Stairway to heaven

In Peata Larkin’s paintings ancient systems of knowledge transmission are equally as valid as contemporary codes of computer language and DNA sequences. Virginia Were reports.

For Auckland painter and Elam graduate Peata Larkin, the decision to work within a strictly limited system has paradoxically opened the door to a wide field of exciting visual possibilities.

Like the Canadian abstract painter, Agnes Martin, who once commented she did not choose the grid as a format – that it chose her – Larkin has also found working within the limitations of the grid to be totally engrossing and filled with potential. So much so that she has been using it since graduating from Elam in 2004 to explore the phenomenology of light and colour, the plasticity of paint, as well as concepts of identity, history and systems used to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. But whereas Agnes Martin’s use of the grid allowed her to reflect on the qualities of her local New Mexico landscape, using a strictly limited range of colours, thin washes and minute tonal variations, Larkin is interested in the tactile and textural potential of paint and works with a noisy, riotous combination of colours to form complex matrices constructed from blobs of paint that emphasise the works’ sculptural qualities.

Propped against the wall in her home studio are wooden frames with industrial mesh stretched over them through which she pushes paint – usually one colour at a time – working from the back to the front of the work to build up multiple layers of colour that ultimately form geometric patterns on either black or white grounds. These works are visually and intellectually rich, containing a myriad of references, slowing us down and drawing attention to the act of looking and experiencing the painting as a three-dimensional object. They exert a push/pull effect on the viewer, drawing us in close to examine surface detail and recalling the small units of colour in paintings by the impressionists and pointillist artists like Seurat – who were interested in theories of visual perception and colour theory – and then sending us away to discern slowly emerging overall patterns, fluctuating colours and web-like lines.

“I’ve always been interested in colour. At Elam I started thinking about colour and light and looking at the work of the impressionists, then I thought about supports and looked for materials that could diffuse light and colour,” says Larkin. “A friend at Elam had some mesh in the studio and I started experimenting with this and found the mesh provided a way of making the grid less rigid.”

From digital pixels, scientific diagrams, DNA sequence maps, punch cards of the jacquard loom and binary code of the modern computer, to the geometric patterns of traditional Maori weaving – the references in these works are myriad. What they have in common, however, is they are all visual systems and codes – both modern and ancient – used to pass on information. Larkin’s work spins out these multiple associations as a way to talk about her own history and identity and ways in which we trace ancestry and genealogy.

The birth of her first child, ten years ago, prompted Larkin to begin researching her Maori/pakeha heritage. Brought up in Rotorua and now living in Auckland, Larkin’s discovery of her Tuhourangi background led to a solo exhibition of paintings based on the grid and titled I am Tuhourangi, at COCA in Christchurch in 2007.

The tribe’s connection with the legendary Pink and White Terraces on the shores of Lake Rotomahana, once considered the eighth wonder of the natural world and tragically destroyed by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, provided Larkin with a powerful metaphor for cultural identity, loss and revival as well as a rich fund of visual possibilities.

The painting, Tuhourangi Tapestry, 2006, with its stepped geometric pattern and pink and white coloration, evokes something of the scale, beauty and grandeur of the terraces, presided over by Larkin’s ancestors and once New Zealand’s main tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world.

Made up of two identically sized panels, each a mirror image of the other, the work is heroic in size – over five metres long – and its three-dimensional, paint-clotted surface suggests the intricate texture of European tapestry while the poutama, or ‘stairway to heaven’ composition, is similar to the geometric patterns in woven tukutuku panels found in Maori meeting houses and represents the acquisition of knowledge.

Both tapestry and weaving are important vessels for storytelling and the passing on of cultural knowledge. “This can be quite specific – for example individual weavers have particular patterns, colours and designs that are specific not only to that weaver but also to their tribe,” says Larkin.

Likewise, Tuhourangi Tapestry talks about the wide sweep of history as well as identity – via the Pink and White Terraces and her tribe’s association with them.

This year a new marae for Tuhourangi, who were forced to relocate to surrounding areas after Mt Tarawera’s eruption, will be built on the shores of Lake Tarawera. “That show came from being proud of my heritage; I wanted to do a show encompassing the survival and revival of the Tuhourangi Tribe,” she says.

As well as paintings on canvas and mesh, Larkin has created a series of paintings mounted on light-boxes, including Patikitiki Connect V, 2008, which is predominantly green, black, red and white light. Based on the patikitiki pattern, which represents the diamond cluster of stars used by early Maori navigating to New Zealand, as well as the flounder, this pattern is important to Maori because it represents abundance.

“When I started learning about weaving and its significance in terms of obtaining knowledge, it seemed apt to continue and see where it would take my work, so it has seeped in there. For a long while – in my younger days – I absolutely pushed away my Maori side. I was always ‘in between’ because I wasn’t brown enough to be Maori but I wasn’t white either. Maybe that’s why my work has always been interstitial – because that’s who I am.”

As well as mentioning her admiration for Agnes Martin, who interpreted the modernist grid in a more feminine, organic way than her minimalist male contemporaries, Larkin is a fan of Argentine/Italian painter Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), who was linked with the Arte Povera movement, and in 1958 started his so-called ‘slash series’, making holes and slashes in the paintings’ surfaces. Though we take such innovations for granted today, both Martin and Fontana were pioneers in their day, and like these two artists, Larkin is committed to experimenting with the physicality of paint and ground to make something ‘new’.

“What Fontana did was significant at the time,” she says. “He built up some of his works with layers of gesso, creating a beautiful surface and then cutting through it to create a curve into the frame. So instead of illusory space he created a physical space, and I find that really exciting. So cutting into the canvas is something that intrigues me and I started thinking about how paint would react to this. Fontana was more of a minimalist than I am, and for him it was about the cut, whereas I’m more interested in the void or the cut combined with paint and what that can create. I’ve always been intrigued with the physical space of the painting.”

Recently, Larkin has found by cutting into the mesh and pushing its strands apart she is able to distort the grid, creating more organic lines and shapes and introducing more subjective elements.

One of her most striking paintings, Raranga Modified, 2007, with its jittery horizontal red lines, suggests a digital wave or pulse of light travelling across a dark screen. Like the fluctuating lines of a cardiogram it’s filled with energy and rhythm. The surface of the work is organised into nine rectangles that disrupt or contain the unruly lines. Seen from up close the shiny blobs of paint that make up this painting are searing, bright and highly reflective.

Raranga Modified represents the parallels between genetic imagery – the contemporary language of science – and the ancient art of raranga (Maori weaving and tukutuku). For Larkin they go hand in hand because both function as markers of identity, memory and generational connections between people.

It’s interesting that Larkin’s systematic working methods have opened up such a rich field of visual and theoretical possibilities… “When you have rules, it means you can get somewhere. If you didn’t have something in place, you’d be a mess.”

Peata Larkin’s exhibition Between Worlds is at Two Rooms, Auckland, 22 May-20 June 2009; Tuhourangi Revival is at Milford Galleries Dunedin 4-22 July 2009.

Leave a Reply