Old fashioned charm
By Mark Amery
Sandwiched in between music venue San Francisco Bathhouse and a vegetarian restaurant in Cuba Street, the South Coast Gallery is a slender wee slip of a salon. It provides an inner city base for a gallery that has already gained a solid reputation for its representation of an eclectic range of interesting artists. Its other original base is a small nautical bunker on Island Bay beach in front of the home of sculptor Tanya Ashken (and family home with her late partner John Drawbridge).
Run by son Cameron Drawbridge, the intimacy of the Cuba Street branch - with an excellent recent Ashken bronze in the window, and son Tony Drawbridge’s strong jewellery on display inside – retains the charm of a family affair, with a friendly, neighbourly Cuba Street air. No doubt Cameron grew up relaxed in the company of artists (a number of whom he now represents), his taste informed by that exposure. Yet with the move into the city he’s also clearly curatorially, as well as physically starting to work in his own space. It’s going to be an interesting gallery to watch with Cameron already programming in what he describes as ‘3 day between show shows’ to accommodate work he likes (J.Pouwels, 1-3 September).
I’d call many things about South Coast old fashioned - but all in a good way. We have enough Wellington galleries chasing the artists with bigger reputations. The gallery has the domestic groundedness of what I’m told galleries were like back in their modernist heyday. Drawbridge doesn’t represent artists you’ll be familiar with from large public gallery shows or publications – most don’t have representation elsewhere. There’s little room amongst the store of paintings, design and small sculpture for installation and more conceptually based work. This is work for homes not corporate offices.
Cameron expresses a liking for ‘craft in art’, and there’s an individual whimsy and a physical tactility to much, reminding me of elements in art we haven’t seen enough of since the ‘70s, sitting happily outside what gets labeled current or contemporary.
Old fashioned in a good way describes well the latest show by Francois Aries, ‘As a Mountain Tarn’. Aries’ abstract plays with colour, tone and light in oil on linen wouldn’t have been out of place next to the finest of Cameron’s father’s work. Each work plays adventurously with these elements, each employing a diagonal line motif from either bottom or top of the canvas to create compositional beats across the surface in a complex shifting of colour, texture and tone.
The diagonal lines are at a uniform six degree angle, selected to encourage a meditative appreciation of the abstraction rather than suggest meaning, but they encourage a connection to the rich textures of rock and rhythm within the earth in the natural world (they are never completely straight). Akin to the glazes and surfaces of ceramics, there’s also the sculptural appreciation of surface in fabric, bringing out what is inherent in the canvas. Aries encourages a contemplative rather than intellectual response.
Like much work of its ilk, reproductions or a cursive glance don’t do these works justice. With contemplation, the tactility and complexity of the best work draws you in, and – one of the ultimate tests of the strength of such work – makes it hard for you to leave. This is at least the case for half of the show. In the other half Aries adventurous rich play with surface and colour loses balance and the work starts to get muddy in its excess, like water running the colours of a palette together. Meanwhile, the works on paper lack the tactility and subtlety of the work on a more tactile surface.
Its light that draws you into surface intensities that can at first seem discordant. In my favourite, Untitled #112, light boldly burns in from the side, lighting the first of numerous earthly sedimentary-like layers on its edge, while also shafting in intensely in one pool across all layers. It’s like the theatre spotlight of a keen eye luring the viewer in. This leads to a finer appreciation of Aries strong play with tonality in light and dark, an appreciation of the dance of stippling of coarse specks on the canvas surface, and the variety of craft techniques employed differently in each thin strip, from coarse glowing brushwork to printing techniques that strip the paint back close to the bare canvas.
Aries paintings examine the weight and balance of absence, encouraging you to take time to absorb in still moments a sensual resonance between the smallest of natural things with the largest.
As a Mountain Tarn, Francois Aries, until 30 August, South Coast Gallery