PRINT October 1986


EARLIER THIS YEAR, A VISITOR to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand, in Wellington, would have seen Colin McCahon’s Practical Religion: the Resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, 1970, hanging in the entrance hall. Because McCahon’s paintings remain in museums or private collections in New Zealand; because almost all the published criticism of his work has emerged from within his own country; even, perhaps, because he has rarely ventured beyond his native land, the canon of “world art" never includes him, and his greatness is acknowledged only there. But if even a reputation supported by the power of the local institutions has barely extended outside two islands in the Pacific, how can other New Zealand artists (including Maori artists) ever enter an international arena? The New Zealanders could be wrong, of course, or biased, or provincial in their estimate of their own art. What if they are correct?

The impact of Practical Religion is disorienting. Painted in black, white, and gray, it resembles a huge homemade billboard with elements of text and landscape. One of a series of paintings containing advice on the everyday aspects of Christianity, on “practical religion,” this visual litany is a meditation on the raising of Lazarus from the dead as described in the New English Bible, which is also the source of the painting’s subtitle, Victory over death. As the eye is drawn to one local incident after another in the work, from a shift of scale to the impetus of a brushstroke, the relation between those incidents becomes harder to grasp: the reading of the painting unfolds gradually, with many repetitions and new beginnings, each modifying the narrative that is being visually dramatized for the reader. McCahon’s rickety calligraphy is used to stress assertion or ambiguity or suspense, to support or reverse interpretations as they emerge.

As in many of McCahon’s works on biblical themes from the ’40s onwards, when he began to use his immediate locale and even his neighbors as subjects (in Marge as the Virgin Mary at Maitai Valley, 1946, for example), his version of the miracle is set in New Zealand: Lazarus’ sister Martha doubles as Mount Martha, in North Otago, the area where he began painting his brooding, unpeopled landscapes. The Bible provided a reservoir of understood knowledge that could be applied to the individual—in this case, a New Zealander. Localizing the setting of New Testament events was a way of bridging a divide between collective feeling and individual experience. Despite his biblical subject matter, however, it would be wrong to regard McCahon as a religious painter or even a religious man. When he focused on the Lazarus story, or on the remarks of spectators witnessing the Crucifixion (“Will Elias come to save him?”), he allowed room for skepticism. As in his “Necessary Protection” series of the ’70s, about the preservation of wild life and a view from the cliff tops over the sea, he was choosing a problem generally couched within fixed parameters, but he then resolved it poetically, by means of ambiguity, extending the range of possible meanings so far that a proposition and its opposite could coexist. So Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury, 1959, the record of a journey, divided into six separate frames, refers to the Creation but approaches heresy by suggesting that the walker himself is responsible for it. The freedom with which McCahon dealt with accepted religious ideas is paralleled by his unusual ability to relate to different cultures—Japanese, Maori, Renaissance, and Modernist art—and to operate at a point where they intersect.

McCahon’s “writing” has sometimes preempted any other action in his work. Virtuoso draftsmanship is among his strong points; as a child he was supposedly able to draw different pictures simultaneously with his right hand and his left. At art school he produced “hundreds of posters,” and it is hardly surprising that the virtues of the classic poster inform some of his paintings—The Virgin and Child Compared, 1948, is only one example. Speech bubbles, a device borrowed from the design of the Rinso soap-powder box, began appearing in his paintings around 1947, issuing from the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel or of Mary the mother of Christ. As calligraphic experiment continued, McCahon’s paintings became vivid records of the act of inscription. His way of loading a brush with white paint as a writer dips a pen in ink, then writes until it is exhausted, parallels breath in song or lineation in poetry, while his dispersal of parts of a text, with overlaps and differing emphases, gives an abstract impression of how narrative, like music, draws to a rhetorical climax. His transcription of texts is partly performative: McCahon “delivers” his lines like an actor. And, like an actor, he speaks other people’s words. His quotations may be in English or Maori, from the Bible or from poetry.

For the artist to act out his borrowed words by painting them, as a priest gives a sermon, is also an aid to his thought. Below his version of a particular text the reader glimpses other, equally rich possibilities. The self-referentiality that the text acquires, as if it is reading itself as we watch, recalls experiences of music, or the ritual repetitions of oral cultures like that of the Maori, who recite their genealogies as a record of history and as an act of self-definition. In Western culture, only the telling of beads would offer equivalent meditative possibilities. McCahon has copied Maori genealogies in multipaneled paintings, and has also employed the motif of a semicircle of airborne dots, like the map of a trajectory that has become both a rosary and a Polynesian lei.

During the “70s the meanings of McCahon’s paintings became increasingly rich as he employed his vocabulary of signs in an ever more bewildering variety of contexts. Mondrian’s Chrysanthemum of 1908 (View from the Top of a Cliff series), 1971, recalls an image from the work of a favorite painter and allows it to hover on the horizon, turning it into a setting sun or an atomic explosion. In Tui Can-Celebrates Muriwai Beach: Moby Dick seen off Muriwai Beach, 1972, the tau cross, a familiar cipher, doubles as McCahon’s young grandson, throwing his arms upward in sheer joy as the offshore island of Oaia turns into the Great White Whale. Similarly, the letter I, which appeared in I Am, 1954, as the very name of God, gradually develops the associations of a passage of light from Heaven to Earth, a path for grace to descend. A negative space like an I, defined by two dark verticals, adjacent but divided, reappears in paintings of twin black cliffs—Motutara Island, with its resident gannet population, and Otakimiro Rock, a parallel cliff of equal height. Yet it is impossible not to look at this pictorial breach without recalling a long-running theoretical concern of McCahon’s: the invention of a “way through” the surface flatness of the canvas, which he felt had been approximated by Georges Braque and perfected by Piet Mondrian—a way of connecting with real space, the space beyond and outside the canvas.

So, as series overlap, extend, or interrupt others, McCahon’s longterm preoccupations are orchestrated and rearranged and the ciphers he continues to use are reduced to essentials while acquiring an ever heavier significance. The name of God in the Old Testament, handed to Moses to use as explanation, was “I Am That I Am?“ The term “I,” which defines a single person—a term perfectly stated in pictorial terms by the addition of two abutting black verticals to an empty field—McCahon achieved in art only through relinquishing artifice by means of artifice; in moral terms, the equivalent would be one’s willingness to define oneself with reference to God. Within a single configuration McCahon brings together religious and artistic themes. Like Barnett Newman, a painter with whom he is sometimes compared, he pictures the act of artistic creation as a Promethean endeavor, and seems to regard the duty of the artist as a kind of liberation—the stripping away of inessentials and the unmaking of one’s own skills. A 1974 painting in the ”Jump" series dedicated to the Japanese artist Tomioka Tessai, whose work he saw on his only visit to the United States, uses a dotted line to trace the leap between the twin pillars of rock, a leap as impossible as it is unavoidable. Though the result may be extinction as easily as redemption, the jump is a risk that everyone must take. In McCahon’s own terms, it involves art or faith or both. It is one’s duty, simply, part of the definition of the “I” It is a jump he knows.

By the ’70s McCahon’s painting and his process of thought were indistinguishable: his signs and calligraphy were capable of sustaining debates on both politics and religion, debates carried on as the testimony of a representative man having to make a moral code from scratch. He had turned into a consummate actor; as his work moved through him he altered its course. While making the Lazarus painting, he said, he was racked with “joy and pain?“ Then he added, ”To be honest, it was a bit like drawing a Mickey Mouse cartoon?“ A Walt Disney crucifixion scene would involve a near-impossible collision of tones which McCahon regularly attempted in his painting. Irony is simultaneously invited and dispelled. His historical stance was equally risky Gradually he moved toward a final position: a summation of Modernism, an extension of it, and a meditation on it, in a sign system as polyvalent as it is ontologically rich, with the simplest mark intended to be read in as many different “languages” as possible and the meanings in each language not only differentiated but set against each other. The main achievement is to resolve the problem of the alienation of the artist by making the vocabulary flexible enough to include issues that can be regarded as matters at once of individual duty, shared responsibility, and universal concern. From the plight of small birds on a single cliff top he explains humanity’s relationship to nature, for example. Bridging cultures, mixing dissimilar patterns, he makes an art that is properly post-Modern in the least obtrusive way.

McCahon’s is a career with no famous teachers, no direct contact with Modernism except distantly and late—a friend of a friend who studied at Hans Hofmann’s school in Munich, a chance meeting in Melbourne with an old lady who had attended the banquet for the Douanier Rousseau in 1908 in Paris. Forget distance and lateness. McCahon, who today no longer paints, was eager to engage not only with Cubism and de Stijl but also with Giovanni Bellini and Maori carving, with Petrus van der Velden and Tessai. The dates of his paintings may sometimes seem to put him behind the times; sometimes they put him ahead of them. His Object and Image (notice board), 1954, a painting of the dictionary definitions of the terms “object” and “image,” has been dismissed as a piece of graphic design. And so it might be if McCahon had not proceeded, in the ’70s, to make his own version of what the rest of the world recognizes as postconceptual painting.

Sooner or later the games will be played out. A critical elite will decide to expand the limits of the canon to include McCahon, perhaps as an oddball, perhaps as a unique variant on more familiar figures. Let us hope it never happens. He neither needs nor deserves condescension. Yet he deserves recognition. Is it possible to receive that and still escape the canon? Is it possible to escape the canon without that escape looking like a rejection? Time will tell.

Stuart Morgan is a freelance critic who is a regular contributor to Artforum.