James Cousins: Restless Idiom

James Cousins has long been interested in the contingencies that painting relies upon: how do we recognise an image? What systems guide our understanding? What processes might be used to disrupt these assumptions?

His recent works made from 2009-2015, brought together for the first time in this exhibition, unsettle our expectations of landscape images. Each painting consists of a reproduced image, mostly sourced from colour plates in a botanical guide. Though they may be familiar as types of flowers or trees, layers of paint interfere with their completion.

The systems used to puncture the image are an important part of Cousins’ practice. In these works, layers of vinyl stencils are applied to a base layer (or layers) of paint. An image is reproduced on top of the vinyl before the stencils are peeled away, revealing the ground paint beneath. Cousins often then applies another added interruption, though here the approach differs from work to work. Rolling stripes of colour, using spray guns and smearing swathes of paint are all techniques used to further fracture his images. The recognisable is consequently de-centralised, sandwiched between, under and on top of the abstract.

Notably, Cousins’ process involves constantly negating whatever decision-making process came before, maintaining a captivating tension between what might otherwise be perceived as contradictory concerns and effects: the figurative and the abstract; illusion and materiality; the surface and the pictorial. The result is a captivating optical instability not dissimilar to an ambiguous pattern, where the eye constantly oscillates between seeing the painting as operating in one way, and then another.

It is in this constant to-and-fro-ing that Cousins escapes the reductive and binary tendencies of many of paintings’ ‘isms’, allowing instead for his works to prompt an active and prolonged act of looking; one premised on an uncertainty of the image as well as the paintings’ constructions. By placing the image into an equilibrial tension with the material effects of specific processes, Cousins provokes the viewer to carefully consider what it is that he or she is – or indeed, isn’t – looking at.

Image: 216 Erica Pez iza Velvet Bell Heath, (2012). Oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland.

28 November - 21 February 2016

An interview with the artist and curator Ioana Gordon-Smith can be found here.
View more images on our Facebook page here.

Photos: Sam Hartnett