artist / participant
RED SHIFT SHEER PRESENCE Victoria Lynn
Over the last decade, writers have explored Shane Cotton’s ‘appropriation’ of Maori and other diverse visual traditions as a form of ‘commentary’ on biculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. His art has been discussed mostly in terms of a hybrid aesthetic, and has been compared with the strategies of appropriation in the work of, among others, Australian artist Imants Tillers. Most recently, Christina Barton has extended the discussion of Cotton’s work by highlighting the sheer presence of the paintings. It is this presence that makes the work of Shane Cotton such an abiding force. As Barton says, ‘I am left looking, suspended between darkness and light, life and death, stillness and flight.’ These words signal the role of space in Cotton’s new works and the brooding energies that loom within. Like many of his contemporaries, Shane Cotton does not feel the need to adhere to a particular painted history in the way that the modernists so vigorously pursued. Instead, he explores historical antecedents, across centuries, across cultures and within his own milieu to find inspiration and consolidation. Cotton builds bridges to parallel worlds – he conjures, montages and fragments images and forms in order to create visions that are pervaded with lamentation and melancholy. For Shane Cotton, painting is an act of bodily and conceptual expression. In his new large, dark blue and black paintings the artist uses symbols from Maori traditions, the landscape of the Grand Canyon, and birds from a variety of locations and mythologies, including North and South American regions. Amid this array of symbols is often a Moko Mokai, a tattooed head. These heads are anonymous and rather than being an image of death, they suggest the transition from living to dead. They exist in a dream state, a body that is at once present and absent. The paintings are conceptual in the sense that there is no narrative within their frame. These are not paintings of Maori traditional stories. Rather than describing a specific myth or cosmology, the works attend instead to the idea of myth. Shrouded in dark blue, like the half-light of dusk, the paintings seem to be otherworldly, both somewhere and nowhere, defying the specificity of narrative. The space surrounding the forms is as significant as the imagery itself. This space is bodily. It is a void into which the viewer is invited to conceptually ‘leap’ (a nod to Yves Klein). It is also the space across which the birds, and the heads, gaze – a space for perception, reflection, isolation and resonance. Cotton’s paintings challenge us to explore a world in which land, sea, figure and bird revolve around one another with the freedom of paradox. The non-specificity of these symbols and their playful relationship also suggests resistance to a singular point of view. The inherent contradictions in the paintings have a purpose beyond that of ‘appropriation’, further signalled by the emotions underpinning the works. On the one hand, the palpable sense of lament could be for a time of narrative certainty. At another level, the melancholy could refer to the struggle involved in maintaining belief systems in a world that is increasingly galvanised by either rampant secularism or fervent fundamentalism. Shane Cotton’s fragmented, sparse landscapes mobilise natural forms and cultural symbols in a way that signals potential relationships: the survival and revival of meaning in a world tormented by contemporary ruin.
Victoria Lynn is an independent curator and writer based in Melbourne.
This text is an edited version of Victoria Lynn’s catalogue essay for turbulence: 3rd Auckland Triennial 2007, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Auckland, 2007, p. 62.