At the John Leech Gallery until May 31 are paintings by Mark Cross, New Zealand art's most gifted outsider. These paintings, the result of years of patient work, are remote from any of the fashionable movements.
Understandably, given the detailed nature of his work, exhibitions by Cross have been infrequent and also because he has spent alot of time in Niue, whose rocks and wide horizons provide a setting for much of the work. Almost all of these paintings are marked by wide, distant sea and above the horizons there are skies which set the tone of each work.
The foreground is occupied generally by rock formations characteristic of Niue or rippling sand or wide fields of plants. The sharp depiction of these things is a tribute to the painter's highly developed skills and meticulous draughtsmanship. Beneath these skies and on these detailed landscapes people act out enigmatic dramas.
In the single most impressive painting, the detailed foreground is an intricate mass of bones: skulls, spines, shin bones and thigh bones. On this darkling plain, a sea of people kneel and dig endlessly, seeking their destiny. Astonishingly this grim but extraordinarily powerful painting was inspired by the memory of people digging on a beach for buried prizes. It is a stunnning example of how the ordinary can be converted into an artistic image of the highest order. The uncountable mass of people that reaches to the horizon is convincingly painted. One soul is naked and vulnerable among this multitude.
Nakedness has a special significance for Cross. Several of his paintings show figures not artistically nude but naked to the world and whatever life may bring. Yet it is a fine balance. Sometimes these women are statuesque, at others perilously close to pin-ups.
Work as finely detailed as this is usually done on a small scale, but what gives these paintings their impressive presence is size and one of the biggest embodies a remarkable concept. The work is called Dichotomy & Conciliation and has two configurations. In one, two young women on a shore look away from each other and are confined by the towering Niuean rocks that enclose them. When the paintings are reversed, the women look toward each other and there is conciliation and horizons are wide open on either side. This is no gimmick but a striking symbolic device.
The best of the paintings are unique. Some works have conventional concepts behind them or are simply a display of patient virtuosity. When the sky and horizon are absent and there is a preoccupation with depicting swirling water, the paintings lose a large measure of their symbolic force.
Nevertheless, this is an outstnading exhibition and, mercifully, the artist who writes well and extensively, has done it in a book and not on the work [eg. McCahon, Hotere, Cotton etc ad nausium].