I have been mulling over this post for some time. I got thinking when I read this in Jack Ross’s post on the Rita Angus Symposium.
“Wystan [Curnow] just doesn’t think the Goddess paintings are any “good” (whatever that means), but more to the point, he doesn’t think that the exploration of personal symbolism is a valid way of explicating pictures.” (my emphasis)
You see I have this theory. Its not original or unique and probably quite ill-informed and I have written about it before. I feel that any artwork is multilayered. It is composed of the artists intent and of our own personal reading. There are also layers of critique and academic deconstruction if the work has undergone such scrutiny, or if the viewer has that set of skills. So on one hand I don’t think you can discount what the artist is/was trying to say, but on the other maybe we can read too much into that as well and that impedes our own interpretations.
So let me, an “enthusiastic amateur“, run though this idea with an example. Let’s choose a BIG one.
Victory Over Death 2 (1970) from Collection of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
There is nothing I can write about this painting that hasn’t already been covered beautifully by Justin Paton in the chapter “One Big Painting” in his book “How to Look at a Painting” (which has just been put out in a hardback edition). I found some cool little audio clips of Paton talking about this painting and reading from his book here. As Paton says, McCahon is the subject of “hectares of written commentary” but I haven’t read too much of it. I know a little of McCahon’s existential struggles and questioning of faith, for example the academic, Peter James Smith writes that Victory Over Death 2 is a prophetic attempt to annihilate self-doubt“. But when I look at this painting I simply think “what’s he saying, what am I seeing/hearing?”
You see, to me, the woman on the street, there are two keys to this painting. Firstly, Paton writes: “…and several places where it is possible to see painted out words – including, looming in the darkness, an enormous version of the bright white AM that appears later in the painting. The effect is subtle and simple: it turns what looks like a proclamation into an engulfing question: AM I?” (which I guess could be what Smith was saying). The I AM refers to the biblical quotation “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”which is the spiritual Victory over Death. But the “AM I?” puts a different spin on it – the doubt creeps in…Initially my thoughts were that there is no physical victory over death, only the spiritual victory offered by Christianity and some other religions, but in some respects McCahon proves there is. While pondering this post someone pointed me to an article in the latest Landfall (215) “Practical Religion: On the after-life of Colin McCahon” by Butler and Simmonds. McCahon’s victory over death is his legacy, his art, the many words written about him, his students – the fact that I’m even bothering with this post (although everyone’s writing about McCahon these days). So maybe we can answer his “AM I?” with “I AM”. But what about the rest of us, who aren’t a great artists or writers or anyone of “significance”, can we say I AM? Of course. Its all here. For me this is, as John Wheelwright said, “art which is at once a benediction and a judgement“.
But there is another thing I like to take from this painting, and here is where I diverge from what I imagine McCahon was trying to tell us. It’s from another biblical passage -“I AM the light“. Because like it or not (and it’s a hugely debatable point) McCahon wasthe light. He was doing something different for his time and in an era when the theory of the special quality of our light’s impact on New Zealand art was prominent. The light is my second key and is pointed to in a phrase repeated in many words, including another huge, “I AM” painting Gate III “as there is a constant flow of light we are born into a pure land“. The light is constant, but we are not.
And now I will crawl back into my un-educated corner.
EDIT: Please note this is a very personal viewpoint – I am not sermonising.