Picturing Killers: The Gow Langsford Debate


Nothing to do with this, of course.

UPDATE 6/5/14:  The artist and father of Sio Matalasi have now talked and it has been decided the image is going to remain up at the Gow Langsford Gallery.


There is a reasonable squall around the images by artist Jono Rotman on display at Gow Langsford in Auckland, a well-known dealer gallery.

The images depict gang members from the Mongrel Mob, Notorious and Rogue gangs of New Zealand.

Initially, the image is arresting then engaging but ultimately it is shocking.

In an interview last night on Seven Sharp, the artist spoke about the reaction to the works in a way that seemed flippant and ill-informed.  His view was that as an artist, he was merely portraying a sector of New Zealand society that existed but had little exposure in this context – a marginalised group.

The usual context for exposure is through media dissemination of images that are negative and loaded.  Rotman has an uneasy relationship with the media, a kind of mistrust.

So, how do we find a suitable context for images of killers in art?  Mike Hosking raised an interesting point, by holding up courtroom images of notorious killers such as Antonie Dixon and a painting of Clayton Weatherston and asked: is it art?

It’s a difficult area.  Photography can bridge a gap between documenting and immortalising that painting cannot.  Is this why the images at Gow Langsford are so controversial?  Nah.  It’s because one of the images is of a man who killed another, and is awaiting trial for it.  Imagine how the family feel.

I wondered if we flipped the situation on its head and an artist exhibited pictures of a white power member, a killer.  How about we exhibit images of other kinds of criminals; paedophiles, for example.  Where do, and where should we draw the line in art?

Rotman seeks the same kind of notoriety as his Mongrel Mob subjects, and in a way exclude the viewer from context.  Isn’t this reverse post-modernism?  Surely a viewer can bring to an image their own tastes, experiences, memories and these build the image just as much as the meaning.  Rotman’s detached model is all that is wrong in our modern culture anyway.  “Take from it what you want, that’s YOUR problem”.  Ugh.

But what is at stake here, once again is human frailty – so often overlooked.  The family of Sio Matalasi is devastated that such an image is on display publicly “as art”.  In a gallery context, Matalasi’s alleged killer, Shane Harrison is immortalised forever, on gallery wall, while the subject awaits trial.  Their son is dead, in the ground.

I’m an art history student; I like controversy in art.  But human frailty is way more important than notoriety.


One Comment

  1. I initially thought it should be taken down. Then I saw the full image on tv and he looks like the personification of evil. Overall, these portraits have a beautiful richness, clarity and detail that make them compelling. Interesting that the photographer is Dutch. He was very snooty when interviewed on Seven Sharp (I thought Toni Street was excellent) and when he called the image ‘the work’ as though it was some sacred morally neutral object, I thought it was a typical art wanker response. It seems that timing is a big issue here and in respect and empathy for the family it should probably be removed.

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