New Work at Kereru Gallery, Nelson

Ehara koe i a ia! One of my paintings for the group exhibition BEAUTIFUL CREATURES at Kereru gallery, 10 Feb – 17 March.

The colour of feathers: paintings by Nina Cook

Opening 2. 2016. Oil on canvas, 1016mm x 1016mm.

In the seduction routines of Lawes’s parotia (a bird of paradise) the breast feathers of the male bird shift dramatically in appearance from blue-green to orange-yellow due to staccato back and forth movements. Swift shivers of reflected colour ranging from warm to cold entice and entrance the target of the amour.

Where though does the colour of feathers come from? While some of it is dietary, birds would have to be eating a psychedelic diet to explain the shimmer of the kereru or the tail of peacocks. It turns out the answer lies in nano level structures.

The main shaft of feathers is the rachis; from this barbs extend to the outward edge of the feather. The barbs are connected by barbules that have hooks to hold them together; in the bird of paradise the barbules are V shaped. It is the V structure that results in the colour shift from blue to yellow as the chest moves from left to right.

While the brown of peacock feathers is due to melanin, the colour of peacock tail feathers is due to structural colouration at the same nano level. The hooked barbules in a ‘diffraction grating’ of chitin create light reflections. The effect is to scatter light into several beams traveling in different directions. This is also why the lustre of the kereru feather lasts long after the bird dies: the colour is a function of structure rather than living biology.

Feather of an African Eagle Owl magnified

by 150 times under a scanning electron microscope. Image © Paolo Taranto. The rachis is the lower straight line, the barbs extend from it and tiny hooked barbules branch from the barbs.

The very same regime of rachis, barbs and hooked barbules that connect, is necessary for flight and to protect birds from wind that would otherwise destroy a single feather. Consequently birds need not one feather but many. They need a connected and sumptuous array of feathers to fly, stay alive and have bird sex.

Such are the collection of thoughts about feathers, colour and visual luxury that assemble on reflection of Nina Cook’s Opening works. Sumptuously indulgent, some of the paintings have sensual cavities accompanied by extravagant displays of form and colour that come close to gorging the eyes. Words such as colour, spectrum and visual feast apply equally to the paintings as they do to the tail of peacocks.

While achieved by artist intuition, revealed in these compositions are strong pointers to the science contained in the structure of feathers and yet so much more. Quanta of mystique, charm, endearment and danger are rooted in a sensuality that isn’t merely sexual. Running the gamut of reflected colour and tone, sensations of awe and indulgence invite speculations that test the capacity of English language to explain pictures.

There is a flux of energy running from one feather to the next and among the radiant clusters. Some of the works invite a speculative voluptuousness that engenders a polyamorous visual experience. This gives rise in places to a form of gluttony for the iris. Then there are those recesses, the orifices of several compositions that hide the darkness at the same time as revealing the emptiness: how true. In addition there is a deepened sense of elegance, a visual extrapolation of feather language bundled in a spectrum of colour running a gamut of emotions. Looking, feeling and drifting in and among the works is rewarding for those open to such flights of vision.

Opening 3. 2016. Oil on canvas, 1016mm x 1016mm.

Looking back, landmarks in the heritage of feathers include Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ 1814 La Grande Odalisque commissioned by Queen Carolineof Naples (sister of Napolean), noted for its sensuous extension of anatomy and suggestive peacock feathers. In the 18th century Jacques de Vaucanson created to much acclaim an automaton that could both flap it’s wings and poop (well, actually it excreted a seed and made a bad smell). Feathers have been incorporated into art since at least the Egyptians, notably with wall paintings from the tomb/chapel of Nebamun dated to 1350BCE which depict feathers with a sparse technique, nonetheless compelling. More recently in deep time there have been the multi-factored revelations of feathered dinosaurs such as Yutyrannus huali, ending the controversy over the celebrated fraud early in the millennium.

It is in the gathering of feathers into patterns that reveal structure and colour while exposing psychology that the intrigue of Cook’s works resides. The paintings have an instantaneous appeal that warrants longer looking and that is about as much as can be said for art anywhere at any time.

Ian Clothier


I am very excited by this new series of work.
It is simultaneously the most abstracted and the most revealing work I have ever created.
There’s a poem forming slowly in my head that accompanies this series of paintings, but, because I am not strong at crafting words, the concept is thus far ill-expressed. I’ll keep fussing away at it and see what I can come up with.
They don’t have titles yet. Just ‘Opening’, or maybe wHole.
I have time – these paintings take forever and cannot be rushed

Opening 1: Oil on canvas, 1015mm x 1015mm.

Opening 2: Oil on canvas, 1015mm x 1015mm.

Untitled 4: Oil on board, 300mm.

Untitled 6: Oil on board, 300mm.

Hercule and Baccus in Christchurch after the quakes: Oil on canvas.

Recent Work

This painting is about how many of us (people living in Christchurch) coped and didn’t cope during and after the catastrophic 2010/11 earthquakes. People were at times incredibly brave (Hercules) and incredibly overwhelmed (Baccus). Many sought solus in the grape. The surrounding scene is ‘the hole-in-the-ground’ building site/duck pond on Armagh St. It’s winter, cold & gray. The rebar resembles the leafless winter foiliage – we know spring will come, but it doesn’t make it any less cold and miserable. The swan (a familiar) is old Christchurch. The fantail stands for both death and hope. As birds they represent a massive passage of time dating back to the dinosaurs and even greater calamities. The body in the water is the cold, hard truth – people died. People lost property, safety (or their sense of), money, employment and faith (in the system that was supposed to support them and be fair). Girl hanging upside down has had her life turned upside down – fraught play. Danger and life.

This painting is currently in the Little River Gallery.