Said the Hibiscus
Page Blackie Gallery, Welington
September 13 – October 7 2016
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
– William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
Reuben Paterson is no stranger to the world of high end fashion, having previously worked extensively with the label WORLD. Just as the natural movements of the human body animate the formal structure and detailing of a garment, so too has Patterson sought to bring a similar organic, ephemeral sense of movement in his work, blending projection and movement with his signature crystal and glitter, investing it with its own wairua (spiritual essence) and mauri (life force). Working in collaboration with this year’s World of Wearable Art (WOW) as muse for the design and theme, brings a new dimension to Paterson’s work, combining those two modes of visual performance, opening things up to new audiences and new interpretations. Patterson has consistently sought out those shared threads of desirability, public aesthetic, and immediacy.
For all their surface beauty, Paterson’s creations pack an emotional punch. Imagery that for a century modernism rejected as kitsch, is rescued and rehabilitated. Flamboyantly lush, vintage floral textile compositions of stylised hibiscus and bird-of-paradise bring the tropics into the gallery space with a splash of Pasifika, a hint of Old Master still life painting and Joseph Banks’ botanical illustrations filtered through the immediacy and accessibility of Pop Art. They play with modernist tropes of the readymade, of flatness and surface against the forgiving richness of a black background. Black is such a charged colour in the New Zealand context: All Blacks, black singlets, haute couture, Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon, Te Kore (the chaos of being and non-being that has always existed with its infinite potential for creation), and Te Po (the long night of the void that existed before all things and to which we must all eventually return). This is the fertile “soil” out of which the flowers sprout.
The over-the-top simulation of nature by sourcing it in the artificial and then adding sparkle, creates an extraordinary intensity, a striving for perfection. We could call it an anti-vanitasin that it rejects images of mortality and ephemerality, choosing instead to celebrate allure and desirability in a perfectible universe.
In Paterson’s hands, glitter becomes more than easily dismissed craft supplies, and more like Andy Warhol’s diamond dust (a material Patterson also employs). The mundane tawdriness of the material is counterpointed by its fine art, gallery incarnation and maximalist glamorous effect. The glitter is like a small metaphorical protest against the magic starved out of our modern, bureaucratic, technological world. Paterson recognises the sentimentality these old fashioned or flamboyant patterns evoke as a genuine and authentic emotional response to life and memory, giving them an added lustrous aura of presence with celebratory sparkle and lux. Other works seem to suggest exquisite Victorian shawls and their struggle to balance the Royal fashion for mourning with a yearning for style, in their intimations of elaborate and detailed embroidery and scattered constellations of crystal. These venerable aunties and grandmothers, framed to give a sense of being objects in their own right and on museum-like tables for close examination of the detailing. They are also the faux night sky to the artificial jungle.
While the viewer is looking at the floral and crystal works, they in turn are being watched by a panther, just as acquisitively. Predator looking for prey. Their obvious reference to the natural world, as with the floral works, is subverted by their artifice, their glittering exteriors. This interplay between artifice and nature is what binds the whole together. Nature is supplanted by culture and commodity. Death and ephemerality are defeated by artifice, mimeses and splendour.
The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it’s the sparkle and the glister that gets us through.
Andrew Paul Wood