Shane Cotton paintings examine the cultural landscape

Shane Cotton, New Work
Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland
Until July 31

In Witi Ihimaera’s “The Trowenna Sea” many of the Maori and Pakeha characters discuss the impact of the Treaty of Waitangi, their ambivalence about concepts of landownership and the notion of two cultures living in the one land.

It is something of this ambivalence about the land and the cultural landscpae of New Zealand which is also at the heart of Shane Cotton’s art.

In his paintings of the early 1990’s this was conveyed in a literal way with many images and symbols making it possible to read a simple narrative with an obvious enquiry into the nature of entwined Maori and Pakeha cultures.

In his more recent work he has developed a more refined symbolism which operates at a subtle and less direct level.

Rather than the creation of a visual narrative which relates to history and society these works convey a sense of the way landscape and objects are repositories of memory. These memories in turn develop into our individual and collective cultural landscapes.

In paintings such as “Forked Tongue”, which features a cliff face, a fantail, some Maori designs and a tracery of red lines these symbols or metaphors become starting points for an elaboration on the links between the physical, historical and spiritual landscapes.

In “Hum”, one of the central bat-like images can be variously read as an angel or phoenix, suggesting the idea of transformation and renewal. The other symbol in this work is the silhouette of a tree which is a potent image with references to the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge, the importance of the natural world or even Christ’s death. Co-incidentally in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” which has been touring the country the only prop that he specifies is a tree.

“Letters O/I” which combines faded maps and words is a statement about the ways in which mapping and naming is a record of ownership and control of land in traditional European culture whereas for Maori it was other factors which determined ownership.

All the works in the exhibition seem aged and fractured with an almost medieval feel to them. However, they also contain images which seem to provide hope with the images of natural images and lines which trace over these them suggesting links to the past and the future.

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