It's just over a decade since Shane Cotton first unveiled his paintings drawing on late 19th century Maori Folk Art. As the country struggled through biculturalism's fine print in the 1990s, Cotton's work tapped the Zeitgeist, paving the way for him to become one of our most celebrated artists.
Maori Folk Art was a product of a period of cultural upheaval. After the Land Wars, Maori society was in strife, reduced and ravaged through conflict and disease. However the new East Coast meeting houses associated with Te Kooti, the rebel chief and founder of the Ringatu religion, were decorated with idyllic paintings. Their folksy imagery and bright colours reflected Pakeha influence. There were flowers and potted plants, flags, ships and trains, kings and queens, and naturalistic variants of traditionally abstract kowhaiwhai patterns. Though the new art found Maori assimilating signs and manners from European culture, it was also freighted with resistance; appropriated images being recoded with Maori concerns.
Fusing diverse images into symbolically loaded, mnemonic, heraldic forms, Cotton's first folk art paintings seemed to make some analogy between the upheavals of the late 19th century and now. Maori images (mere, wooden fishhooks, the crosses and stars of Maori war flags, and palisades) were accompanied by the paraphernalia of imperial rule (coastal profiles, surveyors' pegs, scrolls, numerals, copperplate script and flagstaffs). Some of Cotton's images were lifted directly (like Te Kooti's potted plants, symbolising care and ownership of land), others he invented (a pincushion representing the land, pierced by the standards of occupation like Victorian hatpins). Like his precursors, Cotton worked in references from his own time - basketballs, L.E.D.s, cowboy boots.
Cotton's work was deeply ambiguous. It was hard to know precisely how to read the images. For instance, did his Dali soft watches symbolise European values imposed upon the land or Maori cyclic time? His sepia-toned instant-history palette was equally curious. It suggested both European Old Masters and the ochres used in traditional Maori art, but it was the complete antithesis of Maori Folk Art's technicolour exuberance. When Cotton laced in tell-tale nods to overseas contemporary "appropriation" artists including Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach and Imants Tillers, was he suggesting an affinity between hip postmodernist image-scavenging and Maori Folk Art? As controversy was raging around Pakeha artists appropriating Maori imagery, Cotton's "reverse appropriations" certainly complicated the terms of that debate, even as they protested the historical alienation of Maori Land.
Through the 1990s Cotton's research took him deeper, his work becoming more erudite and complex. He started researching his Ngapuhi tribal background. Ngapuhi houses have almost no decoration. Their art tradition was suppressed by colonial missionaries who considered it hedonistic and pagan, and certain images even satanic. In 1996 Cotton started a new body of work partly motivated by the thought of redecorating those bare Northern meeting houses. The works replayed the conflict between Maoritanga and Christianity as a battle between sign systems. Cotton mixed historic Ngapuhi and Christian imagery, Maori translations of Genesis and medallion-like gang patches with gothic text. Some juxtapositions suggested secret affinities, others out-and-out hostility, creating an image of cultural contact as a dialectic of collision and collusion. Although Cotton's earlier works were tender and promoted care, these works, with their pitch black grounds, ominous compositions, and gang associations, aligned their beauty more with darkness and violence.
Throughout the 1990s Cotton's imagery became more weightless, the early grounded folk art look giving way to the suggestion of a computer desktop interface, whose icons were merely the visible tips of icebergs of latent content. A sense of latency is crucial to Cotton's cultural surrealism, his contrived meetings between Maori and European imagery operating like the surrealists' "chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table". Of course, his surrealism is not about a personal psycho-sexual unconscious, but a collective cultural one; unfinished business. Rather than ascribe specific narratives to his paintings, critics have argued that we should give ourselves over to the sense of cultural uncanny they generate.
Curated by Lara Strongman, Shane Cotton Survey 1993–2003 at Wellington's City Gallery, was one of the highlights of last year's art season. It has now been reconstituted for the Auckland Art Gallery. While the show covered off familiar and already somewhat digested phases of Cotton's oeuvre, it also made room for a massive suite of new paintings as surprising and compelling as anything Cotton has done. Painted in a Pop hard-edged style, the diptychs are dominated by new images - targets with native birds, and moko mokai (preserved tattooed Maori heads), their silhouettes filled in with fashionable camouflage and rainbow patterns. The old pictorial architecture is almost entirely gone; images float in inky black voids and occasionally in airbrushed cosmic atmospheres. The relationship between the images seems utterly provisional, like they are game tokens or moveable pieces in a puzzle. These new works seem especially bold given the current anxiety around the status of moko mokai. Maori originally traded the heads with Pakeha, who took them as grotesque colonial trophies. But today they are being aggressively repatriated and respectfully removed from museum displays. Playing with such contentious and tapu material, Cotton is moving into an ethically unmapped zone. These new works have been fired out from the studio provocatively like cultural depth charges. One thing they make clear is that Cotton's work is not an illustration of bicultural politics, but something far more speculative: an experiment in cultural thinking played out though the rhetorics of painting, its conceits and contingencies.
The exhibition is accompanied by a monograph published by Victoria University Press and City Gallery, Wellington, and a smaller supplementary publication written by Robert Leonard, the first in a series of occasional publication supported by Ernst and Young.
- Main Gallery, upper level
- $5 – $7