Through the shaped spaces

Untitled (Akaroa), 1976 : 2013, archival pigment print.  Courtesy The Estate of Joanna Margaret Paul and Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington. Untitled (Wellington Botanic Garden), 1985 : 2013, archival pigment print.  Courtesy The Estate of Joanna Margaret Paul and Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington.One wintry morn­ing in 2003 I stopped in at what was the Tinakori Gal­lery on Feath­er­ston Street. I was then works of art adviser at the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and ever on the look out for work for the walls of New Zea­l­and embassies and res­id­en­cies abroad. As I stud­ied the gallery’s dis­plays, the door swung open and someone rushed in. Not­ing my pres­ence, the vis­it­or lowered her voice to talk to Mar­cia Shaw and Mark Hutchins, who worked there at the time. I didn’t pay much atten­tion until “Oh, that’s ter­rible news” was exclaimed and, as you do, wondered what the ter­rible news was…

That after­noon I heard the ter­rible news. Artist Joanna Paul had col­lapsed while at the Poly­ne­sian Pools in Rotorua, and died sev­er­al days later in hos­pit­al. I thought of Paul’s paint­ings pur­chased for MFAT the year before, a series of airy skies – optim­ist­ic and med­it­at­ive – and felt very sorry.

Paul has been one of those quiet pres­ences in the land­scape. You could eas­ily miss her. Born in 1945, she stud­ied at Elam School of Fine Arts in the late 1960s and developed a multi-dis­cip­lin­ary prac­tice that now looks very con­tem­por­ary. She is well known for her paint­ings and draw­ings, and also for her poems. Less well known are her pho­to­graphs and exper­i­ment­al films.

To mark the ten years since her death, the Robert Heald Gal­lery is this month show­ing a series of nine pre­vi­ously unex­hib­ited pho­to­graphs dat­ing from the 1970s. About half of the images take the idea of an aper­ture: an open­ing or a gap for admit­ting light. The open­ings in these works admit from out­side sharp bursts of col­our into dark interi­ors – the nitrous green of grass, the yel­low-orange of marigolds, and the white of sheets on a clothesline. They remind me of a line from one of Paul’s poems – “through the shaped spaces”.

Two oth­er works take the same approach but from the out­side look­ing in: a porch shad­owed with foliage from bright interi­or light; and a mys­ter­i­ous image that looks inside to a paint­ing with a cross in fleshy pinks. The former image could be a detail of a Gregory Crewd­son pho­to­graph. Crewdson’s large, intric­ate works were exhib­ited at City Gal­lery Wel­ling­ton recently and seemed to want to eli­cit a par­tic­u­lar response from the view­er. In con­trast, Paul’s image is detailed but under­stated, like a good poem.

The oth­er four works are gor­geously col­oured out­door scenes. Two have a sharp fore­ground of cropped fig­ures in a flower garden, anoth­er is a pile of dirt and rocks mir­ror­ing the shape of the hills behind it, and the remain­ing work is a still life with pop­pies and jon­quils in the style of a Dutch old master.

Admir­ing this sat­ur­ated col­our also means mourn­ing it, which seems appro­pri­ate. These works are all scanned from Koda­chrome slides. And while Pho­toshop and new tech­no­logy have their strengths, they can only approx­im­ate this sort of rich­ness. Joanna Mar­garet Paul: Pho­to­graphs 1976–1985 is show­ing at the Robert Heald Gal­lery in Left Bank (off Cuba Street) until 26 Octo­ber in asso­ci­ation with the Estate of Joanna Mar­garet Paul.

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Octo­ber Art Recommendations

The deal­er gal­ler­ies in the Cuba Street area have been tri­al­ling late-night open­ings. With sev­en par­ti­cip­at­ing gal­ler­ies – Robert Heald, Bartley and Com­pany Art, Bowen, Ham­ish McKay, Peter McLeavey, Suite and Enjoy – it’s worth mak­ing a night of it, every first Thursday of the month until 8pm. High­lights among the deal­ers this month include new work by Raewyn Atkin­son at Bowen Gal­ler­ies. Atkin­son has recently returned from a res­id­ency in Cali­for­nia, and the works are made of shards from a ceram­ic fact­ory dump near where she lived. At Ham­ish McKay Gal­lery, Rohan Wealleans is paint­ing aur­as and giv­ing massages.

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About Mary-Jane Duffy

Mary-jane is a Paekakariki-based poet and essay­ist, and Fish­Head’s art colum­nist. She teaches poetry and aca­dem­ic writ­ing on the Whiyireia Cre­at­ive Writ­ing pro­gramme, tor­tur­ing stu­dents with half-rythmes and pan­toums, zom­bie haiku, and line breaks, ref­er­en­cing and struc­ture. Duffy has a back­ground in museum and gal­lery work, mak­ing a lucky escape from the base­ment of the City Gal­lery Wel­ling­ton in 2002 and open­ing the Mary New­town Gal­lery with Paula New­town in 2004. Art (across all the dis­cip­lines) feels like the closest thing she has to reli­gious exper­i­ences — see­ing, read­ing or hear­ing things that make her brain fizz.

About Mary-Jane Duffy

Mary-jane is a Paekakariki-based poet and essayist, and FishHead's art columnist. She teaches poetry and academic writing on the Whiyireia Creative Writing programme, torturing students with half-rythmes and pantoums, zombie haiku, and line breaks, referencing and structure. Duffy has a background in museum and gallery work, making a lucky escape from the basement of the City Gallery Wellington in 2002 and opening the Mary Newtown Gallery with Paula Newtown in 2004. Art (across all the disciplines) feels like the closest thing she has to religious experiences - seeing, reading or hearing things that make her brain fizz.

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