An artist at peak of powers late in life

WATER WORLD: Peter Campbell's watercolours were commissioned for the literary magazine London Review of Books.
WATER WORLD: Peter Campbell's watercolours were commissioned for the literary magazine London Review of Books.

In a strong, diverse, often surprising new set of exhibitions at City Gallery, the biggest surprise is a room of watercolours tucked up the back upstairs. These quiet works by Peter Campbell feel utterly fresh. When the London-based New Zealander Campbell died in 2011, he left behind more than 400 paintings commissioned for the cover of literary magazine London Review of Books.

Since 1996, he had produced one a fortnight. Ranging from 1994 to 2011, with the majority from the last decade, this exhibition celebrates an artist who was, on this evidence, late in life at the peak of his powers.

Because they're designed as magazine covers, the images provide space for text. Yet the way those spaces are articulated by colour, brushstroke and composition, makes them eloquent in their own right. A sea captain, eyes closed, stands stiffly before an ocean of deepest blue. A lavender house interior frames an open door and window ablaze with verdant green leaves, while a naked leg enters the right-hand corner of the picture like a comma, a slipper hanging off her foot.

You can swim on the strokes of watercolour, just as in one work a man swims into the space in the frame, arms open to the ocean and the headland beyond. In paintings like this the imagery provides punctuation, introducing open space for your thoughts.

The way Campbell handles the frame is also interesting. There are a lot of unconventional and expressive crops: the back end of a tiger; a bed where top and tail are out of frame but above is cloud-filled blue sky and, below, a starry night sky.

Human figures are few and far between, the artist leaving us to enter the scenes instead. There is, however, a vitrine of lovely figure sketches, ripped straight from Campbell's A4 notebooks. In these character studies he demonstrates the fluidity and economy of his pen, and sharp wit.

Domestic settings are common. It is as if we might enter, pull up a chair and start reading. There is a quirky lightness of touch reminiscent of the domestic space in Bill Culbert's photography. A favourite painting looks out over a roofed deck to hills behind. Yet this landscape is mostly obscured by a louvre blind hanging down loose in the centre of the frame. The blind becomes the centre of attention, the play of grey and white on it like a Gordon Walters' koru print or musical score. Meanwhile, in the corner of the print, a figure is moving, responding physically to this scene before him. I imagine this as Campbell finding delight in the arrangement of the world around him.

When you get to the wall where the actual covers of the magazines are shown, its almost a disappointment to realise the spaces in the paintings are there for the uniform march of typography, advertising the issue's contents, not for our dreams.

Beautifully curated, this exhibition is a delight.

Artwork - Peter Campbell, City Gallery Wellington, until April 21


Speaking of old dogs teaching new tricks, in his latest dealer show Max Gimblett throws many a surprise at his quatrefoil-shaped canvases. The results are fresh, alive tensions, like eels wriggling out of nets.

On a Clear Day, Max Gimblett, Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington, until April 6.

The Dominion Post