Hastings City Art Gallery – April 10-June 27 2010

It has taken awhile, but Creative Hawke’s Bay has got the formula right for this year’s Invitationals exhibition.

The old Hawke’s Bay Review had been in decline and was replaced by the Invitationals which revived standards and artist participation. A stand-down policy provided opportunities for fresh talent to emerge. It worked well but one problem remained.  Last year one or two artists were less than rigorous in monitoring the qualities of the work they submitted. To address this a selector has been engaged this year in the person of curator Tim Walker.

Selecting in art can be problematic but, done well, it gives an exhibition form and a point of view. In the past this had been highlighted by the fascinating “Salon des Refusés” of work rejected from the old Hawke’s Bay Reviews held at Wine Country Gallery in Havelock North. Certainly, the resulting Invitationals show this year is one of the most consistent in quality that I can recall.

It was especially heartening to see so much good painting.

The talented Paula Taaffe has sometimes made things difficult for herself with abrupt shifts in style, but she has got everything together in these latest works. With judicious use of masking and gestural sweeps of paint she has packed her pictures with orbs and amoebic shapes which fight for space, generating much tension and excitement.

By contrast, Desmond Helmore uses flat planes and reduced perspective reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts to achieve a sense of space that belies the modest dimensions of the pictures. His beautifully weighted colours and slightly surreal content enhances the Zen-like calm of these finely resolved works.

“Cul de Sac’ by Wellesley Binding looks at Havelock North at night-time. But this is not the Havelock North of real estate brochures. This is a disquieting vision where house lights glint like campfires, feebly seeking security against the enveloping darkness of existence, a transitional world where people are only passing through. It may not be re-assuring but it is superb painting.

The most original work in the exhibition is from Matt Couper. He employs quasi-mystical texts and symbols taken from a range of religious and philosophical orders over the ages. The symbols were of doubtful effectiveness in their original context, but they can tell us a lot about the way the human mind deals with hopes and fears and tries to explain the inexplicable. The presentation of these ideas is wonderfully pungent, painterly and idiosyncratic.

I have been known to say that I would vomit if I saw another Hawke’s Bay painting with wine glasses and bottles. Well, Helen Kerridge has done one and it is brilliant. A sly comment on art and marketing it is, as always, a great composition and very well painted.

Chris Bryant’s “taku tapuwae – aue” comprises a pou figure painted on to a weatherboard house corner, speaking of the past and present habitation of the land. The support is modern but the painting would appear to be an acknowledgement of the 19th Century painted houses of the East Coast.

Jacob Scott also combines old and new. His traditional figure shown as a “Hari hari (dancer)” re-incarnates into the 21st Century brashness of transparent, coloured perspex.

It is always a pleasure to see the drawings of Michael Hawksworth. These works show a zoömorphic mix of stones, containers, fabric and obscure anatomical parts which evolve into their own life form. It is lovely design and exquisite use of media.

The organic theme was favoured by some of the sculptors too. Linda Bruce shows a cluster of finely crafted ceramic containers which have morphed from body parts, seed pods, flowers and fabric. The title “quivivinemoneae” seems, like the work, to carry fragments of references for our imagination to dwell on.

Peter Baker bridges sculpture and graphic art with his curved space depictions of human drama, presented with classical formality and restraint.

Restraint is also shown in the seductive greywacke “Onewa” or tears of Ema Scott. Less restrained, perhaps, are the “Mnemes” from the artist known as Miss Creant. Her shoal of wickedly sperm-like creatures appears to be rushing headlong towards the fulfillment of their destiny.

David Trubridge exemplifies the idea that art and functionalism need not be separated. The idea is not new (look at the old Maori canoe bailer in the Hawke’s Bay Museum), but was often lost in the post World War II obsession with design by accountancy. His designs are inspiring in their grace and integrity.

There are too many good things in this show to cover in this review. Go and see it for yourself.

Selector Tim Walker has given us an exhibition that truly looks at Hawke’s Bay in its many aspects. This is not the “colourful at all costs” Hawke’s Bay of tourist promotions but is darker and deeper. And a lot more interesting.

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