Exhibitions Dunedin


BARRY CLEAVIN Etchings and Drawings

Barry Cleavin's recent one-man show at the Bosshard Galleries confirms the impressions left by his earlier exhibitions, of a consummate craftsman exploring the techniques of his art, and of a distinctive sensibility exploring with disconcerting persistence the trivialities and the absurdities of existence.

In the field of technique, one notes the diverse textures and the varying line - serving in their variety the changing moods and intentions of the individual works - ranging from the whimsical etched lines and aquatint backgrounds of the Dance Series, through the ironic and lucid Arms and armour series with its clean forms standing out sharply from carefully-wiped plates, to the velvety opulence of some backgrounds to The New Anatomy. Cleavin's draughtsmanship, which is at the heart of this formal control, is exemplified in drawings all of which display the same incisive line that one finds in the drawings of many etchers. His technical curiosity and will to experiment appear in Paper fossil which juxtaposes the etched image of a feline skeleton and a platemark which traces the animal's full outline; and in the Illusionary fossils, concave plaster casts of small dolls which appear convex when seen from a distance.

The content of these works continues the broad preoccupations one has come to expect of this artist. Eroticism is still an important theme; although its presence is more discreet than a few years ago, it is also sometimes more provocative. The playfulness which produced an early print like The Battle of My Ten Medieval Digits has not waned - Flying Fish and Pegasus are eloquent testimony to that fact - but it does on occasion take a macabre twist, as in Executor, which shows a self-administered cerebral dissection. The crisp form of the ingenious rifle Designed for the mutual assassination of consenting adults in a private place underlines the implied social comment. The most profound ideas are those expressed by In Pursuit, a grim but sober image of a running man pursued by the shadow of his own skeleton, commenting not on the trivial absurdities of life but on the ultimate Absurdity itself.



The union of verse and image as a total gesamtkunstwerk is unusual but by no means unknown in the history of painting. Frequently the image is no more than illustration translating in visual terms the imagery of the verse: or the verse is an illustrative response of the poet to the visual imagery.

For Blake, word and image are both independent and interdependent. They do not require each other; they are not literal translation from one form of experience to another, but they reinforce and add greater dimensions to each other. So it is too with Ralph Hotere's Song Cycle, twelve banners of which were shown in June at the Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, and fifteen (totalling nineteen pieces) at the new Bosshard Galleries in Dunedin.

These long narrow banners of loose hanging canvas painted in acrylic paint and pigmented dyes were originally conceived for Sound Movement Theatre's Song Cycle performance. The concept of Hotere's stage designs changed however, and the banners developed as an independent cycle of paintings executed during 1975 and 1976.

All incorporate to greater and lesser degrees Bill Manhire's Love Poem, The Wind (1), Vidyapati's Song, Wulf, The Prayer, The Wind (11), Song of a girl abandoned by her lover, The Seasons/If I will sing there for Marion and The Voyage many of which were published in an earlier Hotere/Manhire joint venture The Elaboration of 1972.

The Bosshard show was an exciting experience - nineteen of these long black banners like lines of giant forest trees enclosing one as eye and mind feasted upon both visual and literary imagery. lines of verse in scrawling McCahonesque script in top and bottom raw canvas zones of each banner reproduce fragments of the stanzas; and with them, fragments of the verse's imagery. It is as if Hotere has telescoped in upon instances, ideas and tactile experiences present in Manhire's work. Words like 'touch', 'take', 'night', 'sleep', 'rain', 'ice', all highly charged with association, draw upon the viewer's experience, awakening in him dormant memories and creating in his mind a rich private associational imagery.

Re-experienced private images, a crystal - line spectre or vague amorphous dream, take shape against the damp rain-forest of Hotere's beautiful expanses of modulated black field and shimmering, melting stripes. All the banners are striped in long, flowing clusters of lines, or solitary bands, distinct - and assertive or indistinct, eroding lines, riding across and emerging out of the field. Hotere's vision is sophisticated, immaculate and sensitive - variety and richness played against comparative austerity, hard against soft, delicate and ethereal against bold and heavy. line and edge abound with constant and infinite variety upon broad fields of moving, modulated, black-dominated mauves, crimsons and blues.

When the first impression, one of gravity and power, has passed; when perhaps the sense of compulsion to read all the verse has gone, it becomes apparent that within these seemingly-similar banners there is considerable diversity. We notice that in some the lines are crisper, more sharply defined, the colours brighter and more distinct from each other. Others are soft, even monochromatic: forms melt into one another; a strongly defined line or edge suddenly disappears beneath a veil of melting tone or colour; hard, white line is flanked on either side by a soft, washed-out white like the last wave spewed up upon the beach.

They are like the Dunedin climate: both visual and literary sources of Hotere's painting are quintessentially Dunedin. The clarity of sunlight and blue sky gives way to fog and mist, throwing a softening veil of grey over the richly-varied, always-different, Dunedin skyline. Every possible variation between high-summer warmth, clarity and brightness, and deep winter rain, fog, ice, sleet and snow is present here - translated metaphorically by the most minimal yet richly evocative means of lines on canvas.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the seasons and the weather are present symbolically, because they are present as reality. Hotere has exposed the banners for up to two weeks at a time to the elements. Sun has blazed upon them or rain has worn at them eroding carefully strictly defined forms: they have even been frozen, and snowed upon.