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July 15, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Shane Cotton, The Hanging Sky

City Gallery, June 15-October 6.


Wielding a reputation as a provocateur, Shane Cotton’s current exhibition, The Hanging Sky, leads the viewer unsteadily through a series of meditations on biculturalism, conflict, and the role of the indigenous object in art. At several points during his two-decade long career, Cotton has reinvented his work. In the 1990s, the artist earned attention for his studies of Māori folk art, taking symbols and motifs from a tradition of figurative painting in meeting-houses that emerged in the late-1800s. In the 2000s, he shed the earthy tones and ochre for large-scale skyscapes, while continuing to scrutinise a fraught history of cultural exchange between Europeans and Māori.

The paintings in the gallery foyer, however, were produced between 2007 and 2010, and these comparatively recent works are where Cotton’s voice is most pointed. The work is sparse and expansive, evoking the feeling of vertigo. Our attention is pointed upwards, in a series of large-scale skyscapes in a heavy blue, against which birds in sharp red are suspended in motion, almost colliding with jutting cliff faces. Compositionally, these works are cleaner than Cotton’s more recent offerings, benefiting from a clarity and immediacy that seems to have since been lost.

Around 2011, Cotton’s limited palette and economic composition is eschewed for a fuller spectrum. The result of this shift is a series of deliberately confusing works, less confronting than perplexing. There’s a disparate abundance of reference points, from Ralph Hotere to Ed Ruscha, at times so closely studied that it becomes difficult to determine where homage ends and the works become derivative.

Cotton’s necessity to progress as an artist appears to manifest itself in the repeated rejection of his past work. What has remained, however, is a limited number of visual motifs that reoccur frequently in his work. Unfortunately, this repetition doesn’t necessarily equate to cohesion. Cotton’s constant regeneration, his motivation to continually push his work forward, might be considered dynamism were it not so visibly earnest.

The strongest of these motifs is Cotton’s repeated depiction of Toi moko (preserved heads), many of which are based on photographs of Major-General Horatio Robley’s collection. These works are timely, as they are presented during a period of slow, but steady, repatriation of indigenous objects. The artist manages to subvert a long history of spectacle and Orientalism. Public institutions have, historically, served to remove these objects of their power. In dusty glass cabinets, the objects are more likely to demand a terror borne out of unfamiliarity than the reverence they held in their original context. Here, Cotton reclaims the figures. Suspended across two-by-two-metre canvases, the viewer is in an uneasy position in relation to the subject, they possess the ability to simultaneously compel and repel.

Another strength is Cotton’s use of language. Scenes from the book of Job recall McCahon, but only in as much as McCahon’s ubiquity makes him difficult to avoid. Cotton claims in an interview with the show’s curator that McCahon’s intent was for viewers to ‘read’ his paintings. In Cotton’s language English is superimposed over te reo, words collide with each other and fade into the background. McCahon’s biblical language was an attempt to endow New Zealand’s landscape with a heavenly quality. Cotton is aware of this, but seems to caution against reading the land from an exclusively Christian/Pākehā perspective.

For all that Cotton sheds in his constant reinvention of his work, he has remained ever-conscious of a tradition of appropriation and exploitation under the banner of paying tribute (see: Frizzell, Walters). Cotton acts as mediator between two cultures, informed by his Anglican upbringing and Maori ancestry. His work, though it strays into chaotic territory at times, remains important because it shakes any notion of complacency or certainty regarding New Zealand’s bicultural identity. It is a subject often avoided, for fear of causing a stir when Pakeha ways of seeing are questioned, but Cotton refuses to let us dismiss it.

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