The Treachery of Images
A new exhibition by Shane Cotton sees him both looking back and pulling everything apart to start again, says Mark Amery in his latest visual arts column.
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An art that is always pushing forward is judged a hallmark of a great artist - the impression that they’re always testing themselves in new, open ground. Yet, progress is always a tension between looking forward and back. And artists can mature to the point where they have the distance to boldly employ some of their most familiar motifs.
That’s the case with new paintings by Shane Cotton. They feel at once both familiar and strange. On the one hand Cotton has always created a wide-screen theatre for a conversation between found cultural images, styles and abstraction as a cultural language. His work embraces both the Maori notion of putting the past in front, and the popular musical one of sampling rhythmically. As if they were sheet music, Cotton punctuates his canvases with an armory of charged motifs.
Birdlike, he flies in and out of history to gather to make nests. He props up images in the foreground radiant, ignited by electrical charges from the stormy, brooding skies in the background. The exhibition title The Treachery of Images speaks beautifully to the complexity of a culture taking, compressing and copying imagery.
On the other hand here, there’s a new overt sense of Cotton raiding his own past, as if this were some survey from which to build a bridge to move forward. The pot plant in Diamonds and Pearls is easily recognised from the early 1990s, itself adopted from 19th century Maori painting. So too the diamond itself. It’s emblazoned on a sky upon which a bird shot through with green hangs inert, upside down - elements drawn from the last 10 years of Cotton’s painting.
This use of his library however is no easy collage. Elsewhere are less readable ghostly webs of patterns and delicate traceries of colour, reminiscent of cave paintings and an active layering of remembered pattern. This more expressionistic spirit-writing is in active tension with stretched, silhouetted and colour soaked objects that suggest the digital corruption of imagery. The allusions are also not just with his own work - the central motif of ‘Haymaker’ is a sculpture by one of the pioneers of modern Maori art Arnold Wilson.
In Back Word (a title pointing to this ‘backward’ look at his language) Cotton returns to the horizontal layering of landscapes. The top layer features another familiar device – giant letters, alongside a screen on what appears an image of a woman and baby. Elsewhere images are mounted on rods, as if decorative objects on a mantelpiece or shelf. In the black earth bands in-between there is a sketchy and fluid working of Maori motif and abstract biological shapes, reminiscent of Cotton’s earliest exhibited paintings.
These two paintings are impressive, the others here less so. They suffer from an awkward use of red line to box and pin items in space. Images and markings are propped up in compartments rather than allowed a resonance in wider spaces.
What really shapes this exhibition up however are a set of baseball bats and small wooden assemblages. Loaded with skulls, rippling pattern or scrawls of text, and delivered with Cotton’s spare electric use of high-keyed colour and line, they speak to both a violence done to a culture and its taonga, and the beauty found in American popular culture.
If these bats inevitably evoke the smashing of skulls, Cotton’s small assemblages (entitled Bones) feel like the shards left. They’re unlike anything I’ve seen of Cotton’s before (although I’ve read Cotton made wooden constructions in the early ‘90s). Their clearest influence is the cubist collages of Picasso and Braque a century ago. They revel in the music of abstraction, with the painted blues of sky and red of earth, and movements not unlike that of a clock. Each seems to breathe reverberantly like guitars.
I won’t remember this as the finest Cotton exhibition I’ve seen. Others have presented a more complete newfound vision. It is, however, one of the most interesting. It sees an artist have the guts to return to things we know well, at the same time as rip it all up and start again.
The Treachery of Images, Shane Cotton, Hamish McKay Gallery, Until 26 November 2011