Head #!?$ 2009 – 2012, acrylic on linen
The Hanging Sky is a survey exhibition of the work of one of the country’s most critically acclaimed artists. It is currently showing at the City Gallery Wellington having already been seen in Christchurch and Melbourne. The exhibition occupies all four galleries on the ground floor of the City Gallery.
Shane Cotton is a prolific painter who has concentrated on the careful exploration of particular personal modes of expression. His work is immediately identifiable even when he moves towards new subject matter. The Hanging Sky gives a thorough airing of a range of themes. These paintings present motifs or pictograms and text framed within environments of plain black, dark skies, or target-like designs almost all becoming collage-like formulation. The exhibition has playful elements at the same time as presenting a dark and sombre, almost gothic, mood.
This clash of playfulness and the sinister is clearly articulated in the set of highly decorated colourful baseball bats hanging as though ready for aggressive use in an armoury. The same sort of dramatic juxtaposition occurs with the use of a target as frame for the various motifs in Head!#?$. In this large painting many of his references are presented at once – the familiar bird, toi moko, two targets, a skull, moon against a sombre night sky, a wooden carving, script, a laser dot and geometric shapes. All this is framed within the contrasts of a square and circles with a flat black background and vibrant, almost luminous, colour within the target disc.
In spite of its incomprehensible complexity this was the painting that appealed to me the most. It is undoubtedly beautiful but also perplexing in its compositional overabundance. Each design element is counterbalanced by another. My enjoyment of Head!#?$ was, however, not compromised by any inclination to attach meaning to the association of pictograms. The Haymaker series in the adjacent room operated for me in much the same way and incorporated a huge array of appealing pictorial motifs from chains to pot plants as well as the familiar birds, skulls and colour.
Now There is representative of a large group of skyscape paintings that left me confused but without the pleasant enjoyment I felt in the severity of Cotton’s more graphic works. Other commentators have referred to Cotton turning his attention skyward – hence the title of the exhibition. For me the reference to the dark and sombre sky had very little resonance as a stimulating idea. The repetition of the idea did not evoke the science fiction, haunting, the spectral or religious that has been spoken of by others. This was in spite of Cotton’s determined attempt to do so through the patently enigmatic script and elaborate font that is superimposed on the cloudscapes.
I suspect these paintings are intended to elicit a particular response. They appear to be purposeful, and the fact that they comprise a series, covering similar territory, tends to confirm this. The attempt to say, or do, too much in large paintings can slide into the cliché of obscurity. When this happens the work becomes accessible to so many readings it ceases to make any sense or retain any form.
Cotton’s terse style of using paint seems more in keeping with concise and clear statements and when he does this he does it very well. Good examples of his restraint and direct simplicity are provided by the series painted at Artspace in Sydney where his motifs and pictograms are ‘carved out of stone’ and placed on a clean white background. Good ideas are best presented neither shaken nor stirred.