 116 Spring 2005