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JH

Richard McWhannell Survey

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Richard McWhannell, A Tearning a Girning, 1987, oil on canvas. Collection of the artist Richard McWhannell, Self Portrait At 50, 2002, oil on Linen. Collection of the Wallace Arts Trust Richard McWhannell, Donogh announces her pregnancy, 1985, oil on canvas.  Collection of the artist Richard McWhannell, Captain Pugwash, 2014-2015, oil on canvas on board. Courtesy the artist and Orexart Richard McWhannell, Tomorrow will be beautiful, 2004-05, oil on canvas. Collection of the artist

The show impresses because of its varied range of interests, McWhannell's curiosity about facial expression and body language, and daily items people live in proximity with - in their intimate spaces - that feed into their personality traits and which in his hands become props. His works enthuse over the psychological, often alluding to the discretely hidden, and sometimes compositionally seem to have evolved out of improvisational energies - as if the picture painted itself without prethought.

Auckland

 

Richard McWhannell
In My Own Time, 1972 - 2015

 

26 January - 10 April 2016

In this major survey of Richard McWhannell paintings - downstairs in The Pah Homestead - fifty-six works (including four sculptures) that start in the early seventies when he was at studying at Ilam and finish last year, we discover his enthusiasm for trying out different methods of oil paint application on different ‘contents’: all figuratively based and connected in some way with personal encounter and his formidable powers of observation.

McWhannell‘s output over forty years has been considerable, and even though fifty-six works is a lot to cram into five rooms that are awkward because of windows, fireplaces and dados, it is clearly a highly considered selection. Much of it is about himself, family and friends, some outdoor vistas (buildings and steep hilly landscapes), some art history (Titian, Cezanne, Goya, Balthus, Woollaston) - and the rest narrative (existential horror, humour, surrealism and satire). Lots of tested approaches to image construction and form rendering.

The show impresses because of this range of interests, McWhannell’s curiosity about facial expression and body language, and daily items (clothing, furniture, architecture) people live in proximity with - in their intimate spaces - that feed into their personality traits and which in his hands become props. His works enthuse over the psychological, often alluding to the discretely hidden, and sometimes compositionally seem to have evolved out of improvisational energies - as if the picture painted itself without prethought.

Some paintings succeed more than others. I personally favour the scrubbed blurry works of the eighties and early nineties, where floppy brushes with accentuated bristles delineate the vague edges of forms, but am cool on the later hard-edged, sharper, less chaotic methods of image presentation. With their less diffuse and harsher light, they overall seem more static and a bit dead in their drawing room formality. Too balanced and predictable. I prefer the less staid and more angular, wild and wackier imaginative leaps.

A few of the works are uncomfortably indebted to Fomison, while others are much better than that artist. Self Portrait (with cap), 1994, the greatest work (I think) in the show and inexplicably not in the catalogue, has a Max Gimblett looseness with its flowing arabesques of wet scratchy paint, but is also stunningly precise in its flurried description of the artist rendering himself, his face peering at the viewer out of darkness.

The spread of explorative painting styles in this exhibition, a widely cast net, raises the question of whether a tighter selection might have been better, albeit less risky, especially if focussing, say, on his more overtly imaginative projects. Yet McWhannell’s ability to surprise is an important (and admirable) element of his practice and personality, his keenness to try unexpected things out - even wanting to try out conservative compositional approaches at the risk of becoming stuffy. He is determined to give it a go. So sometimes he is plain stuffy - especially in his portraits of other people - and such works fall over, even though they carry subtle nuances of physiognomic expression. They’re disappointingly orthodox, in comparison with his other greater achievements.

Nevertheless there is plenty of marvellous work here, for his show is a rare event where a significantly large and varied body from several decades of excellent painting has been brought together, coupled with a natty little publication with an insightful essay by Kyla Mackenzie. There is much to think about in this complex, often contradictory, selection, so with only ten days left, make sure you don’t miss it.

John Hurrell

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