Colin McCahon stands tall as one of New Zealand’s great individual artists. ‘Colossus’ was how he was introduced to the large audience – a very apt description. I’ve always admired the size and scope of his works, the torment and doubt, the way he used words in art, the way he used house paints becasue they made it easier for him to paint letters and words.
Tonight’s lecture, delivered by Peter Simpson, who some may know as the former MP for Lyttelton, was both educational and a visual feast. Simpson’s book The Titirangi Years focuses on about a sixth of McCahon’s career, when he first moved up from the South Island and also after his career-changing trip to the United States in 1958. The year after his trip he completed around 100 paintings.
The place he stayed in Titirangi, some way out of Auckland, was a place of great creativity and experimentation for McCahon, who felt at home in Auckland, a place that he wrote “was more becoming New Zealand, or even Pacific” than Christchurch or Dunedin.
It was also a time when McCahon moved towards written paintings – those consisting of solely of words – I am, Sacred to the Memory of death, and many others. Simpson said that the Titirangi years were some of the happier and brighter works that McCahon did.
McCahon’s work with words and abstraction is fascinating. It causes debate and gives people like me who don’t like art-speak the chance to interact with his paintings. I AM is a statement – but one that for me poses more questions than answers. What are the next words, the unspoken ones?
I AM – you’re not?
I AM – you aren’t?
I AM. Are you?
I AM. Why are you telling me this?
I AM. Good on ya mate.
What better way to elicit a response from a painting than to use the poet’s tools – words? It’s the beginning of a conversation … or the end of one … and a bold step for a painter.
McCahon struggled and wrestled with something that was deep and dark and troubling. If he wrung that much struggle out onto the canvas it must have been an eye-popping rollercoaster of a ride inside his heart and mind. By using words he helps us get closer to his struggle. And however much we struggle to understand McCahon, I bet it was worse on the inside.
Many of the paintings were simply stunning. Get to that exhibition before it’s too late!