Since arriving in New Zealand in the 1990s, English-born painter Neal Palmer has become known for his large-scale representations of New Zealand native plants, most notably the New Zealand flax or harakeke (phormium tenax).
Palmer's paintings offer a paradox, being oversized images, yet at the same time somehow intimate. The sculpture-like forms of the flax become all-enveloping, the texture and line assuming prominence to the point where to move close to the images is to become immersed in an angular abstract jungle. Step back from the works, and the forms resolve into splendid detailed representation. There is an overwhelming sense of depth. Palmer has mastered the ability to represent the third dimension with his brush. The illusion of depth is total; the canvases themselves have been painstakingly undercoated and surfaced to almost perfect smoothness.
In Reflections on form, the eye is drawn into the works by the boldly rendered geometry of the plant. Colour is present, but in many paintings has been deliberately desaturated, restricting the palette to pale shivering grey-greens. Palmer draws upon his early training in sculpture to imbue the works with the feeling of solid structure; his images shift and meld between the appearance of paint, photograph, and concrete form, simultaneously moving between the representational and the abstract. The leaves become a latticework frame, the deliberate use of rhythm hinting not only at the real appearance of flax bushes, but also at the historic use of this iconic plant in weaving. (1) The effect is clearly seen in the smaller works, which can be viewed as studies for the larger pieces, yet are complete in and of themselves. Here, the striking girder-like lines of the leaves turn the flax into patterns, the play of light becoming the central element of the work. The pieces tend toward abstraction through zooming in close to the point where the subject becomes unrecognisable. (2)
This is not to say that light has anything other than a primary position in Palmer's other works, and the artist sees this show's main motivation as an exploration of the interplay between form and light. (3) Where colour is reduced, the ferns take on a chiaroscuro aspect, light and dark providing dynamic depth in the image. Where colour is more strongly featured, the natural porcelain-like translucence of the leaves and the shafts of sunlight bring the image into sharp reality. Between the sturdy, studied green of the leaves are other paintings focussing on the flashes of bright russet which are the flax's flowers. In these, the green drops to an ever-present background, the repeated motif of the red standing out from it in stark contrast. Silver leaf provides further textures and surface for light to play on in some of these pieces, and is present as a major element in one of the two works which bookend the collection, a startling photographic negative-like study of tree branches in an unforgiving palette of black and silver. The other bookend, Dusk, provides the way in and out of the flax jungle, its silhouetted stalks and pods standing tall against the freedom of the brilliant, clear evening sky.
Palmer's images can be seen as exercises in mark-making, an examination of space through which the real becomes abstract, with multiple repeated images building in layers to produce complex natural patterns. What makes them stand out from pure patternwork is their lush sensuality. These works are giant yet intimate, welcoming us in and seducing us with their geometries.
1. "Neal Palmer", Verve Magazine, 4 April 2016. Retrieved from http://vervemagazine.co.nz/neal-palmer/
2. Artist's statement, "Reflections on Form", April 2016.