New Zealand Light is a group exhibition which celebrates five of New Zealand's most significant modern artists, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Ralph Hotere, Shane Cotton, and Peter Robinson. The common thread that runs through their respective practices is their masterful ability to convey reflections of light within a largely monochromatic palette. Shadows rise to the surface or fall back between layers of foreground and background, their shifting nature reflecting equally tumultuous periods of political and social upheaval in New Zealand’s cultural history.
Widely recognised as New Zealand’s foremost painter, the late Colin McCahon (1919-1987) is credited with introducing Modernism to New Zealand art in the early twentieth-century. While McCahon worked primarily with New Zealand landscapes, his work consistently embodied a social commentary that we can see through his Jump Series. After spending a considerable amount of time at Muriwai beach, west of Auckland in the early 1970s, McCahon became enamoured with the surrounding landscape and the creatures that inhabited the area; particularly the young gannets as he witnessed their first attempts at flying. The ‘Jump’ therefore encapsulates the ‘Fly or Die’ ultimatum these young birds face as they first launch off the cliff, putting their new wings to the test. In a larger sense, it is McCahon urging people to do the same - to surrender one’s necessary protection by exposing oneself completely to the elements. It is an encouragement, but also an imperative to ‘JUMP’, to take a chance and step over the edge of your comfort zone. To offer yourself completely to the world and learn what it has in store for you. While the Jump series were painted in larger scale formats, these three miniature Jumps are part of a more personal body of work that McCahon often gifted to friends.
Gordon Walters (1919–1995) is an icon of New Zealand modern abstract painting with his distinct use of the koru. Pared back to its simplest form, the koru represents a New Zealand silver fern frond – a symbol of strength, peace and growth. Walter’s use of the koru is instantly recognisable within the canon of New Zealand art and is often presented with the contrasting colours of black and white. Among shifting perspectives on the appropriation of cultural imagery, his use of the koru has been highly debated, vigorously attacked and rigorously defended since the 1950s. Despite or even because of this, his life and work have become ingrained in New Zealand’s art history. Untitled (1994) is a prime example of abstract, yet strongly iconographic painting in its most elegant and effective form. By simplifying the colour palette to monochrome tones, Walters eliminates distraction and enhances the form of the work above all else.
Ralph Hotere (1931-2013), much like McCahon and Walters, has cemented his place in challenging the boundaries of traditional art making in New Zealand and constructing his own parameters as a result. Hotere is remembered for utilising a variety of materials as supports, such as corrugated iron, polished stainless steel and wooden window frames. Likewise, he did not restrict himself to one medium; rather, working and experimenting within a diverse range of disciplines including painting, printmaking and sculpture. Hotere has carved a well-earned place in New Zealand’s art history by ultimately altering viewer’s expectations of what an artwork should be. Whether through contemplative geometric abstractions that serve as minimalist musings, or more expressionist works, Hotere was in constant communication with the personal, environmental and political concerns of New Zealanders during the 1960s to the late 1990s.
Shane Cotton (b. 1964) graduated from Ilam School of Fine Arts, Christchurch, in 1988 and quickly grew to be a prominent player in the New Zealand art landscape. His works are rife with New Zealand history and Maori mythology, and he often calls on both his Maori and European ancestry to enhance his understanding of New Zealand’s shared, fraught history. Many of Cotton’s works employ a minimal colour palette with his earlier work being largely dominated by sepia tones, later shifting to heavy use of black. These works with saturated, inky undertones pay homage to Ralph Hotere’s black paintings from the 1960s and 70s, and of them comes the triptych, Rangi (1998). Drawing upon the Maori legend of Rangi (the sky father), Cotton constructs a compositional layering much like a meeting house. Heke (the rafter beams) connects ‘Rangi’ above to ‘Tini’ (the many, the multitude) below. Amongst other intricate symbols, the stark white words seem to rise from the black ground to float on the surface. Like eyes adjusting to a dark room, the work slowly reveals itself as having many layers of hidden depth to its black space.