Shane Cotton

25 September – 28 October, Parlour Projects

It’s a coup for Parlour Projects, a relatively young provincial gallery, to run a show of new paintings by an artist of Shane Cotton’s standing. And it’s reassuring to know that for whatever reasons, commercial or an enthusiasm for continuing cultural discourse or (as in this case) both, people like Sophie Wallace are doing much to keep Hawke’s Bay’s art scene nationally visible.

Ironically, given the explorations and redresses of New Zealand’s colonial/cultural history that have preoccupied his work, Cotton seems to have entered that ‘imperial phase’ of his career where his comfortable command of his form, his brand, his language, owns its territory and runs itself.

Like Martin Poppelwell’s balance of studied insouciance and graphic command, Cotton’s new work retains flatness of surface and always, no matter how painterly the appearance of the mark, a graphic sense. Both artists practise the studied informal mark, light, flimsy, seemingly tossed off but undeniably the result of a perfectly poised visual intelligence. And of course this is highly attractive work, and Cotton has proved himself constitutionally incapable of making a graceless mark or putting it in the wrong place.

In New Heads, Cotton continues to work with a contentious source: Toi Moko, tattooed and preserved ‘shrunken’ Maori heads, the wanderings, trade, and recent repatriations of which have much to say of the mindset and processes of human histories.

Over the mute decal-like patches of the heads, Cotton has let the traditionally tightly coiled beast of ta moko off the leash and allowed it to run free in wayward curlicues like the tracks of some drunkenly assembled slot car set. In his earlier work, this wilful way with line was used as a mechanism with which to loosen a discreet image, to make it glitch.

And so it is here. Kind of.

Cotton’s previous Toi Moko works have often carried a potent uncanny charge. I put this down to their gritty documentary rendering, fossilized in widescreen black-mirror or sepia glooms, both horrifying and pitiable. But in these New Heads, decorative effect and, one feels, intent are what seem to really be determining the expressive potential of these pictures. Overall, the works owe much to Jean Michel Basquiat’s, urban/street/pop re-mix of indigenous forms from the 80s; hip primitivism lite. Cotton’s version is cooler, unruffled, less scuzzy or punk, an aesthete’s repurposing of mid-century modernist stylings to fashion a lightly deconstructed and impeccably deployed ornamentation.

The pleasure of this show lies in such things, and if you want to view expert compositions by a highly talented graphic practitioner, hurry to this show before it closes on October 28th . But with subject matter as rich, cosmically, culturally and politically, as Toi Moko, you wouldn’t want to be pulling your punches would you? Shane Cotton is undoubtedly a conceptually astute and imaginative narrative artist. In these works, you can see the jab coming towards you, but somehow you still feel safe.

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