Julia Holden's stunning performance portraits go on display

A Christchurch-based artist is changing the idea of what a portrait can be, in a new exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

Blending performance art, photography, sculpture, and oil painting, Julia Holden calls her style of art "performance painting", where subjects appear to paint themselves into existence, or become someone completely different.

Holden uses her background as a film storyboard artist to get viewers thinking about how the artworks came to be.

"It's not clear how it's been made straight off the bat. For me that's what holds my interest, that's what's very exciting about making the work," she told Newshub.

In some, she turns her sitters into canvasses, painting on them and turning them into oily 3D depictions of other famous artworks by artists like Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, and Leo Bensemann.

"Directly painting a version of that artwork onto the artist, and kind of bringing that idea of how artists are in a visual conversation across time," she explains.

Each one typically takes between 30 minutes and an hour, a race against the clock before the materials harden.

"I'm painting it, then trying to photograph it, then adjusting it, then photographing it to get the right moment. I want it to feel really fresh, the paint is still wet, it's a really visceral kind of portrait," she says.

On the other end of the time-spectrum are her stop-motion portraits.

"The painting's literally painting itself into existence," she says.

Her portrait of Lyttelton musician Delaney Davidson comprised of 585 individual oil paintings, photographed and wiped clean each time, for 38 days.

"It's like an endurance sport for artists!" she jokes.

Holden moved to Christchurch in 2012 and says its post-quake creative community has helped fuel her creative side.

"I've just found the community in Christchurch to be really incredibly generous and really open to my kind of kooky ideas."

She says they're always open to give anything a go - even the city's mayor Lianne Dalziel, whose portrait greets visitors to Holden's exhibition.

"It was just great to feel part of the painting, which I don't think you'd feel if you were just sitting there being painted. It was an experience in itself," says Dalziel.

But if anyone's concerned the mayor of the country's 3rd biggest city had to go back to work covered in paint and clay - Holden's studio is in her home, so there was a shower on hand.

Julia Holden: Performance Painting is on at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery until July 22.