Derek Cowie was one of the most talked about artists in the 80s in New Zealand. His rapid rise through the art world ranks with his strangely provocative combination of punk attitude and surrealism had the art world on tenterhooks. But, at the height of his powers, he disappeared for more than twenty years.
Adding strings to his bow that include winning an Emmy Award for art direction on the BBC’s Little Dorrit TV series, painting public scenes for the National Theatre in London, and during the 1990s, working with his friend, owner and designer of the Sugar Club, Vivienne Hayman, to create a mural for their main wall, Cowie has returned home to Wellington. And he is angry at what he has found.
His new exhibition that will open at Page Blackie Gallery on 11 October is entitled COW WEE HAZCHEM and the title hammers home Cowie’s deeply felt environmental concerns. That cows and hazardous chemicals are damaging, not just our environment, but us, individually.
Dame Anne Salmond, in an article for the Whanganui Chronicle, quoted a Whanganui elder: “It was with huge sadness that we observed dead tuna (eels) and trout along the banks of our awa tupua (ancestral river). The only thing that is in a state of growth is the algae and slime. The great river flows from the gathering of the mountains to the sea. I am the river, the river is me. If I am the river and the river is me, then emphatically, I am dying.”
The artworks in Cowie’s new exhibition are wide ranging in imagery and media, from expanding foam on net curtains, to crushed plaster on canvas. But the message is abundantly clear in each work: Cowie believes deeply that we are in a biosphere collapse and that the problem of understanding and acting is ours, individually. These works force a response that is an uncomfortable balance of admiration of the artwork’s beauty, while acknowledging there is a prevalent darkness in the image.
Typifying this, is Cadmium Yellow Moby Dick. This painting is from Cowie’s Destroyed National Treasures series. It is an echo of McCahon’s famous Moby Dick is Sighted of Muriwai Beach series. But Cowie has destroyed his version. It is battered and crushed, as though it has been found in some post-apocalyptic world. And for the viewer it is jarring to see a destroyed Colin McCahon painting. We know how to preserve paintings and how to apply value to them. Cowie is outraged that we cannot apply the same preservation attitude to our dying environment.
Cowie says of this artworks, “I use cadmium yellow, cadmium orange and cadmium red because of the alarming and increasing amounts of cadmium in our soils, which is coming from increased use of fertilisers and dairy intensification. These practices are so widespread they seem unstoppable. So what can an individual do? To me, art is the means by which we define, challenge and extend ourselves. Without it we become barbaric. I want these artworks to attempt to turn an intelligent response to a situation into a soulful one.”