Sheep Country at Real Gallery by Adam Gifford

Sheep Country at Real Gallery by Adam Gifford

Sheep Country at Real Gallery by Adam Gifford

Posted By: New Zealand Herald - 25 Oct, 2005

The devastation of Niue by Cyclone Heta in January last year sparked a change of course for painter Mark Cross, a long-time resident of the island. After more than a decade of painting mainly Pacific Island landscapes or allegorical works of figures in island settings, Cross decided to accept a commission to paint a Central Otago landscape for a South Island collector.

"I said, 'That's Grahame Sydney territory,' but he wanted one of mine," Cross says. "While I was there I thought I would put an exhibition together. I called it Sheep Country because I was looking for something ubiquitous."

It was also a sly dig on a homeland that Cross, through an expatriate's prism, feels limits itself. While he was in the South Island, the sheep nicknamed Shrek was found with a six-year wool growth on him.

"I was flabbergasted by the furore and the celebrity status the sheep got. I was also struck by the nationalistic tone in New Zealand, which is far more evident than when I was last living there 10 years ago.

"It pervades the atmosphere, the media, the art as well. I feel art should be more universal, but a lot of what I see still has a very parochial look."

As well as Central Otago, Cross scouted locations in the King Country, where he worked as a toolmaker before first heading for Niue in 1973, and around Kaipara Harbour.

"When I was growing up in West Auckland, I used to spend a lot of time around the Kaipara. There were all these bits of coast which were untouched. I think that experience led me to Niue, where you could just walk along the reef and it was absolutely pristine."

There are no sheep or people in the paintings, but they are present - in the walking tracks on the hill, the hoof prints in the mud, the roads, gates and fences.

"As soon as you put a figure in, it changes the context. People tend to read them literally, not metaphorically, so I get misrepresented. I prefer to have a whole exhibition of figures, so I can explain the issues," Cross says.

The human-modified landscape contrasts with the wilderness of Niue which is also vertical, dominated by cliffs, chasms and forests. The horizon is on the ocean.

Sheep Country offered Cross the chance to paint vistas, and from a high perspective. "When I come here I am hit by the wideness. Even coming in from the plane, driving beside the Manukau Harbour, there is the shock of seeing a long way."

In some of the paintings, the viewer may wonder whether the light came from Antipodean skies or from Pacific waters.

Cross' studio in Liku has white walls and a turquoise linoleum floor, the colour of the lagoon - all of which can affect some of his choices. Pointing to a painting of a dirt road heading up a shadowed hillside, he says, "When I took that outside to photograph, it changed colour."

The exhibition becomes a snapshot of the New Zealand landscape at a certain time, tamed and modified. Fifty years ago paintings of the same landscapes featured burnt stumps, as in the paintings of Eric Lee-Johnson. "I also like the road trip. In Niue, you drive an hour and you have been round the island. Here, I like to shoot off for a week or so."

Cross says the internet has eased Niue's isolation, and lessened his desire to move back to New Zealand, even though he visits regularly. "I have to oscillate between here and the islands. I want to keep fresh, and every time I go back, I do things differently, I see new things. That is refreshing."