Two stunning exhibitions on Auckland’s miracle art mile are all about the maker’s mark, writes Hamish Coney

One of the most tiresome criticisms levelled at the contemporary art scene is that it is not ‘the real world’.

The implication being of course that the art world is a playpen for snowflakes like me, a fantasy land where unicorn chasers have time out from the ‘big issues’ that those at the coal face have to confront 24/7. There may well be some merit in the haters’ position I thought as I waded my way through the stinking garbage of the week’s headlines: Victoria Beckham to sue restaurant that compared her to its thin-crust pizza was the one that finally snapped me and I found myself sprinting for the door marked ‘art gallery’.

On the way I almost tripped over an illuminating insight into why (soon-to-be former) White House press secretary Anthony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci was doing us all a favour in outing his (recently former) colleague and now ex-chief of staff Reince Priebus a ‘fucking paranoid schizophrenic’.

Then I had to side-step a breathless exposé on Tesla founder Elon Musk’s crusade to stop the A.I. apocalypse. You know, the robots are gonna take over. Just in time Mark Zuckerberg reassured me that the muskrat was full of it, and not to worry, we can and always will get the good oil on Facebook.

Fortunately soon after I hacked my way off information superhighway, barricaded myself inside Ivan Anthony Gallery at 312 Karangahape Road and breathed in the clear air that is the joint exhibition of paintings by Liz Maw and Andrew McLeod (until August 16).

If ever there was an antidote to the overblown sales pitch of ‘El Mundo Real’, this is it.

The first thing I notice is the odour of fresh paint. Ambrosia. I love it. The 20 odd works in this wonderfully asymmetrical joint exhibition – Maw and McLeod are partners in ‘real life’ – are fresh as, straight from the studio and onto the gallery walls. This is a bravura duet within which both artists really strut their stuff, riffing on the history of painting past and present. Maw and McLeod have a magpie approach to art history, so isolating a single stylistic input is a dangerous game, but the strongest historic voice whispering from these works is the alluring, dulcet tones of the Victorian era Pre-Raphaelites.

As the full force of the industrial revolution and its ‘dark satanic mills’ became evident in the mid-19th century artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais (last sighted with a show stopper canvas in The Body Laid Bare exhibition of Nudes from the Tate at the Auckland Art Gallery) sought to resist the onslaught of modernity by harking back to the spiritual purity of the Renaissance and that most graceful of all the cinquecento painters, Raphael (1483 – 1520).

If this metaphor is to be continued then the artist I think of first when I look at Liz Maw’s latest paintings it has to be the lush, exotic works of Botticelli (circa 1445 – 1510). The largest of Maw’s paintings, Salome is a tour-de-force, full length portrait, oil on board, which adds another chapter to the book of depictions of this biblical temptress. Other painters who you might have heard of who have tackled this subject include Titian, Caravaggio and Gustave Moreau. Maw’s 2017 version looks pretty staunch, depicted ‘after the act’ carrying the head of her victim (St. John the Baptist in the original reading) in an exquisitely articulated blue cloth with all the nonchalance of a biker chick holding a crash helmet. Maw’s painterly style is fastidiously crafted and correct in the old fashioned sense, with genius touches of detail.

‘Artist@Work’ – Liz Maw. Photo: Ivan Anthony gallery

Almost the exact counterpoint is the Artist@Work which shows a woman surrounded by the massive double screen computers, cables, jacks and ergonomic gantries that add up to office chic du jour. This tiny painting has all of the intimacy of a 17th century Dutch interior by Vermeer and our POV has a similar sense of knowing intrusiveness as the viewer is placed in the position of the spy or voyeur, yet the protagonist holds all the ‘digital’ cards.

Andrew McLeod’s large scale canvases continue this theme of painterly assertiveness. On my visit to the gallery I ran into the artist. His conversation was very much about the daily work of the painter, choices made with pigments, paint application and how the growth in his technique over the last few years has enabled him to tackle works as ambitious as Garden Scene with Pink Flowers.

It is a pub quiz of a painting. On first viewing, art geeks will spend a bit of time decoding the imagery as the canvas has figures and passages that echo works by Bosch, Rembrandt and the great master of the Northern Renaissance Grand Guignol Matthias Grunewald (1470 – 1528). His speciality was depicting the terror of the faithful afflicted, mortified by demonic ghouls. McLeod stays true to the source material, but the tone is lighter; leavened by the potential for regeneration as symbolised by pungent bulbs and flowers. Elsewhere in this dexterous body of canvases he flirts with a heavily textured form of mottled abstraction and model sized installations of studio based imaginings. Together it is a fluid, dynamic body of work that looks to throw off the shackles of typecasting, neither completely figurative, nor cleanly abstract: McLeod resisting the structures of the market or critical expectations. On a second visit the nearest parallel I could think of was Lou Reed’s 1975 circuit breaker album Metal Machine Music – a record that still mystifies fans and critics but which has proven to be central to subsequent waves of musical genres. McLeod, by imploding the no man’s land between abstraction and figuration, by simultaneously playing by the rules of ‘correct’ painting and with a knowing shrug, wandering off-piste, has created a very modern mash up.

‘Garden Scene with Pink Flowers’ – Andrew McLeod. Photo: Ivan Anthony gallery

Downstairs at 312B Michael Lett is Dan Arps’ complete gallery installation Nested Cells (until August 26). On opening night it was a bit of a zoo so it was the grunt machine works that caught my eye. The purple potency of the large wall relief Sleep (Black Violet) was impossible to ignore and is worth a visit on its own. However a few days later, sans lager in hand, I was able to spend a bit of quality time with an exhibition which is so much more than the sum of its parts. Talk about alternative reality. Arps has transformed the gallery into a dystopian chapel, a memorial to the optimism of the internet, I.T., the Cloud. Into this proposition that our relationship with the (now corrupted) promise (think pre Y2K) of big data Arps finds a parallel with our current (perhaps) unhealthy reliance in artistic terms on our modernist grandees Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich and Colin McCahon. Many of the works in Nested Cells Arps are inoculated with DNA traces of these artists’ works: Mrkusich’s ‘corners’, McCahon’s text forms and Walters’ Koru bulbs.

These visual signifiers of our (world famous in New Zealand) artistic lingua franca have become infected or sapped of energy. Arps is in effect suggesting that we have over invested in these past masters to the potential detriment of active engagement with the present and by definition the future healthy functioning of the collective art space. Nested Cells is an argument for generational equity. In kicking against the pricks as it were, by re-appropriating some of their most recognised signs Arps is seeking to tag and release them back into the commons. In computing terms he is seeking to open-source this vital IP. Nested Cells is a courageous exhibition that is located within one of the most important discussions and points of conflict here in the real world. And that is who ‘owns’ the commonwealth of such resources.

In the art world this is the multi-generational capital of ideas and concepts. In the real world the parallels are the ‘unearnt or owned’ assets such as air, water and carbon. These natural taonga are increasingly being framed as products to be traded for profit.

One of the great art quotes of the modern era comes from the American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman and it reads, “The True artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”. In the time it has taken me to write this article (about five days on and off), I have been thinking about the truths inherent in the current works of Arps, Maw and McLeod. Whilst I’ve been doing so it has been all go out there in the Badlands of reality: Turei, Little and Scaramucci out, Jacinda in – Trump and Kim Jong-un swapping ‘strategic patience’ for fire and fury.

Against this cacophony three New Zealand artists, with dazzling variety, are resisting our modern age’s urge to trivialise or commodify the human experience. That they should do so with the age old medium of paint on canvas is both a delight and a surprise.

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