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Ex Rodeo Star at Wallace Gallery Morrinsville

How to make paint, that despised of mediums among the cognoscenti, look fresh, relevant and contemporary, the match for digital, performance, video and such other hip-like genres, modes and methods?

Go no further than Phillip Mcilhagga and his recent exhibition at the Wallace Gallery, Morrinsville. Called, Ex Rodeo Star, this cowboy takes a wild ride into the Badlands of Street Art and mixes it up with flurries and footnotes of abstract notation. Reloading his spray cans and strapped on his oil-sticks, this dude has face-downed the dark voids in the form of huge drop-sheets of black builders paper, beating to the draw the spectre of nothingness brooding like a cloud over every cowpoke’s outstretched vista of creative visualization.

Looking at the work, one can say that, yes, he has roped and hogtied the varmint.

The works, which number 16 in total, completely engulf the gallery space in the same way Christine Webster’s Black Carnival did. From floor to ceiling in height and butted hard up against each other, the array of loose hanging McCahon size pieces present an overwhelming visual sensory indulgence.

Mcilhagga has a grab-bag of mark making tricks and these he has employed with a charged abandoned given the freedom the medium has allowed him. Squares, grids, triangulations, circles, concentric and otherwise, dots, blobs, dashes, dribbles, whiplash lines that curve and sway like a cowboy lasso, they are all active and engaged, layered and looped together in smorgasbord of playful cyphers, decorative as well as coded. The results are a rich cascade of ‘images’, as plush and suggestive as those that accompany Jan Hellriegal’s music video, “The Way I Feel”.

Some of the works possess a strong cosmological quotient – the sense of space, stars, planets and various constellation formations made out of Pop Art formulas and outsider art entries and registers. There’s a touch of American artist, Terry Winters, in the planetary geo domes that hover in some of the works, while others have allusions to circuit boards, microbial associations or echoes of zany board games.

Energetic loose formations – abstract biomorphic shapes – play off against rigid structures, gridded and otherwise, so that while the riot of bucking and bronco-ing goes on, it is always, or nearly always under compositional control. Blobs of wild paint and mad bright planets might wiz off on some retrogressive path but the painter reins them in with a variety of formal painterly devices, some borrowed from Charline von Heyl in the line and grid work, others, like the concentric formations, coming out of the stable of Polly Apfelbaum.

Brooklyn based, Chris Martin, is another obvious formative influence on Mcilhaggha, who uses the same brash and bold moves, the same wild manoeuvres – zig-zags, smears, globules and uninhibited array of strident coloured abstract marks.

In all of this – grids bending and morphing into transparent spheres, trifid-like tendrils swooping across the wide expanse of paper like giant trunks, networks of lines interweaving and dodging, climbing in, out and over of each other, Mcilhaggha demonstrates that there is life still left in the medium of paint. And with titles like, Burger King TV, Alligator Mouth, Trick Pony, Stirrup and Strap, he drives home the link to the world of contemporary culture with a touch of sardonic humour.

He underlines this fact with the use of rodeo as metaphor. In the same way that the institution of rodeo seems under threat, so painting as an art medium is regarded in some quarters as near dead and needing to be put out to pasture. Mcilhaggha suggests that even if that were the case, it would simply go underground, that somewhere in the hills out the back of Te Aroha , for example, outlaw artists, ignoring what’s hot and what’s not, would continue the practice, start a neo movement or some folk revival with enamel, spray paint, oil and pastel, using low-rent materials in a defiant aesthetic stance.

In Ex Rodeo Star, Mcilhaggha, is back on a stray horse, rocking, bobbing and weaving like Stoney Burke on a good day, kicking life into the still rollicking beast. Ride ‘em cowboy!

Peter Dornauf

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