20th February – 4th April 2015
Anna Schwartz Gallery Carriageworks
In Oblique Narratives, Shane Cotton presents works on canvas and paper, and mural-scale works painted directly onto the surface of the gallery walls. Tracking through several strands of new painting are known and unknown figures: certain motifs that are familiar from Cotton’s oeuvre, alongside images, colours and gestures that are newly introduced. It is a mark of Cotton’s project as an artist that the visual language of his works constantly expands in unexpected ways at the same time that previous developments are re ned and become touchstones. Meaning is constantly sought anew from the
same images, through a process of looking and reading again from different angles; while new images contribute points from which to re-read both existing and imagined worlds. His process upholds the same outward push, and the same inward reflection, as do the very works themselves.
Encountering Cotton’s paintings, contrast is often a primary mode of reading. There often appears
a problem of disparate spaces, of wilfully mismatched forms of painting, of bold words and elusive meaning. In Oblique Narratives especially, the commonplace and the special, spiritual or sacred share a non-hierarchical plane. Silhouettes of lemon trees, those ubiquitous markers of home and domesticity, occupy the same space as mokomokai, preserved tattooed Maori heads. In the dim space of the picture plane, the plants’ presence speaks of regular care, a gentle and common but required practice to enable growth. The mokomokai, however, are perhaps more static objects whose change is now limited to the possible change in their ongoing provenance. Such contrasts are deployed that they might produce fresh connections: oblique narratives, rather than the narratives that are known or expected to emerge from such symbols. The story that emerges from the contrast may be fractured, perhaps presently incoherent – though Cotton’s pictorial resolution of such incoherence is purposeful and balanced – leaving open a path forward.
But Cotton’s interest in the mokomokai is not limited to the contentious nature of their existence outside Aotearoa New Zealand, as objects traded by nineteenth-century Europeans. Indeed, Cotton makes no moral judgement of the predicament of the toanga when he paints them. In Cotton’s oeuvre, the heads are not simply images of those very real objects; rather they have become images about the representation of that story, and further, a figure isolated within Cotton’s own practice, to work with and from. Working again and again with this motif allows the artist to let the mokomokai give over a new story, written in the paint. In this sense, they are more akin to the domestic plants that appear in the same body of work, requiring a certain attention to develop at their own pace.
The incursion of at rectangular forms into the deeply pictoral sky-scapes of these works does not stop reverentially around the mokomokai. In fact each of the heads’ eyes are obscured by blocks of solid form. But this blindedness is not an act of violence or censorship, rather a kind of freedom: sightless, one is better able to think, to imagine without the crutch and distraction of the visible world. The blank abstract space that intersects with the face suggests an aperture from the mind into pure possibility.