Derek Cowie (b.1956) is represented in several public collections including Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. In the 1980s he regularly exhibited with Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington before moving to London where he worked as a scenic painter for the National Theatre and as an award winning visual artist for film and television while continuing to make and exhibit his own work. He is now based in Wellington. Often delving into obscure art historical and cultural resources, he works across various mediums and styles but always with his distinctly punk sensibility. His practice is strongly motivated by environmental concerns. His series Destruction of National Treasures reimagined historically significant New Zealand paintings as if though they have been found in the rubble of some post-apocalyptic world.
Essay from Derek Cowie’s exhibition Destruction of National Treasures, 2017:
When ISIS destroyed the Roman monuments in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, the world was shocked. From street art to artworks housed in the world’s finest museums, the destruction of art is universally understood to be an unforgiveable act. The modern world values works of art as representations of our civilisation and we know how to look after them. We build great edifices to protect them; these buildings do such an important job they are usually designed as great architectural artworks themselves – an echo of the value of what they house.
Derek Cowie’s exhibition Destruction of National Treasures takes civilisation’s ability to value art and pointedly redirects attention to our inability to value another national treasure, the environment. Cowie has reimagined significant historical New Zealand paintings as though they have been found in the rubble of some post-apocalyptic world. They have been destroyed; ripped, torn, battered and there is an unsettling ooze seeping through the cracks in each painting. Ostensibly, viewers are met with an exhibition of ruined paintings, by the likes of McCahon, Hodgkins, Bensemann, Perkins, Stoddart, to name a few. But, closer inspection of the titles reveals the sinister nature of the pervasive secretion in each work.
Perkins on Cadmium White re-presents Christopher Perkins’ ground-breaking Taranaki from 1931. It is an exquisitely imagined version of Perkins’ famous painting, battered and flaking (through Cowie’s technique of painting oil paint onto meshed plaster). It is upsetting – that a national treasure could be left to such ruin. However, it is the reference to cadmium (the highly toxic metal widely used in industry and increasingly detectable in our soils) in the title that reveals the rage in Cowie’s work. That unsettling ooze in the cracks of the paintings is cadmium-based paint. A viewer’s review of this exhibition of ruined paintings segues into a deeply unsettling focus on what is happening to our environment.
Unlike artworks, we don’t like to talk about the destruction of other national treasures. Cowie’s revulsion of the current handling of industrial waste at the unknown cost to our environmental and biospheric future, leaches through each painting. The artist believes our environment constantly suffers irreparable damage in favour of the big industry dollar, that we are in a state of collapse and that we must act individually. But because of the instability of our economy, large scale industry cannot be stopped or changed without risking breaking the fragile chain of modern currency markets. Discussion about the damage we cause is quietly and politely swept under the rug. It is easier to discuss destroyed art.
Cowie’s exhibition seeks to redress that silence. Time is up.
Derek Cowie was born in 1956 in Ruatoria, New Zealand. He was raised in Dunedin and attended Wellington School of Design from 1976-78.
SELECTED EXHIBITIONS AND PROJECTS
Young Wellington Artists, Elva Bett Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
Four Young Artists, New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington, New Zealand
Various group and solo exhibitions, Closet Artists Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand
Seven solo and five group exhibitions, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
Various group and solo exhibitions, AberhartNorth Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand
No Bodies, Shed 11 National Art Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
Shift Ground, Wellington City Art Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
Disgust and Neglect, Artspace, Auckland, New Zealand
Six Wellington Artists, Wellington City Art Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
Collaboration with Stephen Dudding on environmental project
SELECTED PROFESSIONAL ROLES
Designer, Mercury Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand
Personal Assistant, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand
Assistant Head of Scenic Studio, Royal National Theatre, London, United Kingdom
Visual artist on various films and television series, including:
Scenic artist on Circus (2000)
Chief scenic artist on Revelation (2001)
Scenic artist on Finding Neverland (2004)
Chargehand painter on Little Dorrit (2008)
Scenic artist on Desperate Romantics (2009)
Painter on Chatroom (2010)
Scenic artist / supervising painter on The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Head of department painter on Rush (2013)
SELECTED COLLECTIONS AND COMMISSIONS
Included in various public institutions:
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
New Zealand Foreign Affairs Art Collection
Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato
Massey University Art Collection
Bank of New Zealand Art Collection
Private commissions include:
Steven Pimlott OBE (English opera and theatre director)
Dirk van Dooren (leading English designer and creative)
Alberto Aspesi (founder of Italian fashion label Aspesi)
Gielgud Theatre, National Theatre, London
Miro Bilbrough, “ART: Six Pack Ideas into ‘Shifting Ground’ Show,” Evening Post, 9 February 1989, p. 19.
Gregory Burke, Shifting Ground: Chris Cane, Derek Cowie, Barnard McIntyre, Jane Poutney, Diane Prince, Ruth Watson (Wellington: Wellington City Art Gallery, c. 1989), exhibition catalogue.
Stephen Cain, “Contrast and Starkness Feature in Cowie Works,” Evening Post, 16 March 1991, p. 31.
Stuart McKenzie and Robert Leonard, Disgust and Neglect: Introducing Derek Cowie (Auckland: Artspace, 1989), exhibition catalogue.
Stuart McKenzie and Robert Leonard, “The Systematic Derangement of the Body: An Iconographic Study of Work by Derek Cowie”, Art New Zealand (Winter 1989) vol. 51: pp. 58-61.
Geri Thomas, “EXHIBITIONS: Wellington’, Art New Zealand (Winter 1989) vol. 51: pp. 46-47.