It has been a long time since we have seen anything like a major show from painter Wellesley Binding. This makes “@ WORK”, his current exhibition at the Hastings City Art Gallery, all the more important. Spanning the last twelve years, it gives a full insight into the thinking and influences that are shaping his work.

These complex, even introspective paintings, are not the easiest to get to grips with, and yet we cannot help but be drawn into their tragi-comic tableaux of life. We can enjoy them at a number of different levels. The images are literal enough for us to grasp the essential theme of each work; but just when we think that we have it figured out, we discover another layer of references and meanings, and then another, and then another. Like a mountain holding many ores, whatever you are mining for, you can find according to which seam you tap into.

And if you see the works as cynical, then look again. There are elements of heroism here. Heroism as seen in Romantic and Mystic artists like Turner, Delacroix and Albert Pinkham Ryder, of people battling away living against the darkness of existence.

Few other New Zealand artists draw upon past artists and events to make sense of the present as Binding does. Indeed, he plays games with time and with the way our view of history is shaped by the way it is recorded.

His “Archivista” series show the artist himself making allegorical contact with figures from our history such as Te Kooti and the prophet Te Ua. He records them and then allows them to express their varied reactions to these records.

The game is pushed further as he visits, as an artist, the growing mythology of World War I, interviewing William Malone and being carried by Henderson’s donkey. In an odd sort of way this rescues these figures from being faded deities and reminds us that they were people.

The quest for hero status has its downside. This downside is what Binding calls “Man Island.” He writes that “on Man Island there are people doing things, people watching them, people recording them, people not taking any notice and the top dogs doing all or none of the above.” “Relay” is a chilling depiction of suited men desperately scrambling – for what? “Falling into Man Island” shows those who have made it (have they?), oblivious to the falling souls of those who haven’t. Ghosted into the picture are trousers, always too big to be filled by the surrounding figures.

Even the optimism of Colin McCahon’s 1952 classic “On Building Bridges” morphs into a futile assault on the landscape. The compact confidence of McMahon’s vision becomes a series of fragmented failures with an underworld of lost souls. Binding is down there with the rest of us though, shown self-mockingly, trying to fill a variety of Man roles. Sometimes he wears a suit (improbably), or he is seen as an aging, honky boy shaping up for a round with Sonny Bill Williams, or a shoot-out with Willie Apiata.

It is interesting to compare his use of light sources within the picture with other artists. Rembrandt’s light was a source of hope and knowledge. Binding’s men look to sporadic pools of light for these qualities, but find only the dubious hope and knowledge of an electronic screen, cold and unwelcoming. Even the hellfires of Hieronymous Bosch seem almost hearty by comparison.

With such a rich array of images to look at, it is easy to overlook the technical skill of co-coordinating them into an overall design that is cogent and satisfying. Binding employs various devices to achieve this. “Falling into Man Island” hinges the design upon a diagonal cross of belts and ties, while “The Falls” beautifully underpins everything with a veil of vertical paint dribbles.

This is an exhibition that should be seen, thought about, and then seen again to fully enjoy the work of this under-rated artist.

Adam Portraiture Award
Also showing at the Hastings City Art Gallery are forty finalists from the prestigious 2010 Adam Portraiture Award. Portraiture is somewhat unfashionable in the current art scene, but done well it can be quite compelling as the artist measures and probes the psyche of a real human being.

Faced with so many works of a similar subject offers us an interesting opportunity to discern why some paintings succeed in engaging our attention while others seem pedestrian. For example, this year’s winner, “Kayte” by Harriet Bright deserves its place for its freshness of brushwork and drawing and the unadorned honesty of its presentation.

Good painting is, of course, timeless. Hawke’s Bay artist, Freeman White, (a past winner of this award) shows us that intelligent observation and superb paint handling are as valid today as they were for Velasquez or Rembrandt.

Not so successful were the artists who relied upon scale for impact. Ray Columbus painted big adds little to Ray Columbus painted small. Similarly, the lateral distortion used by Barry Ross Smith seems no more than a clever artifice.

Many of the self-portraits were a bit static, even narcissistic in the case of Jonathan Brough. The real electricity was generated by artists who met the extra challenge of interpreting someone else. None did this better than Sian Davis with her touching and generously brushed study of Jack Willetts.

This most approachable exhibition should appeal to a wide range of viewers.

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