Curator and art writer Justin Paton on the process of writing McCahon Country, homesickness, and uncontemporary art. Plus his top tips for art writers.
Justin Paton is the author of the award-winning How to Look at a Painting. A book so popular it inspired a TV series of the same title, which Paton also presented. In 2014 he moved to Sydney to become head curator of international art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
His latest book, McCahon Country, coincides with the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth and offers a road trip through the vision of Aotearoa of “our most soulful artist”. Paton writes, “Where McCahon’s art is most effective, we are the people in the painting. Travellers looking for meaning in the world.”
In Philip Matthews’ review of McCahon Country, he said he detected homesickness in your writing about New Zealand.
I wondered if readers would notice that. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since coming to Sydney. Most Kiwis think of Australia as one degree away. But the longer I stay, the more different it seems. Our sense of space, distance, light, smell, the way the wind moves – these things count for a lot. We probably underrate their importance in a world where it’s felt that all you need is a smartphone to communicate from any point on the planet. So I think homesickness is right. I hope the writing is invested with an emotional charge. Travelling to connect with some of the landscapes in McCahon Country, and then coming back to Sydney and writing about those places, reminded me how much they are in me.
You could say McCahon Country is a book about history, but I’d be thrilled to think someone might read it for the feeling. I’d love to think that it got under someone’s skin for reasons other than the art historical. That was a huge frustration for McCahon at the end of his life. His late letters are quite wrenching. He felt he was being art historicised and he bristled at that because it enclosed the work in an internal conversation about how art relates to art rather than a larger conversation about how art affects people. McCahon is always looking for that larger conversation, reaching for those other spaces.
How long has McCahon Country been evolving for?
The book was written in a concentrated burst. It was only late last year that we pushed “go” on it. My family and I stayed in the McCahon House residence for a week and then did a road trip from Muriwai up the west coast from Helensville into Northland, which is an astonishing place.
And while doing all of that I started sifting through my folders of old, sometimes decades-old, notes on McCahon from writing opportunities that had swung into view and not come to pass.
So though the book came fast, I guess he’s been with me or I’ve been with him for as long as I’ve been looking at art.
Each chapter title is a noun, taking the reader from “Here” to “There” through various motifs from “Land” to “Fire”. When did that form take shape?
I had a hunch that there were some fundamental shapes, forms or elements that McCahon had gravitated to, and that these, rather than time periods or places of residence, should structure the journey. Then it was a case of bringing works and thoughts and words together, seeing whether they clung to each other. Quite a physical process – lots of sketches and Post-Its. But he’s a wonderful artist to work with that way, because the works are always looking for conversations with each other. The works were the guide.
One of the things I love about McCahon is how much discovery he gives you to do. It might take a leap of faith to get into the paintings. But once you’re in there, they’re generous. There are all these multivalent signs, and all these marks that do more than one thing at once – riding on the surface but also describing deep space. I thought the most important thing I could do was to take readers into and through the experience of the paintings. The chapters’ titles set the scene, and then we zoom in.
Did any of the ‘nouns’ change?
One was originally called ‘Sign’. And it just wasn’t working. It was close to deadline and I was out at the motor camp at Muriwai having a slightly lonesome and unsatisfactory time. I just went walking at night, down to the beach and up to some of the outlooks where I think he would have stopped when he took the path from his studio down towards Māori Bay. And that was when the ‘Night’ chapter kicked in.
What you realise when you’re there is that McCahon’s night paintings – like the dark paintings from the Jump series, the Clouds series, and Kokowai (1976) with its red-earth horizon – might look abstract at first glance, but are in fact deeply observed. In Muriwai when there’s a couple of puffs of cloud up in the night sky, they catch the light that’s being thrown from Auckland city towards the west coast, and the clouds take on this amber glow. McCahon gets all of that, concisely and tenderly.
Writing McCahon Country has revealed to me the importance of having a subject you have some real conviction about.
There are so many McCahon experts out there, including Peter Simpson, who just published the first volume of his McCahon biography. Did you have any reservations taking this on?
There’s now a large extended family of McCahon commentators. Strangely all sons. There’s not many daughters in that family. Compelling artists produce intense commitment and also territorial jostling. I’m super respectful of all those people. The book would not be possible without them and also I don’t want to exempt myself from that world. But McCahon Country is doing a slightly different job.
In Sydney, at the moment we’re under a blanket of smoke. My son said today when he woke up, “it doesn’t smell like smoke, it smells like fire”. And I look at McCahon’s environmentalist and apocalyptic works and think, yes. We could all go to a symposium and talk about whether Rothko influenced him directly or not. And I’m nerdily interested in that question! But at the same time how about the question of McCahon and his paintings’ relationship to this planet that is finite and threatened?
How much power does McCahon’s work draw from the bible? And what do we say now about the patriarchal elements of that legacy?
That needs to be confronted. That’s the world McCahon comes from. In his recent book No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art, Thomas Crow talks about McCahon as a major religious artist. He says there’s a kind of scandal at the heart of his work which is its intense quality of faith. McCahon is picturing the sacred without painting God. And though we think of modern art as being secular and disenchanted, in fact the 20th century’s great painters – from Hilma af Klint through Matisse to McCahon – wrestle with questions of spirit and human purpose. The institution of the church at its most authoritarian and intolerant is something about which we should be very sceptical, but we also need to remember that McCahon himself was very sceptical of organised religion.
What nuances that authoritarian dimension of the biblical rhetoric in McCahon’s work is the fact that what can look grand and imposing when first discovered, on closer looking, is revealed to have ambiguity, doubt, and a profoundly human feeling of vulnerability to it. He’s not up there, telling us what to think. He’s here on earth with us, searching and wondering.
In the chapter ‘Sky’, McCahon is in his early 50s and a full-time artist for the first time. Of his watercolours on paper of Kaipara Flats, you write, “The presence of jubilant colour has too often been read as the sign of an absence of seriousness…” I’m curious about that observation.
McCahon’s black and white works are so strong and so singular. There’s nothing else quite like them in art history. The distinctiveness of those paintings can eclipse the gentler joys of his bright colourful works on paper. There’s a strong residual Puritanism in the way that McCahon is discussed; we look for McCahon as a serious artist. But it’s also worth remembering how funny and casual he can be, his vernacular use of comic book language and the sheer scrappiness of lots of his work. His Jump series was made to be pinned up in a rough-and-ready way. His works often have a clunky grace; that is another critique of the grandiose in his art.
There’s also an under-acknowledged class dimension to McCahon, the Christian Socialist, never at ease with the market economy which grew up around him. Late in life, he gifted many of his masterpieces to public art galleries. In one of his letters, he says, “I give them away like mad.”
So to return to this question of colour. I thought the Muriwai and Helensville and Kaipara Flats watercolours – most of which are in private collections and therefore less well known – were just wonderful paintings and a joyous corrective to the “black and white” conception of McCahon. And Kaipara Flats is such an interesting place to visit. You look around and think, “What was McCahon looking at?” But you also start to get the strong feeling that the water is out there. You’re close to the coast but can’t see it. There’s a lot of lights thrown into the air; the clouds move differently. I think McCahon drove through that landscape with his radar on and it started to beep… “I’m in a place that matters.”
The moral message of McCahon’s work is about finding the place not looked at.
What do you make of McCahon’s use of te reo Māori? That’s been criticised.
It’s been debated and it should be debated and the paintings allow us to have that debate. Those paintings show McCahon feeling for a different way to be, spiritually, in this place. I’m interested in what the paintings withhold from a Pākehā audience, an audience that can’t speak te reo. They’re not works that let us or want us to “get” them, to extract meaning and move on. What I feel, looking at the veils of language in those paintings, is that I’m listening in on something that is important but not mine. That space of hearing but not fully knowing is a valuable one to stand in today and must have been even more so in the 1960s and 1970s world where these works emerge.
In the book, I also discuss his “rosegarden” paintings, which are responses to the garlands he saw in the living rooms of his Pasifika neighbours, in pre-gentrification Grey Lynn and Ponsonby. Robin White remembers him saying at art school that the next great artists would be painters of the Pacific, not just painters of New Zealand.
In the press release for McCahon Country you’re described as a “master of accessible art writing”. That says something about you but also something about art. Your response?
I’m not sure how I feel about the word accessible. Often the art I like is deliberately inaccessible. It’s against interpretation, it hangs fire, it hides, it keeps its secrets. I want to write for the reader; that’s my first obligation. But I also want to write for the being that is the work of art, this strange little ecosystem which resists us. Because not much stuff resists us today, right?
The writing I love, not just art writing, takes you somewhere. That’s why description is so key and often misunderstood. People say, “Oh, that bit of writing is just description”. And I think, “What are you talking about?” Description is the ethic of criticism. To write clearly about an artwork takes you deeper into the strangeness of that of thing. Clarity is the royal road to mystery.
What makes one artist compelling and others not? The word important is always attached to McCahon, but crucially not to every artist.
Persistence has a lot to do with it. This fascinates me. Who keeps going? I picture a motorway. At some point all the cars are travelling together, and then one of them bursts into flames, another one runs out of petrol. One of them just pulls over into a parking bay and never comes out again. And before you know it there are not so many cars travelling on that road.
At the same time, retrospective shows can be punishing because there are some artists who look good in small samples or in a project space, but when their careers are presented whole, they don’t have that largeness – that sense of seasonal change and shifting light, of changing inflections and constant self-interrogation. McCahon is a fabulous example of an artist who does.
My nerdy question, what are your top tips for other art writers?
One would be to address the thing. Respect the object. Describe your heart out. Remember that every description is also a description of you and your attitude to the world.
It’s more important to be interesting than to be right. The critic A.R.D Fairburn famously said of McCahon’s early works that they might pass as “graffiti on the walls of some celestial lavatory”. It’s a putdown, but actually gets to the heart of what’s amazing about those paintings, which collide the mundane and the miraculous.
Next, I’d say you’ve got to love language. Art writing is just a practice run for the kind of attention that one, hopefully, pays to the wider world. And the world is richer for being described lovingly demandingly, urgently.
Another principle is an injunction from the curator and writer Robert Storr, who said, “Find the best example of the thing you don’t like.” Then ask, are my prejudices well-founded?
The art I find sustaining often produces profoundly mixed feelings.
McCahon Country ends on ‘Fire’. That felt very in sync with the current moment of climate change.
It’s everywhere in Australia at the moment. We’re breathing it. It’s going to be interesting to see what art finds to do in this context. I was with a prominent Australian painter last night who wants to take time off to study climate science.
McCahon’s an artist of the Cold War; he’s an artist of the atomic age. He’s an artist who is born as World War One is coming to an end, who lives through World War II. He’s a pacifist, he’s anti-war. His brother is a nuclear physicist who’s on the observation ship for the French atomic test in Mururoa in 1973.
That dimension of McCahon is deep and still under-examined. Perhaps it’s overlooked because the work doesn’t behave like we expect political art to behave today. Although McCahon felt all these things strongly, even the most “political” of the works retains mystery.
McCahon’s paintings are about caring for what you are given and the miraculousness of the world as it is.
Last but not least: the now. What artists of this moment interest you?
The most compelling artists of our moment are making something I’d call uncontemporary art. Our whole obsession with what is new and next in art looks suspect in light of concerns about sustainability and ceaseless consumption. Artists as various as Kushana Bush and Adrián Villar Rojas, to name two favourites, make work which pulls you simultaneously forward and backwards in time. There’s this elongation or telescoping of time in their work which jolts us out of the present and induces a giddy, almost vertiginous, sense of what it would be like to look back on our era from a great distance.
Recently, looking back through a stack of old writing, I also noticed how often I use the word strange. If you were writing about art in the 1930s the keyword might have been truth, or 50 years before that, beauty.
I think the best art, and McCahon is in this category, is strange, but it also turns you into a stranger. You’re shaken awake to the oddity of who we are, and what we are all about. So, this estranging is an important thing art can do for us now.
McCahon Country by Justin Paton is published by Penguin NZ, RRP$75. Text © Justin Paton, 2019. Images © as credited. All works and texts by Colin McCahon are reproduced courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.