Constructed from glitter-covered linen, the work possesses a fragile tactility and painterly luminescence which has become synonymous with Paterson’s oeuvre over the 20 years since he graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1997.
Elevating glitter from the realm of children’s arts and crafts to high art, Paterson’s work triggers our primal attraction to shiny objects, drawing viewers in and tempting physical exploration of its surface. The artist further underscores tactile responses by layering darker background colours over the lighter foreground. In this way, he seduces the eye and creates the impression of watery depth.
Originally part of Paterson’s 2010 exhibition The Water Between Us, ‘Fish to Water’ signalled an evolutionary moment in the artist’s practice. Previously his work had been based on patterns, often derived from kowhaiwhai other customary Māori art. In this work, Paterson shifts from the abstract to the representational realm, envisioning water as a psychological and physical boundary and divider.
The Water Between Us exhibition explored the roles and politics of water with particular focus on the Karangahake Gorge – a border between tribal lands of various iwi. Paterson raises questions which reverberate throughout New Zealand history: What is mine versus yours? What is ours versus theirs?
‘Fish to Water’ captures catfish and schooling tropical freshwater species in an aquarium tank, showing an innate understanding of the weightlessness and light of an underwater world, but rendered in unrealistic burnt oranges and yellows of retro 1970s furnishings. This strange monochrome adds an ambiguous anxiety to the work. The viewer is invited to ponder its origin – perhaps it is algae? Or pollution? With its distinctly rusty hue, maybe it refers to the Karangahake Gorge’s goldmining history? A likely answer is all of the above – the picture is loaded with multiple meanings. Drawing attention to its own artificiality of colour, medium and tactility, Paterson’s work defies categorisation while inviting the viewer to make their own meaning.
The final laugh is the artist’s: mocking his own artificiality in entitling his work, Paterson riffs on the idiom “like a fish to water” (often used to emphasise how someone adapts to a new situation with ease) to allude to the difficulty of the process used to make the work.