A poetic title for a serious subject, Reuben Paterson’s third solo exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery was a personal response to the “provocation” or “gay panic” legal debate in New Zealand. Until its 2009 abolition, provocation was frequently used as a partial defense for reducing murder convictions to the lesser charge of manslaughter, especially, it seems from case histories, in gay hate crimes. Taking a public stance on politicized issues of sexuality and human rights is a new move for Paterson. He marked the shift with his first foray into figurative paintings, which made up half of the eight works in the exhibition.
Glitter-on-canvas paintings are a Paterson signature, and while he also makes video pieces and large-scale installations, “Dear Beauty, Dear Beast” only contained flat works for the wall. His previous output typically drew on source material from his own background including retro textile and pattern design, Maori culture, Op Art and high Modernism. For this exhibition he paired his familiar stylized design-oriented works with glitter paintings of big cats. In an interview on Radio New Zealand National, Paterson described his approach to the show as an act of pairing: one floral fabric pattern with one predator.
Rendered in bruising shades of black and midnight blue, a panther caught in midsnarl carries the title Nigger (2009–10). Paterson is Maori, and the racial slur is a knowing and powerful appropriation. Drawing attention to the central oxymoron in the “provocation” issue—gay men seen as effeminate “pansies” while also being viewed as dangerous predators—the silky yet aggressive panther also references David McNee, a gay interior designer and television personality murdered in 2003 by a male prostitute who later received a reduced manslaughter sentence.
Paterson’s approach is coy, his titles apposite. The Bed’s Spread of Provocation (2009–10), hints at the artist’s source images: his paintings of big cats are entirely reminiscent of kitschy polar-fleece bedspreads. Table for Two (2009–10) is a blue-toned kaleidoscope pattern, the size of a tablecloth, which proffers an invitation and a suggestion of intimacy. The works revel in tacky overtones, playing a medley of color against pattern in the more abstract floral works. The glittering, large tiger that stares straight out from the canvas is Estrous (2009–10). The word politely refers to the female reproductive cycle, but it is also a metaphor for wild hormonal drives. Estrous betrays the intensity and mania behind Paterson’s otherwise covert, quiet references.
The strategy, like the exhibition title, is allegorical. He plays on the decorative aspect of his work to draw attention to appearances, surfaces and perception first. The fairy tale Beauty and the Beast carries a simple message about the stark difference between packaging and contents. Here, Paterson creates unambiguously lush works in order to find a conceptual space for exploring political polarities. His delicately coded works reflect the conditions of production and living in an environment where, to quote a newspaper report from the time of the McNee verdict, “homosexuals living in New Zealand are second-class citizens.”
One critic has described his use of glitter as a “queer signifier,” but Paterson, finding this reading limiting, has said that “through each series I try and find not only glitter’s material potential, but also glitter’s conceptual potential.” Each of the exhibition’s works use an individual shade of glitter manufactured especially for the show, thus lending the paintings both a memorial aspect and a unique time stamp. This delicate, thoughtful effect adds a sense of tact to his work that preserves respect for the victims of injustice.
Given the topicality of the exhibition, it is inevitable that the works shown here will become dated. And therein lies another revelation of Paterson’s invisible hand—thrust into politics in the name of public service—at work.