Diamond dust and ancestral stories

Whakapapa or genealogy has always been at the heart of Reuben Paterson’s practice, which dances with various influences—from the optical paintings of Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley to memories of the patterns on his grandmother’s dresses.
I don't want no conversation, I just want ejaculation, painting by Reuben Paterson
Whakapapa: get down on your knees, glitter on canvas by Reuben Paterson
I don’t want no conversation, I just want ejaculation, 2003, glitter on canvas. All artworks are by Reuben Paterson


Whakapapa or genealogy has always been at the heart of Reuben Paterson’s practice, which dances with various influences – from the optical paintings of Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley to memories of the patterns on his grandmother’s dresses.

On the opening banquette in the gallery’s vast atrium, gazing up at his mammoth eight-metre square glitter work, Whakapapa: get down on your knees towering above him. It was the first time he’d seen the painting in its entirety, as during its creation in Auckland, he’d never had the space to hang up the 16 two-metre square panels that made up the work, and understandably he was soaking up the experience. During the opening weekend of the triennial, I watched visitors standing silently in front of the work, for minutes at a time, seemingly transfixed by this gargantuan, pulsating, kaleidoscope of colour, texture and pattern. This was not an artwork for the fainthearted—it wanted to embrace you, envelop you, suck you in and take you to a different place.

And ‘place’ in a broader sense—whakapapa—or genealogy, has always been at the core of Paterson’s work. Of Ngati Rangitihi/ Ngai Tuhoe, Scottish and Pakeha descent, this artist’s work over the past 11 years has recorded, referenced and paid tribute to his whakapapa. His 2000 work The Wharenui that Dad Built celebrated his father, who died the same year, and his lusciously coloured and textured series based on 1960s retro fabric patterns, which he started in 2003, paid tribute to the brightly patterned dresses his grandmother wore.

Anxiety for the Sake of Boredom; Apathy for the Sake of Arousal; Relaxation for the Sake of Control; Worry for the Sake of Flow, paintings by Reuben Paterson
Anxiety for the Sake of Boredom; Apathy for the Sake of Arousal; Relaxation for the Sake of Control; Worry for the Sake of Flow, 2011: all glitter and synthetic polymer on canvas. Installation in Flow, at Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne. Courtesy of the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery

However, just as the patterns in his current series, destined for this year’s Auckland Art Fair, weave, overlap and burst, under, over, betwixt and between, so it is with Paterson’s inspiration – he’s content to reach back and reference earlier works, and weave them into the new fabric. But where the kowhaiwhai patterns of The Wharenui that Dad Built echo the formal rafter patterns of the meeting house, in these newer works, the kowhaiwhai have a less literal presence.

“In the process of creating these works, the white canvas is the starting point, and I see this in a similar way to the creation of kowhaiwhai,” says Paterson. “When I’m creating these works I’m thinking of kowhaiwhai as the positives and negatives of these spaces, how the black, red and white tends to frame and organise the eye’s journey from one place to the next.”

Paradoxically, in the creation of these works, Paterson feels he has moved closest to referencing Maori philosophies. The paradox? His work to date has generally drawn from his Maori father’s side of his family, but these recent paintings have a far stronger connection to his Pakeha mother, and the iconography of the post-Woodstock psychedelic 70s of his early childhood memories of growing up in east Auckland. The crisp, joyous, rock ’n’ roll images of the 60s are making way for the acid-tinged, ‘tune-in, turn-on’ 70s mantra. But Paterson still sees these fabric patterns telling a story, much the same as the ancestral kowhaiwhai motifs. “These fabrics and patterns represent our genealogy – just as the kowhaiwhai connect our genealogy from carving to carving in the wharenui – there is a similar literal journey taking place with these images. It’s not something I linger on, but it is something I feel these works contain.”

Modesty (left) and Folkloric (right), paintings by Reuben Paterson
Modesty (left) and Folkloric (right), both works glitter and synthetic polymer on canvas 1200 x 1200 mm, 2011

Paterson’s medium of choice—glitter—has a unique kinetic quality absent in most other media – the ability to capture and throw light from the image. Couple this dynamic with his love of the works of Op-art artists Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley, and the potency of the mix starts to gel. He is also intrigued by the theories put forward by the early Gestalt psychologists, who posited that the self-organising capabilities of the brain help to ‘see’ whole forms, rather than merely a collection of lines and curves, and each individual’s brain uniquely ‘makes sense’ of what it perceives. However, when confronted with op-art imagery, the brain constantly reshuffles the images in an attempt to create a fixed image. By using glitter and diamond dust, Paterson creates a motile effect in his paintings, so, as well as the surfaces twinkling and pulsating, the individual works, when placed together, can interact and flow into each other.

Whakapapa: get down on your knees, painting by Reuben Paterson
Whakapapa: get down on your knees, 2009, glitter and synthetic polymer paint on canvas / 16 canvases at 6th Asia Pacific Triennial, Gallery of Modern Art Queensland. Courtesy the artist and Gow Langsford Gallery

To explain, he mentions his recent exhibition, appropriately named Flow, at the Nellie Castan Gallery in Melbourne—the first body of work to distort and distend his previously familiar floral and paisley patterns. There’s a greater three dimensionality to these images, which buckle and bend, as if under the influence of some unseen g-force, or about to be sucked into a creative maelstrom. “The works for the Melbourne show were purposely made to move into each other, so the disparate entities found a way of uniting as a whole, being hung close together, and close to the floor.”

But even the best families have their off-days, and sitting in his studio looking at the almost completed works, which will be exhibited at Gow Langsford Gallery’s stand at Auckland Art Fair in August, Paterson says, “By contrast, these works seem to be having an emotionless argument, and while they are all still appearing to me, some of the paintings seem to exult in independence—even more so when they sit together, fighting against their own movement, so I’m inclined to exaggerate this more and see how it works.”

In his research for these latest works, Paterson familiarised himself with the flow theory of Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csí kszentmihályi, which, summarised, opines that flow is focused motivation, with a lack of depression and anxiety, and is marked by a feeling of spontaneous joy. Which, when talking to Paterson, tends to sum up his art. There seems to be a lack of angst and darkness in his work, even though the subject matter could dictate otherwise—his grandmother took her own life after bouts of depression and alcoholism. “The angst does exist, but my inspiration comes from these reference points in my whakapapa. They’re not dark places, and while the works come from real life, they transform—they’re ways to connect with people, and to me, joy is the greatest thing to give. Angst, even emotion, is learned in that I must live in order to work. If I’m living, if I’m alive, my works should have an identity with that.”

Photographic portrait of Reuben Paterson, by Kevin Lee Burton
Reuben Paterson. Photo: Kevin Lee Burton

And Paterson has been connecting all around the country—and overseas—over the past 12 months. His first video work Te Putahitanga o Rehua has been at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery for the past four months, and a multi-‘media’ show at iconic fashion store, World, in Auckland’s High Street, with t-shirts, posters, badges, an in-store wall installation of crumpled foil, and a sex museum (of donated sex toys, along with labels detailing owners’ reminiscences) indicate he’s not a one-trick pony. He’s also one of the featured artists in E Tu Ake: Standing Strong, which, after three months at Te Papa, is now touring internationally, first to Musée du Quai Branly, in Paris, then to the National Museum of Quebec, Canada.

And then there’s a large 6 x 6 metre wall work commissioned by the Newmarket Arts Trust, to be installed in the newly opened Newmarket Railway Station in January 2012, but the project he’s most excited about resonates with an earlier career. This ex-primary schoolteacher has been chosen to be the first artist to set up the interactive experiences programme for the new Family Learning Centre in the refurbished Auckland Art Gallery, reopening in September. For visiting children and curious parents, Paterson has prepared a six-pronged sensory attack on the frontal lobes of the country’s next generation of creative talent. Teaming up with architect Rick Pearson, CoLab technology centre, AUT, and ALT Group graphic designers, he’s creating a suite of interactive experiences for families visiting the gallery. “We’re ensuring the learning centre is not separate from the gallery, but makes visitors connect with, and experience the art by looking at how the artist works – so it’s not just a place to experience visual tricks, but a place to think and consider ideas contained in my work, and link them back to the gallery collection through various thematic devices.” Amongst the activities he’s developing in conjunction with Pearson and CoLab will be an interactive video, infinity-box works, thermochromic (temperature-sensitive) painted artworks, and some mind- and eye-boggling viewing toys and devices.

When asked whether this move to video and moving works signals a new direction, Paterson points out nothing deviates from the ultimate destination. “Everything I’ve done is moving. Within the kinetic light of glitter, there’s a connected form of movement in every series I’ve done. I believe in the eye, and how we look, interact and interpret things. The eye is how we see the shortness and longevity of our lives.”

/ Dan Chappell

Reuben Paterson’s latest works are at Gow Langsford Gallery’s stand at the Auckland Art Fair from 5–7 August.

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