Art seen: September 17

The Plum Tree, Barry’s Bay, by Joanna Margaret Paul
The Plum Tree, Barry’s Bay, by Joanna Margaret Paul
"In Bloom", various artists

(Brett McDowell)

In a year beset by interconnected humanitarian and ecological crises for which there are no neat or assured trajectories, it is timely to pause and consider the season of spring and the inspiration it provides artists. This suggestion is not intended as a palliative for difficult times, and the paintings, pastels, woodcuts, prints, and drawings in this exhibition are not serving floral imagery as a trope emptied of significance. If ever there was a time to acknowledge the beauty and fruits of spring — outside and in this exhibition — it is now, or perhaps, why not now?

"In Bloom" features the work of five New Zealand artists, including Joe L’Estrange, Barry Cleavin, and Joanna Margaret Paul, and an early 1920s woodcut by Japanese artist Kako Tsuji (1870-1931). This grouping of artists offers a broad engagement with different media, style, and members of the plant kingdom, including iris, rose, fuchsia and plum tree. There are many standout works, but those of Cleavin and Paul deserve special mention. Cleavin’s The Rose Suite (1998) is a tour de force of printmaking technique, yet subtle and resonant, while Paul’s similarly understated depiction of The Plum Tree, Barry’s Bay (c.1974-76) conjures the mass and ephemerality of blossom in a most unexpected way. Is this what the susurration of wind through laden branches might look like? The largely negative space of the tree, pecked with a few pointillist brushstrokes, stands at the centre like an illumination.

Whole, by Kate Fitzharris
Whole, by Kate Fitzharris

"Trusting Our Hands", Christopher Duncan, Kate Fitzharris and Joseph Yen

(RDS Gallery)

"TRUSTING OUR HANDS" is a synergistic exhibition of work by three practitioners: weaver Christopher Duncan, ceramic artist Kate Fitzharris and maker Joseph Yen, who celebrate the properties and potential of fibre, clay and vintage Japanese kimono respectively. Duncan and Yen work with a range of fibres, including linen, alpaca, merino, silk, mohair, gold and cotton from vintage kimono, and the resultant handmade textile works can be worn as functional garments and displayed as artworks, especially Duncan’s long scarves in woven blocks of colour and stripes. While Duncan incorporates vintage cotton from Japan into his woven works, Yen’s garments are formed primarily from kimono, which he sources from Japan. The work of both engages with the Japanese historical tradition of "boro", which translates as "ragged" or "tattered" and describes the careful patch-working of worn kimono. Duncan and Yen’s fine textile works extend the physical life of the kimono as well as the silent stories embedded in their cotton fibre.

There is also a sense of story attending Fitzharris’ ceramic jewellery and anthropomorphic vessels, as if the clay still holds the artist’s thoughts, intentions, and feelings at the time of its shaping. The time and care that has gone into each work is palpable, and lends them the oracular resonance of an artefact. This is evident in Whole (2020), a part-human, part-vessel form whose grimacing expression and splayed legs reference the "sheela na gig" figures in Celtic cultures.

39, by Anya Sinclair
39, by Anya Sinclair

"Everything Must Go", Anya Sinclair

(Olga Gallery)

Eighty-one canvases — piled on top of one another on a table in the centre of the gallery, and hung either framed or unframed on the gallery walls — are the fruit of Anya Sinclair’s lockdown. While the exhibition title "Everything Must Go" echoes the frenzy of grabbing bargains off a sale table, the context of lockdown in which the paintings were made suggests other potential interpretations, such as vulnerability and precarity. But there is nevertheless a sense of optimism in this body of work, as the subjects are whorls of flowers, which point towards the then distant season of spring. There is an urgency and frenzy to the rush of spring growth, which Sinclair acknowledges in the gallery with the inclusion of a poem by Joan Fleming titled Fast Flowers.

While lockdown itself may not have been fast-paced for all, there was undoubtedly a strong presence of urgency. These multiple sources of and contexts for heightened emotion, even bordering on "feverish", are apparent in this exhibition — to the extent that Sinclair’s floral subjects begin to approach abstraction in some instances. The canvases of "fast flowers" are almost alive with the energy coursing through them, and by apparent rapid execution become almost schematic with wide outlines in bright colours, streamlined shapes, and an all-over style of composition. These formal decisions, combined with an intentional absence of perspective, push the paintings towards abstraction. Amongst the fever there is calm.

Robyn Maree Pickens

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