Seventeen Years Of Painting
Mark Cross is one of a select band of New Zealand painters whose works depict the landscape in a meticulous style and yet are not about the landscape – at least, not in the illustrative manner of traditional landscape painting. In examining this disassociation from the scenic view, it is useful to consider the role of the figure in Cross’s work, and, briefly, the absence of the figure in the work of Graham Sydney, Brent Wong, Peter Siddell and George Baloghy (other members of the select band).
In a typical work of Sydney, the land is inhabited but the people are currently elsewhere. One has the feeling that they do not return often, or stay long once they do. Wong’s people have been removed long ago by some strange alien force, possibly never to return. In a Siddell cityscape one feels that there have never been any people. The habitations and roads are there, but no signs of real life; no cars, litter, signboards, power lines, dogs or toys on the lawn. It is all like a colossal, deserted film set. With Baloghy, the artist acts as a photographer, waiting around (or getting up early) to capture those rare moments when there is no one in the frame.
By contrast, there have always been people in Cross’s paintings. If not actually there, their markings are recent – we know that they will pass that way again soon. And yet the people who are in the paintings have a curious weightlessness; they are in but not of the landscape. Either they are transfixed and undecided, or they are portrayed as on the move – yet frozen, arrested literally in mid-stride.
Two early works illustrate these critical starting points. In Cul-de-Sac (1989), a rare self-portrait, the artist is seen from a somewhat elevated viewpoint, looking up at the observer. He has arrived at the end of a tenuous path through weed-covered estuarine flats, and seems to be asking the viewer ‘What now?’ This slightly confrontational approach can be found in many other paintings such as Conquest of Optimism (1985) and Gift (1992).
Works in the second category, that of arrested movement, include Grassland Muster of 1990. Here we see a large group of smart, active people in jogging gear in a stony, sparsely grassed, undulating landscape. Some of them are actively pressing forward, but others are aimless, unsure, followers rather than leaders. In this one image we may see the whole human condition. Some strive, some just live. The memorable line from The Rocky Horror Show comes to mind: ‘Lost in time and lost in space – and meaning’.
Cross is insistent that his figures are archetypes. Physically, his models are drawn from the Anglo-Saxon / Polynesian / Asian mix found in our area of the globe, but this has no special significance for the artist. It is his hope that, by the inclusion of figures, his paintings can transcend their physical settings and speak to all peoples.
Moving on from these starting points, one can consider the actual landscapes in Cross’s work. Like every other magic realist, Cross’s technical approach is obsessive and meticulous. Every stone, stick, blade of grass, leaf, sand track, water ripple and coral formation is given equal weight and attention. There are no broad, gestural sweeps of the brush here. The accumulation of detail is oppressive, often pressing in on and stifling the figures. This is the source of Cross’s distinctive atmospherics – light that sears, darkness that looms, space that is expansive and yet tightly confining.
The artist is sensitive to parochial, literal, regional readings of his work. He sees the landscapes as settings for personal (his and the viewers’) musings on that same human condition. He has said that ‘a definitive reading of any painting is impossible and subject to time’. Indeed, he confesses to not fully understanding what the paintings are about. Nevertheless, there are two identifiable locations in his oeuvre. In the earlier paintings it is the Tapora Peninsula in the Kaipara Harbour, an area Cross has been associated with since early childhood. This is a flat space, where the difference between land and sea can be measured in feet and inches. Erosion takes a little land here, accretion adds a little there. The landscape becomes a metaphor for life.
Far more dramatic, if no more grand, is the strange uplifted coral reef called Niue Island. The artist, married to a Niuean, has spent much time over the last 25 years there, and a more permanent move seven years ago triggered a change to a more theatrical appearance to his paintings. A landscape which was once under the sea is now above the surface; the detailed, cranny ridden walls that thrill us so much when skin-diving off a coral reef are here part of the foreshore environment. What Surrealists such as Ernst and Dominguez had to create by frottage and decalcomania techniques is here served up ready-made. Cross exploits this to remarkable effect in works such as Tangaloa (1992), and Stairs of Tautu (1991). In both paintings the strange coral cliffs rear up like breaking waves, enfolding the figures. The light falls in a pool, as if upon a stage. The figures are on their spots, as ordered by the Director. The metaphor here is of the potential in life for dramatic change.
This link to the Surrealists is more than coincidental. Cross’s earliest paintings, done in the 1970s, were exercises in traditional surrealism. The painting disciplines essential to his later works were developed and honed in this period. For an artist with a surrealist sensibility seeking suitable backdrops, Niue is perfect.
Returning to the human presence in Cross’s pictures, we can divide this into three broad categories. In the first, there are no figures, but there are marks and markers of their visitations and involvement. These can be minimal, as in Circle Markers (1994) where short posts are placed on the foreshore, or aggressively dominant as in Mantracks (1990), where the myriad tyre marks push through tidal sand flats. These marks prompt a question that becomes more insistent with every passing year – can humankind control its dominance of a sensitive planet before it irrevocably degrades, possibly even destroys it?
Such as more directly put in paintings like Oppenheimer (1986), a work in the second category. A small crowd observes a nuclear blast. They don’t really know what they are doing or what they are seeing. Indeed, a fraction of a second after the artist recorded the scene they may all have been vaporised. Cross has carried this theme through over some years (Dark Reef, 1989, Minimal Effect, 1993, and And While The Sea Evaporates, 1994). This group of paintings could be about concerned citizens turning up at suspect events as protestors or observers. Again, it could be about innocent bystanders finding themselves in a danger zone. Yet again, it could be an encapsulation of the lot of humanity; waiting in a featureless environment for the day of judgement.
In the case of Dark Reef, where children stand about in a shallow lagoon infested with sea snakes, the artist offers a particular reading – island archipelagoes threatened by exploitative Big Powers.
The third group of paintings has developed since 1991. They are notable for heightened colour, deliberate poses and a greater sense of stasis than in other works. This latter quality is expressed either by standing / reclining single figures or by groups whose attitudes are vigorous but frozen. Interestingly, although the figures look like participants in tableaux, they seem more at home and part of the land than those in the earlier works. In the case of the paintings with Niuean backdrops, the figures do not seem so much to be strangers in this strange land. Niue is more of an ‘island universe’ than is New Zealand, and therefore is perhaps a better venue for the artist’s world view. These works call to mind the paintings of Puvis de Chavannes, where classically clad and posed figures are positioned in a utopian setting of the artist’s invention. Cross’s setting, though, is no Utopia. Figures are often gloved or shrouded, and are threatened by the jagged coral formations and engulfing caves and cliffs.
Standing back for an overall critique, one can find in some of Cross’s paintings an artificiality and potential for sentimental readings that moves the work from the enigmatic to the awkward. Here the affinity is with an artist such as Hodler, rather than Puvis. For this writer, paintings such as Children at Rest (1988) and The Sleeping Cave (1992) come into this category. One senses that the artist had to do these works to find the right balance. Such a balance is achieved in works such as Terra Sarcoma (1997-98). In this truly terrifying painting we see Cross’s cast of casual kiwi players disposed en masse on what at first glance appears to be a beach covered with sticks of driftwood with the odd smooth stone showing through. They are all digging assiduously. The figures are based on photographs taken by the artist of participants in a beach carnival buried treasure hunt. Further looking reveals that the sticks are bones and the stones are skulls. Now we see humanity desperately scrabbling through its history, hoping to find the keys to salvation in a race against time. A developing sub-group of paintings, begun in 1999, depicts figures floating or standing in bright clear tropic waters. By leaving the land behind and returning to the sea, these figures can be seen as seeking, not ‘the big answer’, but some sort of purification by immersion in the medium that is the source of all life.
Summing up, one finds in Cross’s work over the past 17 years a consistency of application in delivering considerable detail coupled with a resistance against any temptation to make the pictures easily readable. Mentally, we are given a lot to play with. A quote from the artist may be appropriate here.
“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 doing so, to dissolve the distinctions between the two.”
All quotes from the artist are taken from Mark Cross’s Have We Offended?, John Leech Gallery & Te Manawa, Auckland and Palmerston North 2002.