Mark Cross
Mark Cross - Contemporary Realist Artwork



Get on the Damn Plane

Review by Jason Brown, Cook Island News, November 24, 2003

Mark Cross: “Get on the damn plane” Importer Brett Porter is the unsung hero of the country’s latest exhibition - by Niue-based artist Mark Cross. “Brett Porter told me - get on the damn plane,” says Cross at the opening of his exhibition last Friday night at the Beachcomber Gallery, three years after he first arrived on a flight from Niue. “I had no choice,” he says about the time back in 2000. “I was destitute. To be honest, my career changed at that point and although we disagreed on how to do that Brett consistently supported my work. He is the unsung hero of this exhibition.” Invited guests applauded Porter and the comments after short speeches by Cross, co-exhibitor Mahiriki Tangaroa and gallery owner Ben Bergman. Cross did not mention how he came to be destitute or the fact that it followed a family tragedy, a time when he produced some of his most compelling and powerful works. Shrouds, endless fields of bones and meticulously observed misery were part of a creative miasma for Cross during the late nineties; the loss of a child grieved, stroke by minute stroke. Today’s “Exiles in Paradise” is a far sunnier affair. Titles of his paintings move on from the gruff, bluff wit of earlier works like “Global Enema” to rhymey fun like “Peach Beach.” Many comment on the precise technique Cross employs. “Is that a painting?” asked one woman, seeing his work for the first time on the internet. “I thought it was a photo.” In real life, however, the magic in Cross’ work is not its realism but its romance. Niue and its other- worldly backdrop of makatea or raised coral cliffs are captured in an increasingly impressionistic manner. Maybe he got tired of being so precise. But his famously delicious water scenes are becoming more liquid too, photography fading to paint as soon as you lift your head above sea level. A standout from the exhibition is “Cave Swimmer” featuring a Niue lass, with the pale skin of a returnee, also fresh out of the water, in a coral coastal cave, senses made leaf sharp by coolness on skin and a dawning awareness of homeland heritage. Legs dangle dazedly in water you want to jump into yourself. “It could have been better,” says Cross grudgingly. He’s not being shy. A couple of younger colleagues also critique the piece. The face is not right. It doesn’t sit well on the body. Not, they seem to suggest, photo-perfect enough. Looking for photos, however, is to miss the point. Even if it were, everyone has seen photos of themselves or others when, for a split of a second, people look nothing like the Hollywood poster they imagine. Cross is crispest here, as he paints himself into this thinnest of slivers between imagination and reality.

It’s possibly a reflection, too, of how Cross must have felt back in 2000. Ordered by Porter onto an Air Rarotonga technical flight, the first by the airline to Niue, it’s tempting to cast Cross in the role of awed cargo cultist, strange saviours swooping from above messages of hope and delivery. Unlike his fellow aspirants westwards, however, Cross’ cargo man not only came back, he even took him with him. Cross gratefully name checks other supporters, including Don Dorrell. Back in 1979, Dorrell paid Niue a visit and brought back a Cross painting. Last Friday, the exhibition featured another work bought by Dorrell which, says Cross, is exactly the same dimensions as the first one. Justice David Williams from New Zealand, similarly faded in and out and back into the Cross career. They met in that country during the eighties, lost contact, and renewed it when Justice Williams was appointed to the courts here around the same time as Cross was getting on that damn plane. “He paid for a new work for the new court house, with the help of the lawyers here,” says Cross. “I believe,” he adds, not glancing at Williams, “it was not voluntarily done. It was his directive.” Exposing abuse of power within the judiciary is a new direction for Cross but one he is enthusiastic about, especially when future purchases will go towards local artists. “Avana Foreshore” is marine landscapism of the highest order, the coral rubble of the lagoon captured forever in chill, clear winter light. More nubile, but no less sensuous, is “Raui: Coastal Convalescence” from the Jack Cooper collection. It marks out another new direction in Cross’ romantic realism: ethereal lustiness. A simply gorgeous half-nude girl in a wet pareu on a beach, senses centred on the wet smell of sand in her nostrils and the gentlest tug at her hair. In person, Cross is as far as from the art-posturing that so often hobbles the industry as they come. His humbly diffident manner, when sober, dissolves delightfully into raucously reprobatory behaviour after a few glasses. Well, more than a few. Anyway, those qualities are ones he shares with Tangaroa, even if she doesn’t need the same quantities to get there. In her speech, she talks briefly and entirely about Cross and guilelessly says nothing about her works, except by inference. “When we exhibited together in Auckland last year, he brought together people from all levels of society.” Tangaroa is a senior student of the school of Pacific motifery, if not one of its best lecturers. Some locals fault her for having the same style but, again, the criticism misses the mark, on at least two counts. Yes, a lazy glance will reap pretty much the same impression as any of dozens of other examples by her. Her style sells; a strength, surely, not a weakness. Like Cross, however, Tangaroa revels in sly painterly wit. Turning the earnest Pacific motif format on its head, her paintings feature increasingly emotive dogs. “Her dogs are getting really beautiful,” jokes one viewer on Friday. Yes, they are. Almost solid black, the dogs have even started dreaming, and speaking, little cartoon bubbles of speech capturing slices of island life. Some of the commentary is breathily glib, sure to find quick homage on the walls of trendy lefties anywhere. Others, however, can stop even the most jaded of island old-hands in their tracks, if you stop long enough to read them. Word. By word. Again, like Cross, the effect can tingle the hairs on the back of your neck, as can any good writer. After a few years reporting with browns, blacks and greys, in her own expose of a kind of anti-paradise, Tangaroa is sneaking peeks of colour into her scalpel-built, paint-based montages. Yellows, at first, reds and now crimson pinks, glimpses in a stormy sunset. The trick is not in critiquing her style, you’d run out of things to say after the first viewing, but in the changes she introduces with each show, waves from over the reef, lapping, sometimes pounding, ashore. Leaving multitudes of mixed metaphors aside, Tangaroa is sure to have a few unsung heroes in her as well, but that’s for future exhibitions. As well as unofficial sponsors, completing the night of appreciation, Bergman thanks the official sponsors - Budget, CITC, Montana Wines, Development Investment Board, Air New Zealand, Pacific Resort and ANZ Bank - and, thus, another night of Cook Islands art takes flight. Get on the damn plane, indeed. — Jason Brown for Cook Islands News