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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Mark Curtis’s new paintings at the Tamarillo Gallery

Hamilton visual artist Mark Curtis is displaying his new paintings at the Tamarillo Gallery from 28 March, in an exhibition titled Hotel Suite.

Curtis uses glitter on canvas in his work, which one might associate with child art or primary school. He has been compared to another contemporary New Zealand artist, Reuben Paterson, who uses glitter on aluminum. However, it is the intent that creates divergence. Where Paterson seeks to convey the themes of reuniting with distant family, death and love, Curtis seeks to explore sexual identity in this new work: Curtis’ use of glitter intentionally plays on the material’s symbolic association with the queer community.

One work of Curtis’ is a further representation of an image that appeared in Telecom Prospect 2004 at the Adam Art gallery titled ‘Ultra Glister’, a carpet made entirely of glitter. Placed in the front window of the Tamarillo Gallery and for a limited time (wind permitting) outside the gallery window, this piece suggests a continuation of the gold and blue carpet from interior through to exterior. On one level, the carpet is a complex patterned work alluding to Tibetan sand Mandela painting with stencils. On another, the work hints at the continuation of ‘coming out‘, acknowledging how far New Zealand has come and perhaps how far it may need to go, as the ‘out’ is subject to conditions that are more fragile and need protecting.

Another work featured in Hotel Suite is a painting that portrays two Polynesian male figures standing next to each other wearing nothing but glitter underwear, reminding one of a parade (perhaps the costumes worn at the Hero Parade). A celebratory work where the figures portrayed are the ideal male figures, muscular and well proportioned.

Such images contemplate just how far New Zealand has come since the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986. One needs to perhaps steer oneself in the direction of other homosexual artists who exist in the new environment such as the Wellington photographer Mark Behree, creator of Men Alone – Men Together, a series of portraits and interviews with gay men, who are now free to explore themes in a more open environment. I also think of two City Gallery exhibitions of overt American homosexual artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, which aided with our local art scene’s coming out.

One can also journey back to the 1970s when photographer Fiona Clark was at the conception of the homosexual liberation movement in New Zealand. Her documentary colour photographs were basically vilified as she sought to portray the socially marginalized. Until recently this had a negative impact on her career compared to flourishing contemporaries Anne Noble and Peter Peryer.

Homosexual artists who existed prior to this would have included the expatriate painter Felix Kelly (1914-94) known as ‘Fix’ whose images would have been difficult to accept in the 1950s New Zealand environment, but managed to exhibit in England with the likes of Francis Bacon. Kelly’s life is only now being portrayed through a book by Dr Don Bassett titled Fix: The Art and Life of Felix Kelly.

The bisexual artist Frances Hodgkins is another artist of that time who explored sexuality and sought to challenge the conventional female role of marriage, homemaker and producer of babies. Two self portraits: ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life’ (ca 1935) and ‘Still Life: Self-Portrait’ (ca 1933) seek to do this.

Curtis’ work seeks to operate within this framework and tradition and in this he is a thinking artist whose images at times may appear ‘in your face’, but whose ideas can at times appear quite subtle and contemplative. The exhibition runs until 18 April.

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