Auckland Painters and Sculptors at the A.C.A.G.
Without McCahon, Mrkusich, Thornley, Twiss, Maddox, this show looks thin. It was a mistake to include enthusiastic amateurs, beginners and one or two tired hacks to fill the space. It's a disservice to the better workers to be chosen for the same company, shows a lack of discrimination in the selection. I found only a few of the works worth looking at for long and I would far rather have had three or four paintings by the better painters and less mediocrity to wade through. As an exhibition it's instantly forgettable and will be instantly forgotten since there's no proper catalogue. But some of the work here is worth careful attention. Most artists put in characteristic works so you give them the old so-and-so is on, or off, form kind of assessment, and move on. That's no way to look at pictures, and I ended up with a very small number of things that I kept coming back to. Not all of them because they were splendid, like the Killeen Tribal Colours or the Gray Nicol Sentimental Operation certainly are, or the fascinating Pacific geography lesson from Denys Watkins; sometimes I was bothered by the recurrent problems of some painters like Hanly or Binney or Clairmont or Gretchen Albrecht. I always stop to look at Nigel Brown or Christine Hellyar, with pleasure. But from there on out I'd be bitching so let's forget the rest.

GRAY NICOL Sentimental Operation
plaster and steel, 600 x 700 x 800 mm. (Auckland City Art Gallery)

I'll take the Killeen first and rehang it a foot higher so I get the centre of it at eye-level instead of having to do a gallery-goer's half crouch. Just a triad of colours in a symmetrical diamond arrangement with three sharp points of attention, one on the centre one above and one below, equidistant on the vertical axis. The colours start to glow at the sharp edges. And as you shift from one point up or down to one of the others you get a wave of yellow green complementary like a veil in front of you. The play between your eye and the simple canvas is like a rainbow, evanescent. There is a way to still the dance of veils of colour. Return to centring on the centre of the field once more. The fact that there are parallelograms overlapping in the design sets up twisting movements for you on the picture surface also. I've never before seen a Killeen which so simply energizes the perceptual field and which eliminates all distractions of anecdote, concentrates on what painting can do, pure and simple. Next to it a subtle Ian Scott diamond patterned lighter coloured piece sends you chasing about the surface sorting out what appear to be continuous colours passing over and under one another as in a kind of weaving, until you find that the colours mismatch, yellowgreen and bluegreen, orangered redred, and there is no weaving of bands, the separate patches of colour are just that, separate, the white spaces are not lines or area, just white spaces. Apparent disjunctions set you off trying to join the pieces together, and, thus, doing an eye dance over the surface of the picture. It's very accomplished work.

The large Denys Watkins corny map of the Pacific in the style of a pictorial symbol atlas for kids with a hand pouring out a bucket of blue paint, a dripping yellow Alaskan pipeline, a 35mm reflex camera for Japan, coconuts for Hawaii, one and another and another detail finally assemble in one's head into a kind of flip assessment of the image of the Pacific that one can only call that of the mickey mouse politics of our time and place. In front of the gigantic map, a stuffed rabbit sitting on the front half of a battered old boat on a layer of sand surrounded by plastic black shark fins sticking up off the gallery floor takes Watkins' enigmatic witty drawing into 3-D. Contrasts nicely with its source (a friend points out to me) the dismaying displays at the fusty Museum in the Domain. Nigel Brown's picture is a knockout. He gets image and word together. Marvellous phrase round the border: The Man The Man/Is Stronger Than The Land The/Land From Which/He Came From Which We Come. Inside that the hills a green crotch (from which we come) a muscle man bends his red meat arm while a woman looks sad. That's all, figure it out.

NIGEL BROWN The Man is Stronger than the Land
oil on board, 1220 x 1620 mm. (Auckland City Art Gallery)

Gray Nicol more enigmatic, less obvious, leaving more room for you to manoeuvre and stay uncertain for ever about what it means, shows you a sugar soft smooth plaster fighter plane, an OK one, so smooth and touchable that the Please Do Not Touch sign sits on the base of the work most days. And the title Sentimental Operation. It opens up more than Ian Hamilton Finlay's similar conjunctions of object and inscription. Very fine piece.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 9 February/March/April 1978