The Herald: ‘Masters of the Art of Illusion Show their Worth’

The Herald, T J McNamara. It’s virtuoso week. The virtuosity is in creating illusion. Viewers of art love illusion. The crowds at the City Gallery during Queen’s Birthday were exceptional. One factor that attracted them was Grahame Sydney’s representation of the southern light of Central Otago. His heartfelt response to the emptiness of this region, which he has made his own, produces what might be called “adagio” paintings, long, slow and melancholy.

The most typical show a landscape empty of people, with brown folding hills and an expanse of sky. In the accurate representation there is also a sense of uneasiness that contributes to the particular quality of the work. The vast space of this region is so lonely that in the excellent video that accompanies the exhibition we see the artist working at his painting while straddling the white centre line of a road, secure in the knowledge that he won’t be disturbed by a passing car or truck.

In addition to delight in how accurately corrugated iron or the light on ponds and hills are painted, what the crowds are getting from these paintings is a sense that they are small counters in a great enigmatic game. It gives a sense of peace. What makes these paintings work on the heart is the feeling of illusionist depiction of floods of light and the consequent shadows. The contrasts between light and dark are beautifully worked, particularly when the light is seen through the geometric opening of window and doorway. These portals, the work of humans, are fragile against the mountains and plains.

The work more than bears comparison with similar paintings by such famous names as Andrew Wyeth and Georgia O’Keeffe, but Sydney is the outstanding example here of a regional painter hewing his own trail with single-minded determination and results that have captured the mind of the public.