PAINTING AT THE EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD
“I am painting what is still there and that I can still see before the sky turns black”
Colin McCahon, 1971
In This Is Where I Leave You, Elliot Collins presents the viewer with a series of summations, a personal consolidation and assessment of his practice to date as he enters a doctoral programme to undertake further research and exploration; he is expressing with great clarity who he is as an artist before being submerged in the maelstrom of perplexity and evolution that typifies doctoral work.
He leaves us where the land falls away to the sea and day fades into night; at the point where you can go no further, where you must pause for reflection and to enjoy the beauty of the thickening dusk. He leaves us in a landscape, in a real place, and also in the intangible realm of reverie. Within this state, a collage of emotions, memories and meanings transmute into artworks which are both images of the world and investigations into the practice of representation.
Collins’ construction of the artwork as site is made manifest by the large eight-paneled painting dominating this exhibition, the imagery extending beyond the edge of the eye’s perception, filling the whole field of vision, situating the viewer within the landscape of the artist’s imagination. Looking ahead, all attention is focused on the distant horizon line; these works do more than depict that enigmatic line, they actually create it where the two canvases meet, where the twilight sky meets the indigo sea. At this point of tension, Collins inserts text into the landscape, not as commentary but as salutation; he is acknowledging his genealogy as a painter.
He takes the horizon from Colin McCahon’s Muriwai series, an ever-present line that acts as organizing element, structuring the paintings and connecting them as a series, and turns it into an event: it becomes temporal, contemporary, hingeing together place, past and viewer. His paint application is a meditation on the Aramoana series by Ralph Hotere, with its sparks of colour defying the infinite blackness. Collins recasts these spontaneous splashes as a dense overlay of colourclouds, patches of light glinting in the dusk; the anger and energy of Hotere, his fierce immediacy, given homage in the words, “How to build a fire, and how to watch it burn”.
This monumental work addresses the formal qualities of painting: scale, materiality, mark making, the character of abstraction, the structure of narrative. Collins uses this formality to invite the viewer to think critically about the aesthetic choices he makes, to look for the meaning he is creating through these choices.
While the works in this exhibition map our landscape, they also map our culture. Language is deeply implicated in this because maps are forms of communication which displace the physical plane with a type of discourse; they are signifiers. Collins demonstrates this with Deep Blue Sea, a satisfying pun invoking both Duchamp and Barthes, which acts as a commentary on the exhibition itself – what is the difference between c’ing and seeing?
That this work is made from a found object, an actual piece of signage, also recalls the early work of Ed Ruscha, especially his love of wordplay; like Italo Calvino’s story of Marco Polo endlessly re-inventing Venice through the tales he tells Kublai Khan, referenced by Collins in the exhibition Valdrada (Tim Melville Gallery 2011), culture is shown to be an open site that can be continuously re-construed and reimagined to unfold new potential. Collins handles such a complexity of references with dexterity and subtlety, and a gravitas which replaces his usual light-hearted tone. He is moving from storytelling to myth-making, analyzing formal art discourse and deconstructing it in order to create a position for himself in relation to it. This shift in practice demands widening his search for antecedents, and his attention is drawn to makers who used formality to resignify the lowly materials, the detritus, they chose to work with.
The assemblages of rubbish made by Kurt Schwitters were carefully constructed mnemonics, maps for holding onto sanity in the chaos of war. The box constructions of Joseph Cornell celebrate the beauty of ordinary materials while using them to construct maps of the imagination which reinvest the everyday with wonder. Collecting an assortment of discarded items and placing them inside a display box called Window / Museum, Collins constructs a window onto a suburban culture of restless boredom with an incipient counter-culture of menace; he also constructs a window onto art practice, the way in which artists remake culture from its own refuse in order to map the distance between the dominant position of authority and lived authenticity.
Cartography is a continuing subject of investigation in Collins’ work. This exhibition presents a range of counter maps, alternative ways of reading and relating to land which are deeply personal, to resist the objectification and alienation underlying cartography. This, he suggests, is the role of the artist: to keep us invested in the experience of place. He stakes his claim on the gallery space as a place of experience and counter discourse by raising his own flag, Before You Go, which asks the viewer to pause, to reflect, to answer in some way. Collins comments, “my flag is the beginning of a conversation or story”. It is also the phrase his mother uses to delay parting, quickly inserting a new idea into every farewell, opening rather than closing the door.
Dr Ann Poulsen
Auckland, April 2014
Photography: Kallan MacLeod