Posted By: BRAD MATSEN - 22 Aug, 2002

“Art is just a way to learn how to live.”

Henry Miller – The Colossus of Maroussi

Story telling is not a luxury.  Our species is helpless without it and the urge to reflect, recollect and interpret reality to each other, among generations and between cultures emerged soon after we became truly human beings.  Just lately, I heard that early humans probably communicated first with facial expressions and I had a laugh thinking about a couple of aging hunters crouched around a smouldering fire swapping lies about how big that mammoth was two dry seasons ago.  I can just imagine them grunting, grimacing, widening their eyes, and raising their eyebrows in a symphony of exchanged wonder, amusement and power.

Ultimately, story telling is a gift of reassurance that passes between self and other.  Why should my story be of any consequence at all to another human being?  Why should his or hers matter to me?  The way we answer those questions is something we call “art”.  Literally, the word art is derived from the same etymological source as the words arthropod, arthritis, and artery; it means, simply, “an important channel or joint”.  In its modern form, the word reflects earlier understanding that painting, writing, singing, dancing, carving and all the other things we can call art are ‘joints’ between the abstractions of self and the reality of another being. 

Mark Cross and I crouched around the campfire that is the island of Niue for a short time a few years ago, raised our eyebrows, smirked, laughed, wiggled our ears, and tried to tell each other our stories.  Our encounter was utterly random and therefore infinitely trustworthy in terms of its expectations.  I had no reason to be there other than the quirky selection process of the American agency with which I was working at the time.  Mark’s path to our figurative campfire was a bit more circuitous but he was, somehow, living on the top of an ancient volcano in the Pacific Ocean.

And there we were. 

It is important to know three things about Niue.

First, that the island of Niue is the limestone-encrusted tip of a volcano at the western edge of the Pacific plate, one of the tectonic slabs that explain the evolution of rocks, crust, volcanoes and all of what we call geology.  About 200 kilometres west of Niue, the Pacific plate is diving beneath the adjacent plate in an abyss seven miles deep called the Tonga Trench.  The plate is returning to the molten centre of the earth.  Assuming the planet continues to exist, new crust will emerge of the same stuff millions and millions of years from now.  The key fact, though, is that geologic blip on the surface of the sea that we call Niue is moving towards the Tonga Trench at a rate of over 25 centimetres a year.  In geologic terms, that is break neck speed.  Most places on earth tectonic creep, as such movement is known, proceeds at a mere three or four centimetres per year.  Niue is physically and relatively quickly disappearing.

 Second, that human beings settled on Niue only during the final push of their habitation of Earth within the last thousand years, a flash in the realm of time.  The islands of Polynesia are the very last places on the planet to be occupied by our species, ending a migration that began about two million years ago on the African continent.  Every Polynesian is a relatively recent exile from somewhere else.

And third, it is most important to know that the remnant population of Niueans is returning to another mother engine of existence that we call the human race.  All human beings are bound to each other in the choreography of genes that we call animal life and we are infinitely more alike than different.  Our most distant common ancestor is the humble sponge, the first of the multi-cellular life forms we call ‘animals’ with whom we share more than half of our genetic material.  Individual cultures are worthy of celebration but we can say with absolute certainty that humanity transcends all culture, and all culture will eventually be absorbed into humanity.  It’s just happening right now, right before our eyes on Niue.

 And if it hadn’t been the British and their runaway hubris watering down the streak of humans we call Niueans, it would have been somebody else.  When the first voyagers reached Niue to launch an isolated tribe and so begin a culture, the human population of the entire world was less than a half billion; now, there are six and a half billion of us scrabbling around, colliding with each other, absorbing each other’s cultures, languages, and ideas for better or worse.

Mark Cross and I spent out first hours together on Niue trying to drink all the wine on the island as we sat under one of his paintings after a holiday party.  That painting is Terra Sarcoma, and in the weeks after my first encounter with Mark I twice rode my bicycle 40 kilometres round trip from my village just to look at it hanging there in the lobby of the Matavai, Niue’s hopeful little resort.  I marvelled at his technique.  I attempted to fathom the impulses that generated the fabulous imagery in so real an idiom.  I was floored by the irony in the juxtaposition of the hopeless desolation of Terra Sarcoma and the shiny front the country of Niue tries to project to tourists.

What is most seductive in Mark’s work is the simplicity of form, an invitation extended by the familiar that then shocks us with a stark tension.  Or as he said to me one time, “Fundamental to all life’ dramas is the polemic of contrary opposite forces and this simple understanding is used by me as a precept to the meditation on complex universal concepts”.

So there we were, two exiles on the top of a volcano at 19S 169.55W in the Pacific Ocean, eleven degrees from the Tonga Trench and total oblivion.  Over the next six months or so, Mark and I found other topics and campfires around which to crouch and tell stories.  We drank more wine.  We went swimming in the Pacific.  I watched him paint.  I went out to his village of Liku and helped him load a painting into his car, an astonishing image of an androgynous but pregnant figure against a landscape that seemed vaguely familiar but not at all of this world.  We drove the painting to Matavai and hung it on the wall.  I found it almost impossible to leave the room.

Among my grateful remembrances of my time on Niue is the gift of encountering Mark Cross.  I knew it at the time I was there and both of us recognised that this serendipitous encounter would be significant.  As our friendship ripened, Mark asked if I would consider writing this essay about him and his work to accompany a future exhibition.  I accepted his offer and he agreed to keep a kind of diary together so as to accelerate my process of understanding about his life and work.  His idea was to transcend the usual rubble of art criticism usually featured in exhibition catalogues and replace it with something insightful and out of context. 

So we kept our notes in a sketchbook, and passed it back and forth every week or so.  I would write a couple of questions and Mark would write hi reply.  Our conversations, swimming trips, and carousing were thus informed by somewhat more careful thought than just random conversation.

 Here are a few entries from that diary:

Brad – What are your thoughts on Colonialism?

Mark – I have a strong conscious need to sublimate political issues such as colonialism and identity, believing that the best art is created by the internalisation of such influences and thus using them as a means rather than an end.  This isn’t to say that I am not concerned with these issues.  From a very early age, perhaps 9 or 10, I found a need to seek out and develop relationships with the ‘other’ whether they were New Zealand Maori, Pacific Islanders, London Jewish immigrants, or the opposite sex.  By my early teens, I had become politicised and was peripherally involved with the Polynesian Panther movement, which was inspired by Malcolm X.  We were concerned with racism and equal rights for Pacific Islanders who, with the Maori, were at that time the pistons of the engines of New Zealand industry.  The Panthers were affiliated with radical Maori groups such as Nga Tamatoa whose agenda was to re-balance colonial inequities in New Zealand.  As a descendent of the colonising forces, I found it difficult to reconcile strong involvement with them and because of this and my interest in art I parted from the political scene and shortly after met Ahi, a Niuean who became my wife.

… By the mid 80s I had developed the sense that my country had finally come to realise what was to me common sense in the early 70s, although I also realised that my experience in Niue had moved me forward to a degree of “counter assimilation” that Pakeha (European) New Zealand could never reach.  This could only mean that I could only ever be an outsider in my own country and, by the lack of birthright, an outsider in any other place.

This realisation led me to the conclusion that the only art that I could produce could be of a universal nature both in style and content and so since the mid-80s that is largely what I have been doing.

Brad – What do you think about when you paint?

Mark – Depending on my mood and the degree of concentration required for the particular fragment I am working on, my ideas tend to oscillate between the mundane and the profound.  Before starting a painting, I know almost exactly what it will look like and this is because it has been fermenting away in my mind for many years.  The solitude that usually accompanies my process is quite conducive to reflection and so it is during this time that my ideas are moved around and consolidated in my mind.  This can be also extended to thought about how an exhibition and other projects should be developed.

When confronted by life’s inevitable dramas and traumatic events, I use this time of reflection while painting to find ways of reinventing the problem but in another context.  So it becomes a speculation on universal concerns.  For instance, the occurrence of cancer in a loved one and all the scientific knowledge gained in the process of learning about the sickness becomes, through analogy, a meditation on the sickness of the earth caused by human overpopulation, Terra Sarcoma.

Brad – What would you be if you weren’t a painter?

Mark – A feral with a Lear jet; the ultimate statement of having one’s cake and eating it, too (It seems to me that everyone wants that).  I thought back in the 80s that I’d like to be a taro planter with a computer, but that was easy.  It would be easy for the person who can afford a Lear jet to pretend to be feral.  But it would be difficult for a person who is used to running around naked, eating what is at hand, making love in the forest, to throw a suit on when he feels like it and fly to Tokyo or LA.  If the wild man could attain this simple feat, he indeed would be a rich person as opposed to the rich person who will experiment and then no doubt, discard his superficial caprice.

Brad – What would you want a critic to say about your entire body of work after you die?

Mark – Art criticism is governed by the political and sociological proclivities of the time and place and no doubt through the years my work and post-humous thoughts that will inevitably accumulate, will be interpreted and reinterpreted (deconstructed, re-evaluated, celebrated, denigrated etc).  But it should always be realised that in the Pacific of 2000 I refrained from the temptation of co-signing a prenuptial agreement with the current fashion in the market place whatever that was.

Although my work borrows stylistically but superficially from Western art history, its substance is irrevocably immersed in the future and this is because:

  1. I have assimilated the attitudes and aspects of different cultures to varying degrees and consequently having a profound understanding of where I come from and therefore I have worked through the need for the celebration of any single culture for its own sake.
  2. By recognising that westernart history is experiencing at the moment an end game, I understand that the future of art will no longer be linear in nature and will be multi-directional and pluralistic, exploiting all facets of life on earth from east to west, and from the past to the future.  Disparate disciplines will function with equal value in parallel so that criticism will not be restricted to the cerebral masturbation of the 1% of an elitist culture.
  3. My work shall be understood for its democratic reality and not denigrated because of it, as it sometimes is. The knee-jerk analysis, governed by the western art historical yardstick that sees my work as anachronistic is itself anachronistic.

Many of the exchanges in the Niue diary carried the mixed flavours of self-definition, as though we were trying to clarify out personal legends as we told them to each other.  Eventually I decided that no matter how Mark Cross thinks of himself, he is most of all a storyteller.  The inexorable progress of time sweeps away everything but stories told as facial expressions or magnificent paintings.

Islands disappear, cultures blend, we die.  Stories can be immortal. 

One day when Mark and I were submerged up to our necks in the crackling blue water of Limu Pool, he said to me: “My paintings are like movies, not single frames from movies but whole movies”.  And then he raised his eyebrows, wrinkled his forehead, and smiled.

A few months later, he painted Noah’s Extinction Event.  That’s me in Limu Pool.  A few months after I returned to my home in New York, I sent him a copy of my book, Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea, and Dancing to the Fossil Record.  Both the painting and the book are stories of evolution, extinction, and the ability of two humans to tell those stories.  Self becomes other, other becomes self.