East Coast

Freeman White exhibition @ SPA­­_CE,  17 Feb – 18 March, 2017

Freeman White has been painting the beaches from Mahia around to Waimarama, and I am keen to see the coastlines that I know so well through someone else’s eyes.

I poke my head in to what looks to be a mechanic’s garage on Tennyson St (it was, for years, Est. 1924), and emboldened by an arrow and a sense of adventure, tread a little, narrow set of stairs to what was once the accounts’ office and staff restrooms. Just two-metres deep, with long, polished wood floors, Megan Poppelwell’s gallery feels like a discovery, a secret find.

SPA_CE (previously in Cathedral Lane) precipitated, in part, Freeman’s move to small-scale ocean studies, as the size of the art gallery can’t accommodate his larger landscape paintings. Thus the East Coast exhibition also showcases a symbiotic relationship between the artwork and the space itself.

The Napier Shore wave and cloud studies on board (each 200x255mm) are positioned side by side on the main wall, facing the open windows out to the busy street below, which offers an appropriate soundscape: the traffic, in its rush and deceleration at the lights mimics the shingle tumult of waves on Marine Parade.

The paintings in real life are smaller than I expect; they appear tiny in contrast to the bigness of their subject. Yet each is extraordinarily potent. I am struck by the turbulence of the water as it smashes against the shore, and the luminescence of Freeman’s brushstrokes, the way he captures the collision and dynamism of elements.

One small square (Wave Study No. 2) brings us precipitously close to the wave crash and simultaneous suck-back of the foaming white-green ocean; there is a danger of being pulled in and a simultaneous longing, the line of Cape Kidnappers beckoning, half-dreamed, through a sheen of veiled sky. The effect is sublime: that transcendent experience of beauty and terror in the awesome power of Nature.

Although you’re never quite immersed in the ocean—Freeman holding you back by your shirt from being caught out by a rogue wave—there is little land to hold to here: the frames are all sea and sky and the slope of black sand. But I know exactly where we are in every picture. Through the artist’s concentration of vision, everyday familiar views are gifted back as something strangely new and precious.

I start to feel a little seasick, however, from the perpetual motion and the way the south-facing, north-facing beachlines are angled like a cresting wave on the wall, paired with the shifting motion of equally intense, compelling skies.

I find myself resting in the Ocean Beach and Waimarama paintings, which are positioned at either end of the exhibition space, keeping balance.  They are a little larger (300x400mm), oil on linen, and offer a calm, still, softer counterpoint; the sea itself at a distance, viewed across an expanse of sand and receding water, a play of reflection and texture.

The huge demand on Freeman’s paintings has meant East Coast is not a fixed exhibition but changeable like the ocean. Sold works have been taken already, mainly by expats wanting a piece of home on their walls overseas; a few have been replaced by brand-new works. I note that those snaffled first are the ‘safer’ paintings where the eye is cradled by the familiar: the trademark hillscapes, tussock, grass, the ocean contained by the shoreline. None of these paintings are on the walls when I visit. Nor are the Mahia Beach pictures, and I would have loved to have seen these.

All, however, can be viewed on the SPA_CE website.

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