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Painted Up Large

Shane Cotton, The Hanging Sky, 2007. Acrylic on linen. Collection of Peggy Scott and David Teplitzky.
Shane Cotton, Head #!?$, 2009–12. Acrylic on linen. Private collection.
Shane Cotton, Untitled (Head), 2009–12. Acrylic, photo etching and aquatint on paper; each work is 1/1. Private collection. Thanks to The Gottesman Etching Center, Kibbutz Cabri, Israel.
Shane Cotton, Now There, 2010. Acrylic on linen. Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery.
Shane Cotton, Takarangi, 2007. Acrylic on linen. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, purchased 2007.
Mark Amery compares and contrasts the staginess of Shane Cotton and Gregory Crewdson at City Gallery Wellington.

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By Mark Amery

The storm clouds of the romantic and sublime have gathered at City Gallery, with exhibitions of the work of Shane Cotton and Gregory Crewdson. Big, grand dramatic art melding beauty and terror, both artists alert us to the presence of a powerful doom-laden immaterial other through the use of symbol and atmospheric effects.

The gallery is full of anxious unsettled artworks suggesting we live in anxious unsettled times.

The best of Cotton’s work provide not just an adventurous genre extending play with paint and composition, but also a dark potent mystery. Drawing from his own history and uneasy contemporary sense of place, with a dance of morphing ghostly imagery in a potent blue-black ether, like his ancestors Cotton makes material the constantly changing abstract spiritual fabric around us.

Crewdson’s colour photographs are on the other hand all film-stage set construction and cliche ridden, theatrical direction. There may be an initial big wow factor in the work’s immaculate, expensive technical artistry but there’s little fresh insight in the photographer’s suggestion of things gone awry in a nostalgic suburbia. Like American fast food, I’m not left with much of substance the next day. Glorifying rather than transforming, it’s a 20th century suburban version of average 19th century sublime landscape painting. 

I mention the best of Cotton’s work because I find this touring Christchurch Art Gallery exhibition a decidedly mixed bag. The artist thrives on pushing and stretching paint and imagery around as an elastic vocabulary. Yet, as admirable as this fearless big canvas experimentation is the results don’t always cohere.

The stunning central display of Cotton’s work from around 2006 to 2007 is the exhibition’s core. The artist had by then left the earthy-coloured land based ground he is most identified with and gone skyward into a new extraterrestrial realm. It feels like the kingdom of the dead. Emboldened by freedom, birds shot through with colour and twirling straw-like nests of line tumble and glide like high board divers alongside immense compacted rock faces. Mokomokai tattooed heads hover in space, changing state into pitted rock or dark constellations before your eyes. The work is imbued with traditional and contemporary Maori graphic signs, yet is entirely of its own space and time.

This exhibition surveys Cotton’s work from this point on, yet I’m not entirely convinced by the balance of work in curator Justin Paton’s selection. There are many lines of enquiry absent which are to be found in the impressive, more expansive accompanying book.

The West Gallery is devoted mainly to recent work that, in spite of its large size, is slighter in effect. Like a transposition of a digital art desktop into paint, the works are full of fiddly, playful pop art cuttings and pastings and block shape design treatments of imagery. Icons float as hieroglyphics here rather than fly or hover with energy. The major triptych The Haymaker Series feels far too much like a personal sifting exercise painted up large; a hip hop track dense with distorted samples and shout outs, with little resolved music as a sum of these parts for the viewer. Target works spin like familiar records, and painted baseball bats labeled ‘myth smashers’ and ‘head crushers’ are big on impact but don’t recreate anything anew.

This room suffers a staginess perhaps not so far apart from Crewdson’s. And yet ironically I then find my favourite work in the entire gallery is a quite different, recent black and white series by Crewdson of abandoned sets at Italy’s Cinecitta Studios, where Fellini made films. Here as in Cotton’s stronger work dimensionality and materiality are warping in strange ways, as if reality itself is unraveling before your eyes.

  • Must See

For the third year running Claire Harris is today watching the entire rather dubious filmography of Lindsay Lohan in one 27 hour patience-sapping sitting. The kick with this live performance artwork is that we watch Harris watching Lohan, cheering her on like some inversion of the 24 Hour Famine. Celebrity voyeurism, reality TV and pop consumerism are turned in on themselves.

Happy Birthday Lindsay Lohan, until 10:00pm, 3 July.

Written by

Mark Amery

3 Jul 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.