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The Central Otago Arts Trail was launched by the Central Otago District Arts Trust to promote the appreciation of local art, connecting a small but thriving community of talented artists with their peers and their public. By map or by app, visitors may follow the trail through some of the most beautiful scenery in the area, view selected artists at work in their own studios, and examine completed works on display in the gallery spaces.
One worthwhile stop on the route is the small Aurum Gallery in Bannockburn, the work space of watercolour and oil painter Maurice Middleditch. For obvious aesthetic reasons, the hills and valleys of Central Otago have been tramped by many a landscape artist and it is a crowded and often unoriginal field. However, Middleditch's understanding and delicate handling of light and line elevates his work above the standard calendar fare and produces compelling and quite beautiful results in paintings such as Late Afternoon, Castle Hill Basin, which captures the character of the district with skill and feeling.
Likewise, the late sun and creeping autumnal shadows of The Road to Chard Farm, Kawarau Gorge effectively convey the silence and isolation of a unique countryside caught between changing seasons. Throughout Middleditch's substantial portfolio, the occasional appearance of a historic cottage or road hints at human inhabitation, be it past or present, but this is primarily a study and celebration of the land. Individually, the works are worthy of attention, but it is when viewed collectively that they are most successful, a comprehensive ode to a landscape that alters dramatically with the seasons yet retains an untouched, timeless quality.
''I see myself stimulating the viewer's mind by producing paintings that almost 'demand' answers - especially when there aren't any!'' writes Bannockburn artist Alan Waters about his large-scale oil painting The Performer Who Missed The Ferry, which features a superbly crafted wild seascape solely populated by a floating piano and bewildered pianist.
The studied wave patterns and incongruous musician reflect the engaging nature of all Waters' works, combining indomitable technical skill with a storyteller's imagination and playful humour. There is a narrative to accompany most of the images, but viewers are openly invited - ''demanded'' - to bring their own interpretations and reactions to what they see. There is nothing forced or mass-produced about this art. Every piece is unique and often staggeringly different in style and technique from its neighbour, but the standard of quality is consistently high and most of the experiments successful.
Waters wished to bring a contemporary feel to watercolours, a medium often regarded as ''old-fashioned'' and ''boring'', and incorporates elements of surrealism and abstraction into his painstakingly detailed paintings. Works of particular note include the beautifully desolate The Child and the Man, which intricately depicts the wind-harrowed remains of an old macrocarpa hedge in Southland, and the eminently likeable Wakatipu Washing Day, reminiscent of a children's storybook illustration in its light-hearted whimsy.
Waters took home the Aspiring Art Award in Wanaka earlier this month and his gallery, located (very) high in the hills of Bannockburn, is an experience not to be missed.
The historic Speargrass Inn, one of the prettiest pit stops on the arts trail, is playing host to an exhibition of Jan Rasmussen's recent work. The artist recently spent time in Italy, capturing scenes and memories from her travels in several pieces including Pen and Watercolour Done in Italy Assisi and the rather charming The Red Chair, Corniglia Village, Cinque Terre, Italy.
The majority of the works are landscapes of a sun-drenched Italy and wintry New Zealand. The peach and coral tones in Winter Reflections, Cardrona Valley, Wanaka light the sky like engulfing bush fire and lend the work an intriguing, almost post-apocalyptic feel; however, works such as Beacon Point, Wanaka are less compelling, competently executed but fairly standard fare for the tourist-frequented galleries in Central Otago.
Rasmussen's greatest strength lies in her treatment of figure and street scenes, such as the appealing Arrowtown in Autumn, which manages to capture both the particular character of old Arrowtown and a certain charm and liveliness reminiscent of Evelyn Page's depictions of small town and city life in the 1940s. The light-hearted subject matter of such works is well-suited to the atmosphere of the inn, where the gallery is incorporated with the cafe and informed visitors can time their visit to the accompaniment of live music throughout the summer. The exhibition will run until the end of February.
- Laura Elliott