ART - SEEKING inspiration for his religion-infused paintings, Matthew Couper went to the heart of Sin City.
There, he worked under the most devilish glow of any along the whoring, gambling streak of Las Vegas’s Sunset Boulevard. Couper’s studio-cum-apartment lurks in the shadow of the Stratosphere Tower . . . a soaring example of excess in a city defined by its excesses.
And there, he says, he found what he was looking for.
After winning the Green Card lottery, Couper and his artist wife Jo Russ first headed for San Francisco when they moved to the United States two years ago.
“But we wanted something more extreme,” said Couper as he worked on installing his new show, which opens in Gisborne tomorrow. “We wanted to immerse ourselves in a city that gave us a real culture shock. One that was completely turned over to capitalism . . . one where we could feel the real American experience.”
Locating himself on the border of one of the most notorious gambling strips in the world was one way of doing it, but Couper kept himself out of the casinos.
Instead he worked, churning out rich, meticulously-detailed paintings that have been exhibited from the UK to the US, and made him a bit of a media darling in the burgeoning Las Vegas arts scene.
In recent months he has also been carv-ing, polishing and etching away layers of paint, constructing the scrimshawed sculptural “whales’ teeth” that bring a new twist to his Gisborne show.
Scrimshaw? It’s an age-old art form, but it fits, the artist says.
While his work explores the anxieties around modern life, his practice borders on the antiquated — good old-fashioned paint applied to create Couper’s own interpretation of sacred-style art in a world that humans insist on destroying, and where greed is not just “good”, it is “god”.
The style will be familiar to those who have been watching Hawke’s Bay-raised Couper’s work since he started exhibiting at Gisborne’s PaulNache gallery more than half a dozen years ago but, just like the city from which it sprang, it is much, much bigger.
Spooling out from that central collection of eight detailed scrimshanded pieces are a number of smaller oil-on-tin paintings — dubbed “retablos” after the South American religious art that informs them — most taking one motif from Couper’s armoury and applying it to devastating effect.
What’s new, though, is the sheer scale of the four dramatic central works, which the artist painted on canvas back in the US then neatly rolled to be shipped over to New Zealand then stretched on frames upon their arrival.
In between are three oil-on-canvas pieces that act as intermediary between the extremes.
Taken as a whole Couper’s show, The Whaling and Naching of Teeth, is an unsettling experience but humour casts light on the darkness of despair; stylised devotional painting brings beautiful even where ugly lies.
Scratch that — Couper doesn’t appreciate use of words like “ugly”, even when applied to the black heart of casino capitalism.
An exhausted Kiwi skeleton may lie slumped under the hysterical light of the Stratosphere but, he says, there’s nothing “ugly” about that.
“The paintings do ask questions about things like the struggle for survival but they don’t pass judgement,” he says.
“Even though they’re fine art paintings they’re a bit like the Las Vegas Strip itself. They don’t aim to exclude anyone, and they never even pretend to offer any answers.”
■ In conjunction with tomorrow’s opening of Matt Couper’s exhibition The Whaling and Naching of Teeth (PaulNache gallery, 6pm), Hawke’s Bay sculptor Ben Pearce will be in town to launch a new collection of his own intriguing, treehouse-like constructions.