Portraits show a lot about an artist

Last updated 12:00 25/03/2011

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Arts on Friday

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I'm finding that Zimmerman Contemporary Art Gallery on Main St is an easy idle. You can fit a quick visit around the corner after coffee, glancing in the windows to see what's new and whether there is anything you fancy.

This month you might have seen someone looking back, with two additional artists, who both paint portraits. An additional twist in this tale is that although Whanganui artist Matt Dutton specialises in your standard head and shoulders, Paekakariki's Elspeth Shannon paints pictures of people with their animals. Both artists take on commissions. For as much as we may admire the paintings, very few people want to hang portraits of people they don't know in their homes.

It's important to note that portraits form just one facet of their work – Dutton also paints street scenes and Shannon less representational studies of figures.

But I find it interesting to compare artists' portraits. And that is what is here at the gallery. Portraitists with different techniques create works that are completely unalike.

Matt Dutton applies his paint with a palette knife in thick swaths, with blocks of colour often chosen fairly daringly; a lilac or brighter pink might form a shadow across a forehead or under an eye, yellow may curl around a jaw-line or highlight the neck. This play with colour harmonies is where much of Dutton's efforts are spent, and it is artfully done. It is a sign of his skill that in the midst of his mosaic a recognisable face emerges to stare out at you, the subject often set up to look straight ahead as if posed for a passport image.

Elspeth Shannon uses much thinner paint, with a loose brush, and has a far more subdued, almost washed out colour. It looks as if the light is bleached, like old-fashioned photos.

They are not formally composed, not portraits like you would imagine of the Queen, but more an instant, caught like a quick photographic snap – a head bent down tending to the dog or tilted back laughing while picking up the family cat.

The addition of the animals doesn't read as odd, because these are captured moments and I would suggest that Shannon's interest is mostly in the interaction between man and tamed beast – a gentleness or emotional attachment that we are witnessing.

But there are similarities in the two artists' work, mostly in their straightforward approach. These are artists interested in paint and technical method.

Both are trying to catch an essence, to engulf that sense of the individual or that human gesture, along with their including their own selves into the frame.

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