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Colin McCahon’s paintings seem familiar. It is not because 6 Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950) captures a landscape I know well, with extraneous vegetation stripped away to its strong lines and sky light. It is not that The Lark’s Song (a poem by Matire Kereama) (1969), evokes nostalgia for living with Maori as a second language or because The Angel of Annunciation (1947) reminds me of Nice, and a Marc Chagall angel. And it is not because I once passed one of McCahon’s big ‘I AM’ statements daily, on a wide landing somewhere between small rooms (Gate 111, 1970—not in the NGV exhibition). Did I pause then to wonder, whether as a female I would scrawl, ‘I cry for us all’? It is not what I remember that makes the paintings familiar.
I remember with clarity McCahon’s friend, the poet James K. Baxter, long-haired, brown and grey—in a bank, in the street, in a lecture theatre. These two dominating figures in twentieth century, faraway New Zealand arts shared a fascination with Christianity and a rejection of its orthodoxy. As artists they ‘worried it to death’. I toured in a Baxter play about a fundamentalist family’s violence. Like Baxter’s word plays, McCahon’s word paintings should not be taken as an assertion of the artist’s religious faith but as a restatement that life needs belief. But what to believe they ask?
No, what I find familiar are McCahon’s repetitions of a grand narrative about life and death, his artistic obsession with an originating drama. The repetition and the boldness of his paintings make them familiar as performances. If McCahon’s theme of radical religiosity only seems to reinforce his geographical isolation as an artist, remember that Warhol explored repetition (and he went to church), and Rauschenberg staged big and bold art works.
McCahon’s work asks ‘what is this drama at the centre of his society’s beliefs?’. He identifies significant moments in the Christian drama and never strays too far after that. He pursues them with a classical clarity, without personification, and with all extraneous detail removed. In paintings such as A Question of Faith (1970) there is more light than solidity in the expression. The tension of the struggle to resurrect belief in faith is there for McCahon, even as a negative to the positive, as in Victory over Death 2 (1970). Peggy Phelan convinces us that the ontology of performance (or living) is unrepeatable, inseparable from the moment of its present, and therefore outside representation, yet performance is composed of repetition.1 In the striving to repeat the past there is only a semblance, an echo, a performance.
In 1963 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum glowed with playful colour, flippant objects and surface oddities by Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein in an exhibition curated by Lawrence Alloway and titled Six Painters and the Object. Back in New Zealand after his 1958 visit to the United States, McCahon’s landscapes (exhibited in 1963) and his unfolding black, white and grey expressionism, with an occasional brown, solid T-letter cross, seemed to belong in another world. Yet, there were some semblances between McCahon’s repetition and that period of American art. For example, Rauschenberg collapsed together representational forms—silkscreening, film, photography, paint and art history—to make his grey, running strip, Barge (1962-63) that seems to sum up industrial America’s frenzied, destructive power. Andy Warhol turned photographs of death into orange-brown images that repeat and repeat and repeat. By contrast, McCahon repeatedly returned to, and took literally, the culture’s central narrative of punishment, death and resurrection.
In 2003, McCahon’s oeuvre has been respectfully and sincerely resurrected in Melbourne’s new high church of art at Federation Square. Meanwhile the 1963 Guggenheim exhibition, with significant additions, is being restaged at the Venice Hotel in Las Vegas, the heartland of ironic replication. These repetitions from a historical present make the examples of semblances evident, despite confirming geographical and artistic distance. There is familiarity in the narratives of death and destruction by Rauschenberg and Warhol, if not in the outward approach to repetition. However, McCahon’s ‘worrying’ seems particularly potent to this present. His repetitions remind us that savagery is shown to those who question belief linked to power, and that nonconformists continue to provoke murderous intent. They confirm that our capacity to believe is how we live.
In the mid-to-late 1950s, when avant-garde performance was beginning to replace words with visuality and repetition, McCahon was putting words on his paintings and removing images and objects. His paintings require a different kind of engagement from their audience. They are active, like graffiti, his lines of spiky script taut as stretched barbed wire across his horizontal paintings, Sacred (1976) and Paul to Hebrews (1980). Prophetically, his number paintings from Numerals (1965) look to the foundations of an unshakeable belief in a digital age, and ontological dependence on a constant flow of jumbled numerical code.
1. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, 1993, p.146.