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As new as I am to the Christchurch art scene, I have to admit that Paul John (formerly Paul Johns) has the kind of reputation which precedes actual knowledge of his work. The epitaph of being the "Warhol of Canterbury" along with numerous stories as to John's association with Andy, and the real reason why he sold his very own Warhol, all coloured my perception of the type of work I could expect. Which is why I was surprised to find at Campbell Grant Galleries a group of works that affected me quite deeply and didn't seem to owe anything to any luminaries other than those they depicted.

The portraits in question possessed a deceptive grandeur. I assumed I was looking at famous people, so archetypal were their poses and faces. In fact, they were members of John's family, or his friends. The only real 'figure' of note was a rather amphibious latter-day Kenneth Anger, somewhat comically super-imposed with an image of Jesus Christ, and even more comically titled Pity about Sharon.

What drew me to the works as a whole was their all-pervading darkness, each more reminiscent of a shroud than dedicated to distilling the essence of a living being. More than Warhol, I was reminded of Joel-Peter Witkin, whose works occupy the same interior arenas of desire and despair. But rather than excessive tableaux of the mindlessly morbid, John's had here managed to imbue an almost religious, mediative feeling to his paired-down subjects, each becoming an intimate icon, presenting a road through the canvas to somewhere else.

Decay as something precious and personal made itself felt, with John's consistent use of old frames, some of which were in a state of total disrepair, as if they had just been dug up from an archeological site. Many of the images were flecked with the residue of a celluloid origin, the scratches in film becoming a kind of code for 'love-worn,' a short-hand for the ravages of time.

With each of these images, Benjamin's notion that a loss of aura accompanies reproduction seemed groundless. This is the first time for a long time that I have felt a distinct sense of presence when confronted by the imprint of a visage. Maybe Lucifer was rising, what with Kenneth in the room.

The mood was quite different at the still stare, the Grant Banbury curated Paul John retrospective at the School of Fine Arts Gallery. Here, the comparison to Warhol was screamingly clear, perhaps too clear. Copycat works with local models, for instance Judith Gifford and Barbara Lee (dating back to 1981) were a giggle, but nothing more.

Grant Banbury did well to make the defining moment of John's oeuvre the portrait, and I benefited having the 'gaps filled.' The work appeared to me, in the twenty years of its evolution, to have two major categories, the faddish and the sublime. The former included a range of experiments with novelty frames, along with more brazen homages to Warhol. But then there were the surprise works, such as the group of polaroids from a film still which appeared to depict a woman in the process of becoming an angel. Or the startlingly good photographs of three young sisters from a local family in the simplest of formats.

I found the groupings of disembodied facial features the most exciting works in this show, seeming to be on the edge of something quite monumental and enduring. But the overall feeling I took with me, was again, something fundamentally sad. The slightly askew nature of the group hangings, the sagging frame of Solitaire, all seemed to speak of a vision too introverted for monuments. John's work, even in its prime, recalls fragmented findings, the only ever partial success of archeological digging in the human psyche.

Tessa Laird
4 September 1997