Art seen: September 28

Illumination (3), by Gretchen Albrecht. Photo: Glenn Frei
Illumination (3), by Gretchen Albrecht. Photo: Glenn Frei
"Important Works", group show

(Milford Galleries, Queenstown)

Featuring multiple types of media from 30 significant artists, Milford Galleries’ "Important Works" spans decades, charting the path of groundbreaking artistic movements, and the shifts in social attitudes to ourselves and our environment. When moving between paintings from the 1970s and works completed in 2023, a sense of continuity is also apparent— the mainstays and shared emotions of the human experience, the parts of life and art that haven’t changed and won’t change as the clock continues to turn and the years fall away.

It’s a treat to see a favourite Gretchen Albrecht work in the selection. 1978’s Illumination (3) was created after a commission for Gillian Whitehead’s opera of Tristan and Iseult, one of seven hanging banners. Amidst the abstraction, blocks and strokes of colour appear to take the form of a feathered quill on an open manuscript, vibrant columns of red, orange, and yellow rising from the pages — the allusion of passion, of fire, of tragedy.

The word "illumination" attaches to Albrecht’s artistic ethos in general, the fascination with light and its power over form and colour — neither are fixed and immovable in the path of the sun, the glow of the moon. A tone can change completely in the absence or pulse of light; a landscape can assume an entirely different aspect and atmosphere within seconds. For all the variations and different voices in "Important Works", that exploration of colour and shifting viewpoints is carried through from one work to the next.

Our Wills Are Gardeners, by Jen Olson. Photo: L Elliott
Our Wills Are Gardeners, by Jen Olson. Photo: L Elliott
"Our Bodies Are Our Gardens", Jen Olson

(Hullabaloo Art Space, Cromwell)

"Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners." In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago speaks of the power of the mind, free will versus the inevitability of fate. What we "plant" in our gardens — our bodies, minds, and lives — be it optimism or pessimism, kindness or cruelty, we’ll eventually reap what we sow, and become what we seeded. As one of literature’s schemers, Iago also became the gardener of others’ lives, planting discord and discontent, and watching the chaos unfold. Jen Olson dives deep into the philosophy and impact of one of life’s greatest questions: are we in control of our choices, or are we following a predestined path, or the whims and wills of another force?

Olson’s artistic voice is distinctive, vivid, confronting. The collection includes one abstracted landscape, the impressionistic blur of a garden, a pool of water, splash of sunlight — but other shapes emerge, lines of red trickle like blood from a heart; even here, the human presence is felt. Primarily, Olson’s interest is people, individual lives and connections forged. In between boldly angular portraits with haunting eyes, studies narrow in on disembodied limbs — a curled hand reaches out, but with fingers curling closed, uncertain, unsure. Certain pieces are assembled from unframed papers, images spilling from one page to another, like the visual map of a thought process, a theorem unfolding on the walls. And the largest works are painted on hollow doors, as if presenting the viewer with an ultimatum — to make their choice on what they believe and metaphorically open the door.

Little Owl, by Bill Clarke. Photo: Eade Gallery, Clyde
Little Owl, by Bill Clarke. Photo: Eade Gallery, Clyde
"New Works", Bill Clarke and James Watkin

(Eade Gallery, Clyde)

The falcon sits waiting, the embodiment of leashed energy and power, gaze fixed — watching its prey. Another of its kin glides to land, wings stretched in ombre, gleaming grace. Sculptor Bill Clarke’s talent for turning the industrial into the beautiful continues with his latest collection of metal birds, forging life and character from steel. The falcons are striking, the inherent danger of the hunt reflected in the sharp, sleek blades of their feathers; but the biggest charmer is the littlest Little Owl. Balanced delicately on its perch, it gazes back at the viewer with piquant bemusement, as if it doesn’t know quite what to make of it all but is prepared to be curious.

Another standout new work is James Watkins’s Cubist Light — Hot Pink. The abstract piece shatters a minimalised landscape into shards and impressions, with tiny glimpses of treetops rising against a cloudless sky, amidst a fragmented, geometric treatment of light. It’s rather like lying in a field in the changing seasons, watching the glimmering rainbow of sights and colours, each tone shifting as it filters through shadows and scatters with the breeze.

In Home after the Rain, a house is situated in an otherwise barren landscape, the black rainclouds still swirling, seemingly drawn towards the roof. Watkins introduces a slightly ambiguous note with the apparent absence of doors, a home from which there is no entrance or exit, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether the atmosphere is cosy or eerie.

By Laura Elliott