ALEXANDER BISLEY talks to artist Kelcy Taratoa, whose paintings are charged with an awareness of encroaching urban and popular culture.

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KELCY TARATOA is passionate about being an artist. “I believe that the talents I’ve been given combine in such a way that being an artist seems the only career choice that would bring me peace, he says. “I feel very strongly that I have something to say, something to contribute, a role to play,” he explains.

Meeting Taratoa (Ngaiterangi, Ngati Raukawa), his enthusiasm is infectious. And he’s got the goods. With shows at major public galleries around New Zealand, he’s gaining a reputation as one of New Zealand’s leading young artists.

Charismatic and intelligent, Taratoa’s an artist who, like his hero Colin McCahon, strives to connect with a wide audience.

Many things influence and inform Taratoa’s work – fellow New Zealand artist Shane Cotton, The Silversurfer, Spiderman and X-Men comics, contemporary films, books on identity and reality, and hip-hop music. “But not the tits & booty crap – the plastic stuff”. A collaborative project is slated with Japanese hip-hop godfather DJ Krush.

Technology allows him to push the boundaries of composition, perspective and scale. He is a vivid colourist. “I’m captivated and inspired by colour. I work with colour in such a way that it challenges, questions and excites the viewer.”

Identity is central to his work. Taratoa explains that “there are three distinct areas of focus: links between history, social-situation and identity-formation; ethical self-determination; and individual perceptions – viewing and making sense of the world we live in.”

Escapism is another major theme. “Escaping from one’s reality is a daily exercise whether we consciously engage or not,” he says. What interests me about the notion of escapism is that in this world, escaping is big business and we as consumers buy into the products that transform our realities and lives. We’re a society that lives for the moments each day that allow us to escape, through PS2 and XBOX fantasy worlds, online virtual realities, alcohol and recreational drugs, music, movies, the list goes on. Are we not all escapism junkies?” he asks. “What I also find intriguing about all this is that these technologies that enable us to step outside our reality increasingly blur the line between the real and the unreal— the line is not so easily distinguished anymore.”

Whanau, definitely real, is essential to Taratoa. “My whanau, my wife Mel and children, are everything to me. They ground me. They are the joy and happiness in my life. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”

Both of Taratoa’s grandfathers were in the formidable WWII Maori Battalion. Growing up he often listened to their war stories. Today, the artist lives in Palmerston North near the Linton Army Base. Most days, military vehicles course along his sleepy street - and have found their way into recent paintings.

Taratoa’s latest work, included in Pataka’s The New Painting exhibition, focuses on Western notions of good and evil, hero and villain. “America has been working relentlessly through language, text and image to brainwash us into subscribing to their image of the terrorist, the bad guy, the villain. The distinction [between hero and villain] is no longer as clear or clean cut. Take the characters in Sin City or Kill Bill.”

» Above: “Episode 0022”, Kelcy Taratoa, 2006