Exhibitions Auckland

PAUL LITTLE Richard MacWhannell Paintings The most striking works in Richard McWhannell's exhibition at the Denis Cohn Gallery in October were small finely-wrought paintings which constituted the majority of those on show. They are delicate indicators of emotions, ranging from the chilling angst of Ready When You Are to the tender affection of Sleep or the proud maternity of Mother and Child. Occasionally they interact with the larger works in the exhibition. In a striking juxtaposition, Looking Out shows one of the Six Faces looming over Self-Portrait, Red Shirt. The impact of these small works can be expressed by paraphrasing a character from Annie Hall: If we were still saying 'beautiful', I'd say they were beautiful. McWhannell's considerable technical abilities are amply displayed by Head of a Man (against Light). This is a modest work, dealing with the theme of the soulless individual. The lack of pretension accounts largely for its success because it places the aims of the painting within its reach. Blue and red glazes on the canvas supplant each other according to the position of light around the painting. When light is directed on to the canvas it appears predominantly blue; when the light is not shining directly on it, it appears predominantly red. Thus, the whole mood of the painting (and it is very much a mood-piece) alters, without aid from either artist or viewer.

RICHARD MacWHANNELL Head of a Man (against Light) 1979 oil, 495 x 360 mm.

Most of McWhannell's paintings are executed in a realist/impressionist style. This comforting traditional aspect contrasts strongly with one which is harder to define: there was an over-all feeling of strangeness about the show. In some cases this elusive quality is a result of the subject: the pale, gaunt face of Paul Johns in Head of a Man (against Light) or Portrait of Paul Johns. In others such as Six Faces it is achieved by a few simple technical means. In this painting, the canvas is divided into six rectangles, each containing an almost identical head of the artist. By painting the heads only from below the hairline to the neck, and painting them in what is almost shell-pink, the artist has created the paradoxical impression of mature adult embryos staring, with blank incomprehension, back at the viewer. One of the effects of the use of artist as model in so many of these paintings has been to obliterate the normal gap between artist and model, freeing McWhannell from all the restrictions of otherness inherent in that relationship and allowing him to do what he wants to do, not what he is obliged to do by the personality of another human being. In a different way, the subject of the artist's relationship to his work is wittily considered, on a literal and physical level, by Self Portrait (Taken Aback). Here, the artist is shown recoiling as blobs of paint splatter across the canvas, smudging his painted features. The strangeness of the paintings sometimes contradicts other qualities. Tin Toy and Tin Clown are whimsical and affectionate representations of a wind-up doll: yet, beyond their mere appearance, an ultimately disillusioning sense of generalised inanity and automatism is conveyed - strengthened by the vivid, anthropomorphic expression of the idiotic clown's face. A linked concern manifests itself in many of the larger portraits. Two Faces is one of several portraits, flat to the point of nihilism; in which the two-dimensional qualities of the technique indicate a view of modern life as banal, inhuman, crude: two-dimensional. The question of whether or not this is a two-dimensional age is irrelevant since the artist's function is to show, not to prove.