Mike Petre’s black and white paintings of cattle have achieved iconic status in New Zealand art. He uses implication, understatement and paraphrase as fundamental stylistic tools. In these works, the backgrounds have been removed and the cattle beasts come to float in unspecified space. He also achieves the rare and remarkable pictorial quality of the animals appearing both solid and liquid at the same time. He presents volume and body mass, the variable structure of the head and disposition with the authority of an insider; he knows these animals completely.
There is also more than an echo in these works of the (politicised) gaze of modern portraiture but the statements and hints of eye contact occur from deep within the shadowed eye sockets. This direct challenge to the viewer adds an unsettling aspect into the viewing relationship and significantly broadens the visceral experience. These are no ordinary images of cattle – these are beasts bred to die, a commodity farmed for our needs, and we know this.
Petre builds in numerous allusions to farming, such as with the dripping lines strongly suggesting carcasses hanging. He uses repetition as a device to present the animals as objects for scrutiny – we compare one to the other and appraise the differences.
In every black and white work the landscape exists only in our minds. In Field Study 228 and Field Study 229 he alters the dynamic by adding a green background and using a palette knife. This completely different technique of building an impasto surface across the entire work unites the animals and the landscape, and in this way presents them as completely entwined, literally as one and the same.