Conspiracy Plan

by Andrew Clark first published in Auction N˚4 catalogue, 30th Nov 2016

Tony de Lautour’s career has been characterised by a posture of “bad-ness,” what Jonathan Bywater calls the “bastard culture of commercial internationalism.”¹  Of course, if you call your first show Bad White Art, this kind of thing is bound to happen; de Lautour has hardly shied away from such an identity. Even his recent shift into abstraction seems in some sense to be a reaction to the suspicion levelled at abstract painting in recent years; if abstraction has devolved to the status of “zombie formalism” in the eyes of the critical establishment, then by de Lautour’s logic, it might finally be “bad” enough for him to engage with. Over the years, de Lautour’s oeuvre has catalogued a range of icons of “badness,” in several senses of the word: bug-eyed, strung-out figures, bottles of booze, snakes, spiders, joints, hypodermics, knives, guns.

Conpsiracy Plan displays a selection from de Lautour’s library of motifs: heraldic lions, mangy leftovers of Brisith imperialism; skulls, echoes of traditional momento mori but also of gang patches and home-made tattoos; and ghostly white landscape forms, the same bare-bones representation of New Zealand’s terrain which has become synonymous with Colin McCahon. However, for de Lautour these forms are not some mystical apparatus, loaded with the trappings of national identity and art history; rather, they are like bleached skeletons, smoking ruins devoid not only of vegetation and topsoil, but of substance—in fact, these are not landscapes at all, but the ghosts of landscape, floating in the void, sometimes atop flimsy “rafts,” other times supported by the picture’s edge itself, as here.

Conspiracy theories come about for the same reasons as most other folklore and mythology: a desire to reduce the complexity and randomness of the universe to an understandable narrative. The idea that an international cabal is controlling the destiny of the world is preferable in many ways to confronting the reality that there is no overarching plan in place. In this sense, conspiracy theories are a kind of perverse coping mechanism, an idea which de Lautour plays with in this painting, depicting New Zealand as a smoking wreckage, over which the lions of our colonial past strut and posture. Around them are clustered a range of esoteric icons, from which we are invited to construct our own conspiratorial explanation for the situation at hand.

A black lion, barely discernible against the black background (a starless night, a windowless room, or the bowels of the earth?), hoists aloft a branch, around which a serpent is coiled, echoing a caduceus. His companion, the crowned white lion, holds a skull and a bomb, emblazoned with the union jack; his hind foot rests on a globe of the world. A small votive icon, depicting a robed figure in a bishop’s hat, incongruously holds that unmistakable icon of third-world power, an AK-47 assault rifle. Elsewhere, a tiny pyramid, topped by the “eye of providence,” is lifted from the back of the US one-dollar bill. This seemingly-innocuous symbol is associated in conspiratorial circles with the idea that a secret group of “illuminati” are plotting to bring the world under their influence; de Lautour is here positioning the real colonial history of New Zealand, whereby this place was controlled and re-shaped by far-off influences from the other side of the world, against the contemporary mythology of globalist conspiracy, with its nameless, faceless, placeless antagonists.

  1. Jonathan Bywater, “Elvis and Other Evils: The Art of Tony de Lautour,” Art New Zealand 75 (1995): 64.
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