Reuben Paterson: Paterson's Flow - Art Collector

Issue 56, April - June 2011

New Zealand’s Reuben Paterson will exhibit in Melbourne for the first time this quarter. His new work takes as its starting point ideas put forward by a Hungarian theorist about engagement and happiness. John Hurrell enters the flow.

Auckland-based Reuben Paterson is well known in Aotearoa for his sophisticated blending of glitter and paint to render – among other things – Pacific kitsch, Maori kowhaiwhai pattern, 1960s op art images (alluding to his Ngati Rangitihi/Ngai Tuhoe genealogy), fabric design and watchful feral wildlife. He has also made comparatively uncontrolled paintings and videos, throwing handfuls of dry materials onto varnished supports to test the expressive limits of chaos. His work stands for a particularly gleeful sensuality found in twinkling materials that come from a sensibility popularised in the 1960s by Andy Warhol and Lucas Samaras.

Shortly Paterson will be presenting Flow, a set of glitter paintings, in Melbourne. It will be one long wall of two-by-two metre canvases of fabric patterns and starteld animals, along with other smaller one-by-one metre works resplendent with various other floral patterns. He has used such subject matter before but this time there will be an added quality. The forms will be distorted and buckled, as if looking at a mural painted on the bottom of a pool.

One obvious reason is to give visitors a jolt just like the animals themselves seem to be experiencing. Nothing disturbs more than deformed living bodies we expect to be noble or conventionally proportioned. Despite this, a new sort of beauty – as in distorting fairground mirrors – will emerge.

Another reason is in order to subvert the stability of surface and deny any illusionistic potential, or implied underpinning physical substance. By taking the swelling or contracting volumes of 1960s op artists like Victor Vasarely or Bridget Riley and fusing them with glitter-coated chintz patterns and terrified animals. Paterson is creating a lateral dynamic to link up the works, a horizontal vector that is another version of the vertical energies he used in his recent towering kaleidoscopic paintings, some of which are eight metres square.

With the new work, instead of having a symmetrical compositional core located halfway up the wall, the images will have a tangential movement that optically ripples from canvas to canvas – even if they are spaced apart.

Apart from the experiential dynamic there is a metaphor here, one that Paterson is intrigued by – as found in the flow theory of Hungarian psychology theorist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. His ideas examine creativity’s relationship to happiness – a state he calls “optimal experience”. These can be applied to activities that create an intense mental immersion and focus on process for its own sake. In his books and lectures Czíkszentmihályi sees the flow state as likely to be realised by certain personalities with a high degree of curiosity, persistence and interest in intrinsic properties. They have a clear set of goals, are aware of the challenges involved and their own capabilities and know immediately if things are going well and how to adjust. They also enjoy higher than average challenges, being stimulated by high-energy opportunities.

With Paterson’s decorative warped blooms contrasting with his alarmed animals we see competing potentialities within Csíkszentmiláyi’s schematic plan – the desired state of flow is flanked by relaxation and control, anxiety and arousal. In this diagram, the individual can advance to this state of flow from apathy, a negative state bordered by worry and boredom. Such an interest in psychological movement can be seen in Paterson’s earlier project of 2007 where he was making fastidiously designed patterns – each element carefully positioned – and also simultaneously chance-based images in the form of thrown paint, glitter and streamers. Even glitter itself, as a material which dramatically varies its chromatic qualities in response to light direction, can be a symbolic example of an oscillation between binary poles.

Paterson’s Flow paintings in this context will therefore seem to comment on their own production, the excitement of their own creation, of being at one with it. The writhing paisley patterns and swirling petals, besides moving laterally, will generate their own pulsing roller-coaster ride, coordinating with the other walls of animals bucking and kicking in fright. The works link up as if sections of a rim on a cylinder towering upwards, part of a spiralling wobbly frieze; a vortex caught centripetally like a stream spinning inside a drum. Here the artist experiences the thrill of true absorption, creation sustaining itself by its own revitalising momentum.•

Reuben Paterson’s first exhibition in Melbourne will be held at Nellie Castan Gallery from 14 April to 7 May 2011.

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