COLIN McCAHON IN MELBOURNE: Context is everything (2001)

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COLIN McCAHON IN MELBOURNE: Context is everything (2001)

It can happen anywhere: in Miami you hear OMC's How Bizarre, on late-night television in London Smash Palace turns up, in a Japanese park you come across Maori carvings, in Hong Kong a woman is wearing a bone pendant of familiar design ...

This not the shock of the new, rather the frisson of the familiar.

Our culture, inchoate some say, resonates powerfully to us as New Zealanders in these alien places.

Recently there was an instructive Colin McCahon exhibition in Melbourne, a mere six paintings but padded out by works of New Zealand and Australian artists. Entitled Colin McCahon: A Time for Messages, the exhibition, modest though it is, has received considerable attention. It made a double-page spread in the Pacific edition of Time where Melburnian Michael Fitzgerald trumpeted McCahon as "an artistic prophet."

But as Peter Timms, in an insightfully interpretative comment on curator Jason Smith's intentions, observed in the Age, McCahon was not just a religious painter but a Christian one - and how unfashionable is that in art circles?

"One way curators and critics get around the embarrassment of McCahon's Christianity is to turn it into a vague, naive nature-mysticism. They toss around reassuring words like spirituality, faith, the sublime, nature and so on as though these concept belong to the same box marked 'other worldly,"' wrote Timms, who noted acerbically the resonant but hollow title of the exhibition and how the collection puts emphasis on quasi-spiritual responses to the land, cultural memory and so forth while downplaying the Christian message that more properly deserves to be centre-stage.

It's hard to avoid the C-word when the biggest work displayed is the powerful A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland).

Timms raises a valid point because the McCahon works in A Time for Messages are surrounded by suspiciously feeble homages by Brent Harris and Imants Tillers "whose post-modern appropriation of McCahon borders on the obsessive," said Time charitably.

There is also Judy Watson's Driftnet, a dull canvas and collage that appears to have merited inclusion because, according to the artist, it "summons up the passage of water, the Pacific Ocean that connects out two countries: Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa. It holds the weave, the threads of cultural knowledge, a catcher of thoughts like a spirit net." There's politically correct blather about how bad driftnet fishing is for the environment too. Perhaps it is a time for message to Watson: it is the Tasman Sea, not the Pacific Ocean, between us.

The exceptions in this politically inclusive aggregation of padding (some Aboriginal artists who are, unsurprisingly, connected to the land and spirituality) are Shane Cotton's mysterious, textured Viewed and Rosalie Gascoigne's weathered and painted boards Composition III.

The detritus around the edges doesn't distract from the McCahons, however. They are simply curatorial indulgences to make a proper exhibition out of a numerically small number of works.

But Timms' suspicions are some that many have harboured about McCahon and the way he is surrounded by the cachet of various agendas.

As undeniably monumental - intellectually and physically - as the Northland Panels, Victory over Death 2, and A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland) for example, are, there are also works, such as I and Thou (1954), Cross (1959) and others which seem hamfisted.

No amount of intellectual cant, vocabulary evacuations and obfuscation prevalent in the world of writing about art rehabilitates such work for me.

McCahon is most often turned into a mythic figure also, curator Smith referring to "this huge enigmatic presence."

I never knew the man, but one who did, a friend who wrote about him 40 years ago, said McCahon was a practical man who was good with his hands, an effective organiser, a brilliant teacher, thorough researcher and was not an improvident bohemian. Okay, he was a quiet fella on a personal quest for expression and meaning - but the subsequent mythologising seems an increasingly marketable invention.

It is difficult separating the work from all that surrounds it, but one painting in the Melbourne exhibition - and you can see why they spent $225,000 acquiring it from Auckland's Gow Langsford Gallery in 1999 - is an outstanding, pivotal work.

It is entitled One, a small work (60.7cm x 60.7cm) but its scale more engaging because you can read it easily. However, the simplicity of its calligraphic construction is deceptive. One is full of resonance. The more you look, the more you see.

The sliver of black in the top left creates the suggestion of an ochre hillside in the foreground, upon which the words are imposed. One is a landscape painting despite first appearances, and one in which you can disappear.

As long ago as 1961, critic, and subsequently McCahon curator, Wystan Curnow wrote of the artist's Gate paintings that they denied the frame, leaped from the canvas, moved into and out of it.

Here the frame, broad black wood, is significant for what it does and doesn't do. More than prescribe the limit of the board on which the simple symbols are painted, it is the hard-edged counterpoint to the ambiguous block-like "I" at the centre: is it the Roman numeral for one, is it the first person singular?

Whatever - it is properly both - as you consider that in the context of the word "One" it becomes the portal to a dark space beyond, like the mysterious darkness surrounding a Caravaggio Deposition. It is the inexplicable blackness of the unknown that surrounds the light of life. The "I" is the dark keyhole to understanding. Painted in the years before Victory Over Death 2 (the famous "I AM"), it is of a spiritual - Christian? - search for meaning.

But if there are universal issues being probed here, is there something specifically New Zealand about the work?

There is.

And the reason is as simple and a deep as the painting itself.

Surrounded by Australian artists he becomes even more powerfully a New Zealand artist. It is in the colour, the suggestions of landscape and specifically the content in his 69 work from The Canoe Mamari series, which is text on board in his signature style.

Next to it, for example, is Tree Rain: 16 Frog Poems by Brisbane artist Robert MacPherson. The curators clearly thought there was some connection between this work - a series of decal lettering of the scientific names for frogs - and the powerfully lettered narrative of Mamari. It is as if Maori was as dead a language as Latin.

At this point McCahon resonates all the more for us, the words not arcane but a poetic language New Zealanders can hear in our inner ear.

If you are in Melbourne before May 13, go to the gallery on Russell St, ignore the bright Warhol, and head upstairs to see one of our own. Or not. McCahon, despite this manageable, engagingly small selection, is still a dark ride as they say on the funfair attractions.

The final painting is telling and judiciously placed. McCahon takes his text from poet Peter Hooper:

Poetry isn't in my words/

It's in the direction I am pointing ... and if you are appalled

at the journey

stick to the guided tours

They issue return tickets.

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painters melbourne - Apr 6, 2011

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