Art Seen: August 03

In this week's Art Seen, James Dignan looks at a joint exhibition from The Artist's Room, the Brett McDowell Gallery, and Marie Shannon.


Tentative Poise, by Rachel Sutton.
Tentative Poise, by Rachel Sutton.
''New Works'', Jon Thom, Rachel Sutton, and Pete Wheeler (The Artist's Room)

The Artist's Room is presenting a show featuring new works by Jon Thom, Rachel Sutton, and Pete Wheeler.

Jon Thom's works include mixed media portraiture and photographs. The photographic works are fine, evocative low-key images of flowers, captured with a narrow depth of field, but it is the portraits which shine.

These are delicate head-and-shoulders vignettes within largely blank fields, the latter's negative space drawing us to consider the moods and attitudes of the sitters. Flashes of primary colour within this otherwise bare backdrop reinforce the calm greys of the portraits themselves.

Rachel Sutton's portraits bear superficial resemblance to Thom's, although there is more life and awareness in her subjects. The figures stare challengingly at the viewer, with the natural framing of the sitters' hair being used rather than white space to define the figures.

The works are well-crafted, using charcoal over an acrylic base and then further thin washes of acrylic to build up subtle tones.

Pete Wheeler's works stand in sharp contrast to the monochromes of Thom and Sutton. The overtly political is now all but gone from Wheeler's art, replaced by bold images featuring wildlife - baboons, wolves, big cats - and rock music iconography. These subjects are presented in a sort of wilful brutality amongst strong colours, creating a powerful, visceral effect.


Cloudy Day in Mizuki, Ibaraki Prefecture, by Kawase Hasui
Cloudy Day in Mizuki, Ibaraki Prefecture, by Kawase Hasui
''Shin Hanga: Japanese Prints of the Early 20th Century'' (Brett McDowell Gallery)

Brett McDowell Gallery is currently displaying an impressive selection of Shin-Hanga art.

Shin-Hanga, a printing school of early 20th-century Japan, bridged the gap between older ukiyo-e woodblock styles and more Western-influenced work.

While still using the traditional division of labour between drawer, carver, and printer that typified traditional Japanese art, the work was aimed more at Western viewers and contained elements (such as the use of perspective) which were less common in earlier styles.

The prints are technically excellent, as would be expected of fine Japanese craftsmanship, but many of the pieces seem removed from their ukiyo-e forebears in their use of detail. With the exception of pieces such as Kako Tsuji's Snowy Egret, the images are busier and less stylised.

This has its positive aspects, most notable here in the sumptuous Juji Gorge at Kurone River, by Takashi Ito, and Kawase Hasui's Dusk at Taganoura Beach, but often the feeling of simplicity of older Japanese work is sadly absent.

Shin-Hanga, though, is important for its successful attempt at continuing traditional Japanese styles, an attempt that still has its diluted ripples in modern Japanese art such as anime. It is no stretch at all to consider a film by Hayao Miyazaki and see the echoes of Kawase Hasui's pastoral scenes.


The Rat in the Lounge, by Marie Shannon.
The Rat in the Lounge, by Marie Shannon.
''Rooms Found Only in the Home'', Marie Shannon (Dunedin Public Art Gallery)

Marie Shannon's examination of the home and its relationship to our world forms the basis of a large exhibition at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

The display is largely dominated by an impressive series of silver gelatin monochrome photographs, accompanied by a smaller number of video works. The pieces display a wryly philosophical exploration of what we mean by a home, through the use of staged construction in miniature.

The term ''construction'' is an appropriate one, for it is apparent in Shannon's work that the mundane practices of daily life create a home out of the basic building block of the house. Using personal anecdote and observations of domesticity, we are presented with a series of images and thoughts which together assemble a psychogeography of quotidian existence.

Shannon repeatedly draws on ideas from dreams and, in her name-checking of other New Zealand artists, places her work in a historical and a local context. In style and vaguely tongue-in-cheek observation, however, she is probably closer to conceptual artist-turned-musician Laurie Anderson in her approach.

Shannon poses dreamlike situations, and then - by implication - invites us to think how we would act or react to circumstances. We are left asking questions about our own lives and the physical and mental constructs we use to create our own private protective spaces.

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