Shane Cotton

Mori Gallery

Shane Cotton’s paintings replay the perpetual collision between Maori and Pakeha (white) cultures. A New Zealander who aggressively asserts his Maori ancestry, Cotton creates wild, at times biblical images in which the signs—icons, words, maps, and numbers—of indigenous and immigrant cultures coexist, dominate, and interact, as each is forced to adapt in order to survive.

Criss-crossed with diagrams and notations, Cotton’s pictures resemble worn road maps of a border zone that is clearly difficult to negotiate. They include overlays and borders in which innumerable collisions take place, typically between land and language. Often, two or more navigating systems are managed at once. Since the paintings grapple with a history (the interaction between Maoris and white settlers) that is complex, violent, exotic, and tragic, it’s no wonder these pictures are weirdly comical—at once hyperactive and dark. At the same time, because they eschew self-righteousness, they manage to approach genuine grandeur. Cotton’s Maori images refuse to valorize isolation or purity. They draw on mid-nineteenth-century “naive” figurative painting by Maori artists (a manifestation of cultural resistance viewed by some as tourist art), and on the work of the great New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, who, during the 1950s, developed an immensely powerful visual language based on painted words. In his “Square Style” series, Cotton places a particular style of tiki (carved Maori figure) at the center of his cosmology. The layered horizontality of Middle North, 1997, echoes traditional rafter patterns in Maori meeting houses. The tiki figures are set amidst labyrinthine traceries of lines and landscapes formed of words and symbols—including Christian crosses, geometric solids, silhouetted figures, a diagram of the sun, and the afterimages of Maori folk painting. These forms are emblazoned across sepia, earth-red, and viridian bands. Middle North is an anecdotal painting, discursive and stratified. Its schematized views, populated by teetering structures of lines, split levels, boxes, and frames within frames, resemble a panoramic patchwork quilt. The views—of fires left burning, mountains observed from a great distance (like early topographical drawings of the New Zealand coastline)—refer to the way Maori territory was divided by European land claims, as well as by the English language.

In many of these works, Cotton paints European time itself, flickering away in the form of LED numbers, counterpoising it against the cyclical labyrinths of mythological time. At times he sets numbers on hillsides like Easter Island heads. He has remarked, “The numbers do not sit comfortably on the mountain, they are perched precariously; on the point of toppling over. They act as signposts to acts committed in ignorance of the mountain’s significance.” The crucifixes, too, are signposts: they point to cultural crossovers, the crosses Cotton himself bears, and his own hyphenated identity as both Maori and Pakeha. From work to work, some images are more legible than others, like cells from a complex animated film. In Kana e rawene: te manu (Don’t touch the bird, 1997), the patterned silhouette of a tiki is both superimposed onto and bled out into an atmospheric field of lines, painted words, and diagrams that pantomime Jenny Holzer’s LED “Truisms,” Bridget Riley’s Op art patterns, Haim Steinbach’s lava lamps, and Tatsuo Miyajima’s time pieces.

The appearance of two cultures in the same work of art is often read as a metaphoric meeting between them; here, however, the incorporation of Western representational systems means something else. In assimilating international contemporary art into Maori culture, Cotton deliberately inverts primitivism and Occidentalism. The 1865 Native Land Act forced Maori people to document their land titles in writing, catastrophically fragmenting the oral transmission of culture. Cotton’s mourning for the loss of sound is very evident in these works: his pictures are essentially cinematic, but they are like silent cinema. Images of conflict, they are compressed onto the eternal return of a two-dimensional surface.

Charles Green