Art Seen: June 8

In this week's Art Seen, James Dignan looks at exhibitions by Seraphine Pick, Angus Collis, and Tanya Ashken.

Slumped Woman, by Seraphine Pick
Slumped Woman, by Seraphine Pick
‘‘Cavewomen’’, Seraphine Pick (Brett McDowell Gallery)

Seraphine Pick is perhaps best known for her large-scale oil paintings, teeming with life or containing artfully-composed groups involved in enigmatic activity.

In her current exhibition at Brett McDowell Gallery, Pick has pulled back her work to small-scale images featuring individual figures - ''observed women'', to paraphrase the title of one of the works. This change has partially been forced on the artist by an injury which has temporarily made large canvases difficult to handle.

It has, however, allowed an opportunity for the artist's skills to become more openly visible, stripped of much of the esoteric personal narrative of the group images, and presented in the unforgiving medium of watercolour.

It is true to say that several of the works have the appearance of sketches for large pieces, but this is not to detract from their own elegance and beauty. In pieces such as Slumped Woman, Kneeling Woman, and the Lee Miller/Man Ray-esque Fractured Woman Pick's skills are very much in evidence.

Not all the works on display are figurative; Pick has also included a series of untitled abstracts which owe a debt to early 20th-century artists such as Delaunay and Carra. These intriguing pieces present another side to the artist's work which is less often seen.


Rusty Tracks, by Angus Collis
Rusty Tracks, by Angus Collis
‘‘Find the Rabbit’’, Angus Collis (The Artist’s Room)

The title of Angus Collis' exhibition at The Artist's Room, ''Find the Rabbit'', is not to be taken literally. There is no rabbit in these works; the title is more a suggestion that we should be more aware of our surroundings. We should, to use the latest buzzphrase, exercise mindfulness.

Collis' gentle, thoughtful works allow us to do just that. Painted in urban Europe, they express a longing for open spaces and woodland, and juxtapose this living wilderness with bleak cityscapes preserved in sepia aspic.

Buildings and, in one marvellous work, curved arcs of railway appear barren and deserted. The life is all in the pastel forest scenes, several of which are reduced to almost geometric abstraction.

Three disparate works are particularly memorable in this display - one, the only work to contain human figures, is a charming, unsettlingly composed image of lawn bowlers at play. Another work, a seascape, reduces the water and sky to their bare impressionistic essentials to produce a haunting exercise in colour.

Perhaps most telling of all the paintings is an image of the artist's jacket hanging in a deserted wood. Like Frida Kahlo's famous image of her dress hanging in the New York breeze, the artist seems to be saying ''I am here watching, but my heart is elsewhere''.


Sea Creature Medallion, by Tanya Ashken
Sea Creature Medallion, by Tanya Ashken
‘‘Through the Line’’, Tanya Ashken (Fe29 Gallery)

There is an organic beauty and sensual nature to the wood and bronze sculptures of Tanya Ashken, currently on display at Fe29.

Whether towering curved abstracts or small tabletop pieces, the works have a grace of line which comes from observation of natural form and an inner sense of what works.

Ashken was the University of Otago's Frances Hodgkins Fellow 50 years ago this year, and has since become a major figure in New Zealand sculpture and jewellery. Construction of the works often takes a long time and the artist returns to them again and again in order to perfect her subconscious designs.

The perfection of the line makes it seem as though it is the only logical shape these abstract figures could have taken, and the surface textures and patination is the perfect complement to the form.

The exhibition is not entirely dominated by abstract works. The inspiration of the natural world becomes strikingly obvious in several pieces inspired by sea birds, most specifically the large Toroa and Lament of the Albatross sculptures which grace the front garden of the gallery.

One delight of the exhibition is the meeting of sculpture and jewellery in a series of small ''medallion'' pieces, inspired by the shadows cast by one of the larger sculptures.

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