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In this week's Art Seen, James Dignan looks at exhibitions by Joe L'Estrange, Philip Madill, and a joint exhibition from Pauline Bellamy and Manu Berry.
"Weeds and State Houses'', Joe L'Estrange (Brett McDowell Gallery)
Joe L'Estrange's paintings fill a strange niche in Dunedin art. They owe a lot of their spirit to naive art, while simultaneously providing a deceptive photograph-like reality.
While this was a common feature of early settler art, which attempted to depict with realism yet appeared somehow flat and artificial, in L'Estrange's images it is a deliberate affectation.
L'Estrange's work often focuses on the mundane, bringing it to unexpected life. This is particularly the case with her familiar interior scenes with vases of flowers as their ostensible subject but with the essence contained in the cracked formica and faded wallpaper backgrounds. In the current exhibition, the artist brings this approach to two subjects: dense, close-cropped images of wild flowers, and townscapes.
While the two subjects may seem to be massively disparate, there is an essential similarity to the works and their structure. From close to, the flowers and weeds form complex patterns that seem simultaneously random, yet ordered. There is structure; the repeated random blooms are placed against the harsh verdant verticals of leaf and stem.
Similarly, in the townscapes the repeated random buildings sit against a verdant backdrop of suburban trees. The paintings give order to the random, while simultaneously showing that our regulated lives are built on chance.
''The Trial'', Philip Madill (Mint Gallery)
Technological paranoia and automatic dystopia have long been themes of Philip Madill's unnerving drawings. The artist's images are jarring anachronistic views of the dark side of the interface between humanity and machine.
The works are anachronistic inasmuch as they rely on seemingly dated images, inspired in many parts by advertising and other media images from the early- to mid-20th century. The machinery represented is also similarly dated, though the unnerving contraptions depicted bear little resemblance to real devices and seem to have stepped out of an alternative history.
The effect of the works is not to warn against technological development, but to wonder at the often dark possibilities that emerge from our interactions with it. Does the increasing use of technology make us less human? Are we tied into a technological trap that we cannot escape? The reference to Kafka in the title of the exhibition is not a coincidence.
The images are, of course, only part of the story. Madill's works are also technically excellent. His proficiency with graphite and with the unforgiving medium of pastel is on clear display. The almost photographic shading of pieces such as The Disinherited Mind and Strapped to a Band Worm is highly impressive.
''Bathers/Bodies'', Pauline Bellamy and Manu Berry (Bellamys Gallery)
Mother and son Pauline Bellamy and Manu Berry have a joint exhibition at Bellamys Gallery concentrating on the human form.
Manu Berry's works are mainly images of bathers and swimmers in mountain streams, largely based on photographs taken in the high country of Central Otago. Berry's well-known woodcuts are augmented by etchings and oil paintings, showing that the artist's skills extend over several media.
Intriguingly, the oil works in particular have a faint similarity to the style of Pauline Bellamy, probably a result of growing up surrounded by the senior artist's work. Two large companion works, vertical designs depicting a man and woman respectively wading in a mountain stream, form an impressive centrepiece of the display.
Pauline Bellamy's work is a series of nude studies, many of them created using a monoprint method, which gives the prints a soft, painterly look. The muted colours and broad strokes create works where the emphasis is as much on the mood and emotion of the models as it is on their forms.
These pieces are accompanied by a small group of drypoint etchings, which, through their monochrome sharpness, draw even more attention to the contrasting gentle softness of the surrounding monoprints.