PHILIP CLAIRMONT New Auckland Paintings

The motif which dominates this exhibition is the naked light bulb. It is the quality of electric light which illuminates Clairmont's interiors. They look better under artificial light: yellow light from a bare bulb twisting on its iron stem reveals an unimaginable splendour in the midnight room. A tongue of flame is the characteristic shape: all of these interiors move as shadows move in a firelit room, or in a room where the bulb is swinging on its cord. In Light Source, the bulb flares before an open door and a sunlit garden, and its intensity equals that of the sun. The source of energy is ultimately shared and I guess it all came from the same place in the beginning, just as it will all leak away down the same sink in the end. Thermodynamics apart, the particular moment of energy these paintings represent is powerful.

acrylic & oil on jute canvas (Peter Webb Galleries)

They have the look of a tropical garden about them, a hothouse effect. It is as if the yellow light has energised the interior, has let the ordinary objects in motion so they grow towards the light as the light grants them brilliant colour. Clairmont's realism remains paradoxical. His painting of household subjects is a kind of realism, because it is always possible to recognise what he has painted. At the same time, the vision is subversive of realism. You recognise an object only to lose it again in the phantasmagoria. There is an absolute contrast between the profusion of brilliant colour, the anarchic detail, the repetitive, self-generating forms the paint takes and the traditional orderly composition in which these forms are resolved. That tension gives the effect that the painting is about to leap off the wall at you.

This remains true now that Clairmont's composition is stronger, more elastic, more mature. The order of Staircase Triptych, given its antecedents, is almost classical and the effect is that no detail is lost: it is all worked forward to the front of the painting. In this work, at least, the whole surface is alive and working with a rich glow of paint in the jute. The figure like a tropical bird, which can be sensed entering out of a doorway into the light at the bottom of the stairs, has its genesis in the composition itself, as if born out of paint the way flies are born out of old meat.

acrylic & oil on jute canvas (Peter Webb Galleries)

This painting, the painting of a window looking on to a garden, as lovely as a Matisse, and the two paired chair paintings are the most attractive to me. But the quality in the exhibition is so high, such distinctions are scarcely relevant. There is another large painting, titled Scarred Couch, which relates to the Erotic Couch shown at Barry Lett's earlier this year. The couch itself is wonderful, a majestic piece of furniture in faded greens and purples with a great rent like a mouth or a wound on one side. It is at once a portrait of great beauty and an affectionate tribute to a way of living, scars and all.

All paintings are done on unstretched jute in oil and acrylic except one, Art Deco Lampstand, which is painted on board. The contrast is illuminating, for the painting on board has a cooler, less impassioned look than the other work, a more 'Auckland' look if you like. At the other extreme is the tenth work in the show, a linocut of a sink, which is purely, expressionist and confirms that the demonic is still a realm Clairmont is acquainted with.

Yet, over-all, this show is gentler than earlier ventures. The nightmare world Clairmont has often painted has yielded, though, the intensity of vision it demanded has not. Light is thrown into all the dark corners; it is no longer trapped in mirrors; the mirrors themselves blaze and various phantoms have come forward into the light. It is still the 'spectrally heightened and distorted reality' of traditional expressionisn that is painted. But there is an odd cast of light across these works which makes them lovely to look at before anything else. It may be relevant to note that, whereas Clairmont has usually appended some written comments in the catalogues of most of his earlier shows, in this case there is only the laconic 'Comment: No Comment'. Use your eyes - it is all up on the walls.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 10 Winter 1978