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On Song

Terry Stringer, Temple of Grace, 2003/04
Elizabeth Thomson, Transitive States II – Triptych, 2013
Installation shot: Whakawhiti Aria: Transmission
Installation shot: Whakawhiti Aria: Transmission
Installation shot: Whakawhiti Aria: Transmission
Installation shot: Whakawhiti Aria: Transmission
Pataka’s current suite of exhibitions work beautifully together, writes Mark Amery


By Mark Amery

It’s a beautiful thing when a cluster of exhibitions in a gallery work in song. This is when a gallery’s curators, installers, designers and director in concert shine.

As a visitor you’re offered some harmonic transcendence from your everyday beavering - a contemporary form of churchgoing, you could say.

Right now this is Pataka with shows by Elizabeth Thomson, Terry Stringer and, together, Robert Jahnke, Shane Cotton and Israel Birch.

Lets start in a side chapel. Elizabeth Thomson’s small suite Transitive States provides what its title promises. It reaches out for what Gregory O’Brien identifies as “what is forever beyond reach”. Extending on Thomson’s work for the touring Kermadec show, these works that take us underwater are inspired by the artist swimming out in the blue of the Pacific, far from land. Installed effectively as a small chamber, the works immerse you in the fabric of the ocean’s subliminal in-between space.

Photography and sculpture are extended in exploration of space and its psychological effect. The ability for Thomson’s work to be transformative beyond its exquisite craft can be hit and miss for me, but here our scale in relation to the world is explored in a really powerful way. 

In the Transitive States Triptych Thomson’s use of a regular dimpled surface draws you into its depth. It’s her most effective use of this mattress-like surface to date, intensifying the feeling of experiencing a prismatic light-shattered reading of the world, as viewed in water. The images themselves are of the rhythmical rippled ridges of sand across the sea’s sandy bottom (the mattress here is the sea bed). There is a great and musical collaboration here between nature and the artist’s ordering of the world.

In another work (gently curved like the sky rather than pitted like the seabed) we look up through water to the surface and the light casting exquisite ripples through.

Thomson’s too-blue work is beautifully matched by the stainless steel based works of Israel Birch, in exhibition Whakawhiti Aria: Transmission. These also have mesmeric depth and are principally in hot red, a grounding of the spirit through target designs to the molten core of land or whenua. From the wide blue beyond we’re drawn through a calling out to the centering effect of the earth.

The target and other motifs used here come from the work of Shane Cotton. Whakawhiti Aria brings together in collaboration the work of Birch, Cotton and Jahnke, who have all worked together in the Manawatu. Works by Jahnke build on the motifs and formats of Cotton and Birch, and works by Birch that build on Jahnke’s.

The exhibition’s premise is interesting: the exchange between these artists and its connection to the way images and ideas are so quickly transmitted and adapted in our digital age. ‘Aria’ or ‘resemblance’ in Maori culture is a pictorial representation of the Gods. The exhibition is also testament to the strength and innovation in collaboration in contemporary Maori art and its basis in traditional principles.

Birch owns the show for me. His work not only incorporates motifs of the others but is then magnetic in its own right. Incorporating Jahnke ‘s I AM design (with its own references back to Michael Parekowhai and Colin McCahon) in Wairua, there is a dance of light into the depths of the letters spelling out Wai (for water), as if you’re looking deep into a lightbox, the emanation of spirit curling out like smoke. 

Jahnke’s I am Iwi I am Kiwi is an outstanding work, anchoring the show. Yet, like Cotton’s work here, doesn’t appear to be new work directly referencing the other artists’ practice.  That each has inspired and influenced the other is without question, but the exhibition could have been more tightly collaborative.

Jahnke’s I Am leads us beautifully to the large faces that peer out from the excellent Terry Stringer exhibition next door. These works again are exquisite poetic explorers of space. This show is testament to how strong and under-rated Stringer’s sculptural practice has been, particularly in the last ten years.  Their former dealer, Mark Hutchins-Pond, has curated both Stringer and Thomson exhibitions. It’s great seeing him getting to flex his spatial skills in his new public gallery role.

Following outings at Auckland Art Fair and Whanganui this intelligent wide-ranging group exhibition, exploring light as both tool and subject, reaches the Wellington region.

  • Available Light, 30 November – 26 January, Mahara Gallery, Waikanae

Written by

Mark Amery

27 Nov 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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