Art a kind of alchemy

IN THE PICTURE: Judy Millar's Space Work 7 – wood, paint, digital print, 11.1 x 4.3 meters, courtesy of the artist and Gow Langsford – Auckland is installed in Adam Art Gallery for the exhibition Cinema & Painting.
IN THE PICTURE: Judy Millar's Space Work 7 – wood, paint, digital print, 11.1 x 4.3 meters, courtesy of the artist and Gow Langsford – Auckland is installed in Adam Art Gallery for the exhibition Cinema & Painting.

Michelle Menzies, curator of the New Zealand Festival exhibition Cinema & Painting at Wellington's Adam Art Gallery, wants to make one thing clear – it isn't some kind of self-referential show.

"This exhibition is not about paintings about films, or movies which represent paintings. We're suggesting a more intrinsic connection between these art forms," she says.

The exhibition features works from international pioneering film-makers, including the Lumiere Company in France, maverick American film-maker Jim Davis, Germany's Oskar Fischinger, New Zealand's Len Lye and more, alongside the likes of painters William Fox and Colin McCahon.

The exhibition also takes in contemporary artists including New Zealander Judy Millar and Americans Phil Solomon, Diana Thater and Matt Saunders.

Menzies gives an example of the "intrinsic connection" the exhibition strives to explain.

"An artist like Jim Davis makes films by passing natural light through sculptural objects. There's a significant and very subtle sculptural component to his project, because he is filming the results of natural light passing through transparent materials."

Menzies, who developed the exhibition with Daniel Morgan, a professor of film studies at the University of Chicago, says Davis's images are fascinating.

"Though his moving images aren't paintings, you have to draw on a painterly vocabulary to grasp and appreciate their texture. If nothing else, in watching Davis's films you tend to draw on the experience of looking at paintings to make sense of what is happening within the image.

"To extend this idea in a different direction, Phil Solomon's installation American Falls is constructed from fragments of found footage – bits of old movies, gleaned from the archive of American cinema.

"He re-photographs these film sections in celluloid, and then runs a chemical process over them that takes the image through several steps, moving backwards and forwards between analogue and digital. The liquid chemical process is referred to by the artist as a kind of alchemy, but what is presented in the gallery is a digital film whose visual quality has an almost sculptural depth.

"Once again, you are forced into searching for a pictorial vocabulary to articulate the special qualities of what you're seeing on the screen, and it is this language of description that veers into painting."

Menzies says the vocabulary of painting is one that can be applied to all the works in the exhibition which aren't paintings.

New Zealanders are familiar with Lye and McCahon's works, but Menzies says for Cinema & Painting they tried to pay attention to aspects of their works that are less well recognised and broaden people's sense of each artist's achievements.

The exhibition includes McCahon's well-known 1950 work Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury.

"The painting is broken up into a sequence of images, with quite prominent lines separating the images. In the criticism on McCahon these separating lines have been described as comic book-like, as well as film frames. But we are less interested in saying this painting is 'filmic', so much as at pointing to the way it demonstrates McCahon's interest in time. The painting expresses an approach to landscape funnelled through physical and psychological experience – via a person moving slowly through the land, gathering both memories and associations. For me, a quality of real movement and an unusual temporal intensity is the dominant feature of Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury."

Cinema & Painting also features the "fog drawings" by McCahon, a collection that hasn't been exhibited before. Menzies describes them as beautiful, and there are other works. "Cinema & Painting also includes a large watercolour from a sequence of paintings made by McCahon in the early 1970s called View from the Top of a Cliff. This particular work hasn't been seen since 1973, but it is a stunning work that foregrounds a very colourist and sensual McCahon.

"To my mind, placing McCahon into the context of moving image art opens up an unfamiliar side to a familiar figure, and something valuable is gained by the juxtaposition."

Menzies says one of the pleasures of putting the exhibition together has been making discoveries about artists and film-makers. Part of this has been her and Morgan's academic background and their extensive research. "Certainly [an academic background] gives you a good nose of where to look, and the confidence to make strong decisions about what you see."

The Lye works on show were spotted in an archive.

"We know a lot about Len Lye's films but we know less about the really extensive range of constant production. He was always drawing, he wrote lots of poems and he was an essayist. I was in the Len Lye archive looking at materials, correspondence, and objects, and was just blown away by his stencils. They are exquisite objects – handmade materials that carry all the traces of their use in the making of a film.

"At the same time, they had been categorised as ephemera within the archive, which is a lesser designation. I wanted to place them in the exhibition as artworks in their own right, fundamentally in recognition of their inherent visual qualities."

Menzies says the stencils had been exhibited once before in Brisbane, but this is the first time in Lye's homeland and designated as art works.

Her film studies background helped. "[It] helps me identify what is particularly interesting and unusual about the material in an archive. When possible, I will try to use the curatorial context polemically to serve the artwork or aid its preservation."

Also of special significance is the inclusion of Millar. Several are new 3-D digital paintings for Cinema & Painting. Millar represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2011, but it was her work post-Biennale that fascinated Menzies.

"This new series of 'Space Works' required a completely different vocabulary. It has always been important to understand that Judy Millar is a painter. Yet she understands painting in a broad sense that intersects with straightforwardly metaphysical concerns – how do we live? How should we live?

"Her work is utterly contemporary in its process and its technological underpinnings. The dimensional works are an aspect of Millar's current practice that [art] criticism is still grappling with."


Cinema & Painting, Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University, Wellington, until May 11. Michelle Menzies and Auckland University professor of media, film and television Laurence Simmons present the talk Waterfalls, Lighthouses, Lakes: Landscape Aesthetics in New Zealand as part of the exhibition at the gallery on Thursday, 6pm.

The Dominion Post