Till October 2015
“Three Artists” is a little bit put together, I have to admit. All three – Barry Ellis, Paul Melser and Campbell Kneale – are artists I personally know. They all approach their work from an intellectually point of view, at the same time as having an aesthetic that is a pleasure to enjoy.
Barry is the oldest, an artist who enjoyed commercial success early in his career working as a designer for New Zealand Railways, doing everything from tourism posters to the colour scheme for its luxury railcar services of the 1960s and 1970s. You can hear an interview with him on Radio New Zealand here and read more about the exhibition that interview was based around here.
Barry has had a rich artistic career including graphic design and lecturing at polytechnics and universities. He was one of a stable of pure abstract artists which emerged in New Zealand in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Barry spent a few years living in Carterton in the Wairarapa where I interviewed him for an advertising feature on the refurbishment of the Copthorne Solway Park in Masterton in 2007. His large figurative painting “Not Just Any Country Road” was, and still is, the centrepiece of The Grill restaurant at Copthorne Solway Park.
At the time he described it as “a pivotal painting because up till then I was a hard-edged abstract painter. I don’t know where it came from. When that happened I suddenly started to see the landscape in the Wairarapa realistically. Country road is a metaphor for what I’ve done. I’ve travelled all over New Zealand and the road has become a metaphor for my travels over the last 20 years.”
Barry left the Wairarapa a few years later but I came across his paintings again in two successive exhibitions at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History in Masterton. The image that sticks in my mind from the first show is a carful of teenagers barrelling along possibly Carterton’s main street.
I liked that Barry isn’t an artist who ignores the world around him in pursuit of some alternative, more appealing, reality. Once again, there was the motif of the road. The expressionist figurative style of the painting captured the chaotic reality of out of control youth in a moment between life and death. It kind of felt like a new version of 1930s Regionalist art.
The next exhibition had two quite different sets of paintings. One was more or less figurative, albeit in an expressionist style, capturing parts of the Taranaki landscape. One of these, of the black sands, rusting ship remains, and cliff faces of Patea beach, I know well from when I used to visit my artist friend Noah Landau there. I’ve photographed the very same views myself.
The other set of paintings were the four works you see in this exhibition, which particularly appealed to me. More or less abstract and almost three dimensional, their colours and forms are almost haphazard and spontaneous but create a pleasant whole. From pencil drawing to glued cardboard, scattered spots of oil paint, and sliced canvas, Barry has made it all look too easy, but anyone who has painted will know that to get all the elements to fit so perfectly takes a very high level of skill and intelligence.
Intersecting highways, both real and metaphysical, feature in many of Barry’s paintings, and he describes these four works as: “Energy, Colour, Dynamics, the secret of all creativity, and when they collide you have INTERSECTING INTERSECTIONS and then who knows where!”
I’ve saw one of Barry’s most recent works when I was collecting these ones for the exhibition, and he appears to be producing some of his most interesting and accomplished paintings right now. There are some qualities that can only be found in an older artist’s work and often their work is the most satisfying. Barry at this point appears to me to on the cusp of producing some of his best work.
Paul Melser is best known for his pottery, for which he has enjoyed creative and commercial success for many decades. He lives in the most amazing environment and it is well worth visiting his pottery studio in Norfolk Road, just south of Masterton. He has a separate studio for his painting, which is a complete departure from his pottery.
One of the most notable features of his paintings is the consistency of their style and subject matter, despite limited commercial and critical recognition. The paintings retain their strength of character, whether you are looking at them for the first time or the fiftieth. Some art work tends to have a stronger or weaker impact depending on where you are at the time, whereas Pauls hold their own every time I view them.
These paintings are deceptive in their apparent simplicity. They appear to just be poster-like reproductions of media images Paul has found. But a lot more skill was needed to make them work visually than most people would realise.
As Paul says, a certain uniformity and non-emotional effect is what he is actually looking for anyway, despite the subject matter being emotionally charged, depicting in all four cases violent demonstrations.
“They derive from news pictures of demonstrations. I’m really interested in the place between the demonstrators and the forces of repression which is embodied in the police. One of them is trying to retain power and other wants to make change. It isn’t really a particularly valuable method we have evolved for making social and cultural evolutionary steps.
“I’m trying to absolutely avoid an emotional response because that just means that people are going to opt for one side or another without looking at the business of how we go about that sort of thing, which is more interesting.”
Once again, what impresses me with Paul’s work is his interest in the world around him, and coming up with a unique perspective that isn’t as easy to define as “good” or “bad”.
Campbell Kneale has mostly been painting abstracts for the past two decades. His last solo exhibition at Mazzola was a departure, retaining the muscle memory energy of his abstract work but applying it to spontaneous figurative reproductions of contemporary media images.
The four works in this show precede those paintings, although you can see one of those works (Cameron Slater and John Key) in the gallery’s jewellery space. I see these works offer primarily an intuitive aesthetic pleasure. Once again they are deceptive, hiding their complex multi-layered structure behind what appears to a random and spontaneous layering of paint and resins.
A good test of any painting is to study small square segments of it at a time and see how the well its elements harmonise at this level. When you look at these works in detail you see a richness and depth that would not be noticed from a precursory viewing.
In Campbell’s words they are: “The result of fifteen years of engagement with simple pattern, defiant repetition, and muscle-memory that when taken en masse form a trance-enducing ‘drone’ of half-realised scribbles, fleeting utterances, and dense painterliness.
“This initially bewildering babble of mark making, both bored and ecstatic, contrasts the transcendent power of painting with its near-futility in a world saturated with image and obsessed with visibility.”