Mark Cross, Rarotonga 2002
It is with some reluctance that I indulge in this introduction to seventeen years of work. I am told it is improper for artists to write about themselves and I ponder why. Is it because to be an artist you are only allowed one talent rather like the priest who must remain celibate or is it a twentieth century commercial proclivity that enforces the idea that the myth is more important than the reality? Well neither am I creatively celibate nor motivated by the desire to create a myth, both circumstances which may disappoint some.
There may also be a fear that the artist may expose the artifice that the Western art industry is dependant upon to self perpetuate its own survival in its current and out dated form. I have no need or desire to expose these less than ethical goings on as I only occasionally collaborate with these powers (as with this project). Preferring to maintain a degree of aloofness I sit smug and bemused on my rock knowing that art will transcend all politics. This has perhaps been detrimental to my exposure and thus income over the years but on the other hand a lack of wealth has been compensated by a very privileged and enriching freedom that has allowed for many creative projects outside the scope of the more familiar work for which this publication has been compiled.
The freedom that I mention has not gone without its periods of hardship due to the arduous, time consuming execution - but enjoyable outcome - of the paintings. But the greatest hardship has been to develop a tolerance to the endless misinterpretation of my work from all quarters, which invariably must glean a literal interpretation of these paintings. This is reflected for instance, in the idea that a painting utilising the New Zealand landscape must be “about” New Zealand or a painting employing one of my children or friends must be “about” Polynesia. Even the most intelligent in this vast but sparsely populated region within which I live, seem to lack knowledge of the word “metaphor”. There seems to be an infliction something like the opposite of what the neurologist calls agnosia, a condition whereby the patient recognises the abstract nature of an object and its intrinsic qualities, but cannot describe its form or even see the image. The trees obscure the forest. I am only an amateur neurologist and so from this pseudoscientific viewpoint most observers of my work I would venture, generally have in some way, undergone a thorough cognitive and perceptual lobotomy.
But Realism by its very definition is most often problematically subjective and it is the vague space between subjectivity and objectivity that I have been endeavouring to invade for the last two decades and in so doing dissolve the distinctions between the two.
So this survey has been designed to address these problems of misinterpretation, misrepresentation and mythologisation and though it is not meant to be an all encompassing and detailed analysis of my work of the last 17 years – no one can do that at this time - it no doubt will provide a key from inside the claustrophobic closet of parochialism through and into the world of the universal human entity or at least my view of it.
After a few years of producing rather traditional New Zealand and Pacific Island landscapes, while at the same time honing and perfecting my oil technique, I found myself with a young family in the mid 80’s in a period of nuclear proliferation and global paranoia. It made me acutely aware of a significantly greater purpose outside the need to merely define my existence within the context of the region that I lived; id est, the need to circumscribe some nebulous definition which in some mystical way would explain who I am. But it was, as I say, a time of social paranoia and the post-modern proclivity toward the dissolving of social and cultural boundaries was in full swing. Armed with my well developed technical and seemly unique realist style I pondered how this fitted into the milieu of the time and what its future significance might be and it occurred to me that, perhaps paradoxically, because of its pluralistic and democratic nature, if any contemporary painting style could break down cultural and social boundaries it was realism even more so than film and television which largely have to rely on language, thus becoming culturally restricted. If ideas could be gleaned from myriad human cultural sources from television to literature to philosophy to the arts and by experience with the world, it was possible that I could produce potent vignettes of the world that could speak about the simplest of human foibles and joys in a most complex way, deploying my own individual visual vocabulary. Although the paintings might never be fully understood (and I don’t pretend to fully understand them), it is hoped they could at least be appreciated as broad windows on the human condition when placed in any cultural or social context.
I mentioned the medium of film and it seems to me that there are parallels with cinematography and my painting. Some have suggested that the paintings are like a frame from a movie, but it would be more accurate to say that these are like whole movies within one freeze-frame. Just as the black and white photography draws its power from negation, that is to say colour, so too do my paintings in their negation of movement and time which do exist within the works like the amputee’s phantom limb, a sensation of something that doesn’t physically, or in my case, visually exist. This allusive element and not the works’ superficial subject is its omphalus, the painting’s peripheral but at the same time central essence and because of this a definitive reading of any painting is impossible and subject to time. But despite the impossibility of giving full meaning to the individual paintings, I have included with this collection, brief explanations for my reasons for embarking on each work. These are not intended as explanations as to the “meaning” of the paintings but rather are meant as insights into the catalysts that initiated them. Interestingly, in their roughly chronological presentation, they also lend an unexpected autobiographical quality to the paintings.
The creative process and the reason for painting each work are as varied as the paintings themselves. But they have been produced against the constant background of the questioning of the politics of Christian morality and more importantly its contemporary reincarnation, political correctness as one has evolved from the other. My concern with these social apparatus has been the contradiction between their actual purpose, that is a means to social improvement, and their actual ability to do the opposite of what is intended. In both manifestations these social doctrines have inevitably been corrupted so that what is often a good idea for social change becomes a controlling mechanism firstly by the church and currently by western bureaucracies and, a Maori friend dared recently to proffer, indigenous fat-cats. Like with some kind of electronic bracelet attached to our ankle that exerts an electric shock if we have a wrong thought, we wander through life with the nagging, socially inflicted question in the back of our minds “Have we offended?” This state of affairs sanitises creativity and drives bigots underground and therefore is contrary to the celebration of all aspects of human life for which these doctrines supposedly have been designed for.
This contempt for the social manipulation and distortion of political correctness has perhaps been made more acute by my thirty year association with Niue and its people. At the impressionable age of 22 I consciously put myself into the position of the cultural minority – the only European in a village of 160 Polynesians - and voluntarily inflicted upon myself a kind of counter-assimilation not for the purpose of some anthropological analysis, but as a need to understand my wife and the future of my children and indeed the culture and physical environment itself. In such a context, political correctness, by which I mean the western construct, becomes superfluous and to many non-European observers outside the cities, even an object of levity.
But while on the subject of Niue, it is important to stress the influence that my living there has had on the development of my work. Being so completely immersed and a part of the furniture as it were, it is difficult to fully gauge this influence, but there are several obvious things that stand out. In a small self-governing community it was difficult not to view that community as a microcosm of humanity and the island as an analogy of the earth. In my quest to define the human quirks that are the basis for the more complex issues that I was wanting to examine through my painting, existence in Niue provided for me a wonderfully simplified but at the same time complex paradigm of the world with its celebrations and its conflicts, its times of abundance and its times of hardship. It has been like having a microscope into the soul of humanity and ecosystem we call Earth. The other obvious and important influence on the painting has been Niue’s incredibly unique physical environment and in particular its eastern coastal strip which is a complex mixture of reefs, cliffs, chasms, arches, micro-deserts and rainforest. I have been able to use the elements of this landscape as metaphors and signifiers on the stage-sets of my paintings.
It was in Niue that I met the writer Brad Matsen who I asked to contribute to this publication. Brad’s writing and publishing background has been multi-faceted over the years with subjects such as the Alaskan fishing industry, the Amazon River, palaeontology, children’s books and several early novels. It has been because of, rather than in spite of only a peripheral association with art that I wanted Brad to put something down here as this was in line with the democratic nature of my work – if the work could be appreciated in any social context then a socially pluralistic writer such as Brad should be employed. Likewise, to employ a writer from the South Pacific would tend to invite regional subjectivity which would be counter productive to the purpose of this publication. Being a native of Seattle, Brad however does share a common border, the Pacific. My brief to Brad was to write his own creative piece only mentioning my work when it was relevant to the ideas that we have in common.
We live in a time when the reign of quantity has a vested interest in controlling our lives. “More and bigger” drive the world and there is no difference between high and low anymore. The avant-garde, like yacht racing, can only now be practiced by professional handout recipients and millionaire artists who are slaves to their own existences and not at all free. My art is born of a unique freedom, but at the same time is subject to a tight regime of self discipline. It does not pretend to answer questions and if anything creates more questions. But it is a visual and non-didactic language which just might be common to all, as it exists in this time of disintegrating boundaries.