Artist Shane Cotton explores a restless variety of new formats

By T.J.McNamara

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Dirt Cache, by Shane Cotton, shows the continual flux of his thinking in making images relevant to the uniqueness of our culture.
Dirt Cache, by Shane Cotton, shows the continual flux of his thinking in making images relevant to the uniqueness of our culture.

What: Dirt Cache by Shane Cotton
Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to 22 October
TJ says: Thoughtful work in a variety of effective forms in broad styles as well as fine detail all relating to Maori history and present concerns.

Looking at a painting should one stand well back and take it all in or do you come close to take in the detail? Of course you do both. The need for this move is particularly acute in looking at the work of Shane Cotton at the Michael Lett Gallery.

He has long been considered one of our strongest and most profound artists. Throughout his career he has used a unique set of motifs to convey his sense of Maori spirit and history and his attitude to the land.

Profiles of hills that have particular significance and decorated pots of earth that suggest areas of land - sometimes with plants growing in them as images of possession - have recurred in many different compositions during his career.

Other images include dried heads to symbolise many aspects of the Maori past and strong profile heads to refer to the present. Birds have also played a prominent part alongside gestural passages of paint in an expressionist manner to convey a variety of emotions.

All of these things occur in his current exhibition, but in a restless variety of new formats of expression some of which show a concern for seeking new means of expression. The slender profiles of hills and mountains, markers of heritage for Maori, are found in large numbers in some of the paintings. Only close scrutiny reveals how exactly and delicately they are drawn. Though small, they capture the ruggedness and strength of the hills with every profile a characterisation.

A large painting, Dirt Cache, which gives its name to the show, arranges the profiles around and on top of a dozen or more jars. Some of the vessels are classical in shape; others are simple and strong pots, but each one has a different pattern of decoration. They suggest the division of land among tribes or peoples.

Much less conventional are some paintings done directly on the wall. One, Rectangular Pot Plant, shows a pattern of branches rising from a geometric pot and growing awry under the stress of unseen wind. Another is a tall plain pillar with a right angle turn at the top. At the lower end is a profile head facing down while at the top a similar head faces outward. The whole is a pillar of time linking the long past to the brief present.

Throughout this complex and, at times, difficult show geometrical shapes represent the present even with boxes on which stand the artist's well-known images of ancestral heads. Three large paintings featuring a diamond shape indicate what is included in the now and what has been left in the past.

The idioms of Shane Cotton are uniquely inventive and show the continual flux of his thinking in making images relevant to the uniqueness of our culture.

Rongo by Penny Howard
Rongo by Penny Howard

What: Karakia Precari by Penny Howard
Where and when: Whitespace Gallery, 12 Crummer Road, Ponsonby, to October 8
TJ says: Skilfully drawn and exactly painted images of considerable force based on the interaction of Maori and the Catholic Church.

In her very exactly drawn cross-shaped paintings at Whitespace Gallery,
Penny Howard also examines the interaction between Maori and European culture, but more explicitly than Shane Cotton because it refers to the influence of Catholicism in the North.

There is a link with her three x great-grandmother, the first Maori woman to be baptised Catholic who then left the faith because the Church did not support her practice of Maori spiritual healing rituals.

The paintings are done on a symmetrical black cross. Sacred Vessel shows a waterfall emerging from darkness while on one arm of the cross, an elaborate chalice is poised ready for the celebration of Mass. In the background, here as elsewhere, are patterns of European lace. Other works have blessing hands, a splendid sunrise and birds, tui and kingfisher all linked by a narrow line of red

The chalice and other objects that appear in the paintings - the head of a taiaha, a swinging censer of burning incense or a portentous dog appearing as in dream - are painted with the same exact draughtsmanship.

The pencil drawings that accompany the show are done with the same exact skill. A notable example is a fine image of a putatara, a conch shell trumpet. They add to a show of considerable precision, thought and historical understanding.

Fugue by Julian Hooper
Fugue by Julian Hooper

What: Fugue by Julian Hooper
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 2/312 Karangahape Rd, to October 15
TJ says: A lively, inventive show of a large number of small paintings all engagingly demonstrating the possibilities of painterly effect from moody surrealism to abstract design.

Julian Hooper is a painter with a fine talent who has sought many different painterly outcomes from his early Pacific landscapes to vivid expression of his ancestral past in work based on the bright uniforms of Magyar horsemen.

His present exhibition is more subdued in colour, but all the works show control over painterly effect. Each small painting is an individual display of a virtuoso solving of a problem of representation.

They are very clever and their originality and spontaneity is reflected in the variety of effects. Some paintings have an optical effect with a realistic door that is both open and shut simultaneously. In contrast is Accord, where three abstract forces press to give rise to tapering form. A loop line is just enough to create a head and proud eyes in Future King.

Each work in this copious display demands attention right up to the solid blocks of colour that give weight to the characterisation of Trucker in the last room.

- NZ Herald

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