Adam Art Gallery Collection Officer Sophie Thorn writes about her experiences behind the scenes handling the work of Colin McCahon.
I am privileged to spend much of my time getting up close with some of our country’s formative works of art. As the Collection Officer at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, I work behind the scenes in the practical and logistical side of exhibition preparation. When I think of Colin McCahon, I think of two works. Both were painted in the early 1970s and both are in Wellington collections: Walk (Series C) (1973) held by Te Papa (and currently on display in Toi Art) and Gate III (1970), part of the Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection.
They are the two works through which I truly began to appreciate Colin McCahon’s work. I know them physically: the way they hang on a wall, the logistics of how they are transported, the way their surfaces hold memories, the subtle traces of previous installations — nail holes and pin pricks. I know how they feel to lift; I have felt their weight.
Suspended in time
In 2015, we borrowed Walk (Series C) from Te Papa as part of an exhibition titled The Specious Present. The exhibition touched on a term coined by philosopher and psychologist, William James, to describe the moment which exists between past and future, but is longer than the actual present. It was for James a way of describing the perception of time, and the works gathered for the exhibition all explored some aspect of this idea.
As you walk along the sombre grey-scale horizon of Walk (Series C), and pause to glance back and forth along the length of the work, you understand exactly why it was chosen. It is a moment suspended, at once immediate and past. Walk (Series C) represents several journeys. It is a walk along Muriwai beach in memory of McCahon’s good friend, the poet James K Baxter. It is the fourteen Stations of the Cross set in Roman numerals along the bottom edge of each canvas. And it is, in the final panel, the departure of the spirit from Te Rerenga Wairua.
Walk (Series C) was hung in our main foyer gallery. The eleven panels of unstretched jute canvas spanned the large wall and snaked around a corner towards the entrance. In its first two outings in 1973, at Barry Lett Gallery in Auckland and Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington, the length of the work meant that it also had to be hung around corners in this way. Currently, it hangs at Te Papa on a blue grey wall as one long horizon – which seems even more fitting given that Walk (Series C) was painted in McCahon’s studio at Muriwai Beach, where he had shifted in 1971 to paint full time. It was just before this move that McCahon painted Gate III.
Nuclear weapon free zone
Gate III is one of the jewels of Victoria University’s art collection. McCahon painted Gate III over a five-week period in 1970. He painted it in the studios at Elam School of Fine Arts, after the students had left for the summer. The work is a huge ten metres by three, painted on seven individual canvas panels. It’s so big that McCahon wasn’t able to see it laid out in its entirety until February 1971, when it was installed in Auckland City Art Gallery’s exhibition, Ten Big Paintings.
McCahon used the exhibition commission to revisit an idea he had written about to poet John Caselberg in 1961. In this letter he describes his ambition to create a “large-scale statement on nuclear warfare”, one which “…could stand in entrances to town halls, universities…having the impact of a hoarding rather than a large painting only…The new series goes under the general title of ‘Gate’ by which I mean a way through.” In Gate III a stormy landscape is dominated by the iconic words “I AM”, around which religious texts weave. Like Walk (Series C) the painting takes us on a journey. The brooding first two panels lament the state of the earth in “this dark night of western civilization”. The “I” breaks the cloud as a pillar of white light. The Psalms shelter beneath the “A”. A crack of blue light highlights the right edge of the “M” leading us to the final panel where the landscape is calmed. Here a Buddhist text is imprinted in the hills: “as we are born into a pure land.” Is this land finally at peace in a post-nuclear state?
Up on cinder blocks
When researching Gate III, I was fascinated by the tidbits of information I found about the 1971 tour of the Ten Big Paintings exhibition. I came across some installation images in the Christchurch Art Gallery Archives. These show the painting being screwed together and shifted as one huge structure, propped up on cinder blocks and hoisted onto the wall by four installers. I cannot fathom installing or handling the painting in this way today. Now each canvas must be carefully lined up and hung using scaffolds and laser levels.
As a nod to the history of the work, we hung Gate III at cinder block height off the floor when it was exhibited at Te Uru late last year. This is something we could never safely do on campus and the physical shift impacted the way I see the painting. Suddenly at a human height, brushstrokes became a tangible trace of the tip of a paintbrush on an outstretched arm. The scale of the painting was at once both emphasised and humanised.
A way through: Colin McCahon’s Gate III will be on display at the Christchurch Centre of Contemporary Art from August 28 to November 8, 2020.