The smooth powder-coated surface of Michael Parekowhai’s Kiss the Baby Goodbye disguises its layers of densely packed meaning. With tongue in cheek, Parekowhai has appropriated Gordon Walters’s classic 1969 painting Kahukura. He transforms Walters’s coolly modernist painting into a sculpture resembling an oversized child’s toy – a plastic kitset model with snap out, glue together components.
Parekowhai’s barbed homage refers in part to the debate surrounding Walters’s appropriation of the koru, a traditional Māori art form. Walters, a New Zealander of European ancestry, made his signature works of the 1960s and 1970s with a stripped-back version of the traditional koru – a move that has been seen by some as divesting the koru of its cultural significance. Parekowhai is of European and Māori descent, but his work neither prosecutes or defends Walters’s use of the koru. Instead, he appropriates the appropriation. Kiss the Baby Goodbye’s industrial finish, with its connotations of assembly line production, further unsettles any distinction between what is authentic and what is borrowed.
Walters’s paintings create a play of positive and negative space, with light and dark graphic elements curving into and forming each other. Of course, in Parekowhai’s sculptural version these interlocking dark and light elements become actual solids and voids. While the ‘kitset’ format seems to invite us to snap the koru components out of their frame and build something new – do-it-yourself sculpture – this would cause the negative space to disappear and the tension and balance of the composition to be lost. Ambiguous, mischievious and subversive, Parekowhai’s work dismantles easy categories and simple oppositions, opening a field of play.