Over the last three years we have seen a popularity hike in the use of risograph as the print material supplementary to New Zealand Contemporary Art. It’s almost saturated the design market, at one stage seeming like a template to exhibition ephemera. It’s attractive for obvious reasons, it’s tactile, cheap and perfect for mass production. Most importantly, I think the attraction in the form was a desire to retract to manual print processes, almost nostalgic. The ‘digital screen print’ production allows a nature of layering and urgency, deeply embedded within political image making.
James Cousins’ Restless Idiom at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery speaks design language. The 15 paintings ranging in sizes but mostly large all include a reproduced image (originally a photograph) and on top of that are contradictory abstract layers. Cousins employs various methods of layering – geometric stencils, floral arrangements, rolled paint – to create a dynamic image on a single painted plain.
While the reproduced image is clearly there for a reason, deciphering exactly what it is, feels less important. Through the process of layering Cousins is exploring both image making and image disruption. The play of negative spaces confuses the audience, requiring a longer viewing time. Like design and print design more specifically, Cousins plays with a combination of how digital techniques inform the physical object (through the use of printed images and of vinyl stencils) and then how the paint then interacts with these. Cousins uses the interface of painting, not to talk about painting per se but to explore the nature of image design and construction.
Thinking through publication construction as a form of communication, the designer works to walk a reader through the curated object either enhancing or obstructing the experience of reading. Similarly Cousins uses painted layers – rather than pages – to walk the viewer through a visceral experience of looking and seeing. What do our eyes naturally prioritise, the abstract or the figurative and why? Even with such layers of interruption it seems our eyes will always try to establish what the image is – or if there is one – over understanding the abstracted forms and images themselves.
I don’t have a clue about painting. But, walking into Restless Idiom by James Cousins I felt like I understood something more than the clear visual references to Gerhard Richter. It was like looking at really great risographs. On one hand there is a sense of trying to understand ‘what’ you are looking at, but more interestingly is the question of ‘how’. On a riso, you loose any sense of control and instead each layer is informed by the layer before it, the paper and the riso itself, the finished risograph then has more to do with it’s own boundaries than you the maker. Like Cousins, you look to understand how each layer of paint has behaved because of the previous one, they set their own guides. Most satisfying is making controlled digital elements human again.