Departures and arrivals

Taranaki artist John McLean talks to Virginia Winder about the evolution of his allegorical series, 'The Odyssey of The Farmer' and 'The Farmer’s Wife'.

John McLean is throwing acrylic paint like a crazed man. He flicks and hurls, creating spatters and whorls on a sheet of white paper taped to a piece of hardboard. First there’s yellow—splat, then green—flick, blue—smear, red—dribble. Then he moves on to another sheet and board. Splash, dash, slash. McLean follows all inklings, every hint of a hunch, his tattooed right hand divining the way. He’s a man let loose.

I throw it so there’s no control or very limited control over the mark that’s to appear,” he says. Standing in his high-ceilinged studio at Pukearuhe in north Taranaki, McLean holds up the results of a wild throwing session and explains how this scribble of colour is the start of his painting process. “At some point there’ll be a feeling, that’s it, that’s done.” Then he sits back and searches the work for figures and shapes, for hints of eyes, heads and limbs.

When he first embarked on this muse-led voyage about 15 years ago, McLean had no idea whom he’d meet, what creatures or people would emerge from the mess. There were angel-beasts, unnatural figures with human bodies and creature heads and The Boatman, who appeared again and again, propelling him through a midlife crisis. At age 50 McLean was no longer satisfied with realism – with painting large vivid pictures of snails on silverbeet, chickens and trees. “I would walk into the studio and procrastinate and could not find the energy. I knew I could do it and I found I’d already done it.”

John McLean, Farmer Cooling His Heels, 2009, oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm

In his search for deeper meaning he began reading the works of Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung and American mythologist Joseph Campbell, learning about serendipity, following whims and understanding about the archetypes and symbols that can be mined from the unconscious mind. He began asking those fundamental questions: “Who am I, what am I, where am I going?”

To shrug off his realism roots, McLean knew he had to try something new. He banned himself from painting anything he could see, and from drawing—in case he reverted to his old ways of doing things. Instead he allowed himself to throw and smear paint, to let the unconscious reveal itself.

McLean turned his back on commissions and went a little mad. Painting with furious abandon, he produced canvas after canvas filled with bizarre, angular beings. Initially, the artist didn’t understand his own paintings, couldn’t comprehend their hidden messages. But incredibly, within a day or two of appearing in paint, their meanings would be revealed by something he would spy in the newspaper, read in a book or see on television. This happened time and again—and still does.

John McLean, Farmer Restoring The Flow, 2009, oil on canvas, 120 x 120 cm

In the mid-2000s, after his long, strange journey, The Boatman delivered him back to the place of his art—realism. He nearly didn’t make it. “I came dangerously close to losing something I had invested a huge amount of time and effort in developing,” he says. “But it was necessary; it all involved risk; I lost an audience over that time because I had to go through this exploratory period.” Now he’s found a happy relationship between realism and the muse, the conscious and the unconscious. His paintings harness the power of his old style, but are developed from his paint-throwing technique.

Through times of despair and delightful euphoria, McLean has found a fresh voice, fulfilled his inner yearnings and met a pantheon of characters, including hunters, fishers, farmers and journeymen. In many ways these characters are extensions of McLean. He lives on a 14-hectare lifestyle block overlooking Waitoetoe Beach, a surf spot embraced by high cliffs that appear often in his paintings. McLean and wife Chris tend this fertile land abloom with fruit trees, and for more meaty offerings, he heads off on hunting expeditions or goes kayak fishing. “I’ve been so far out to sea that a man in a fishing boat once asked if I had my passport,” he laughs.

Although hugely introspective, McLean is a gregarious fellow with sonorous voice and engaging smile. If you look closely at his eyes, you’ll find one is hazel and one a light grey-blue. The trained teacher, father of three and grandfather of six, has large woodsman’s hands. He used these to build his house from recycled timber, to carve huge sculptures during New Plymouth’s annual Te Kupenga Stone Symposium and to create props for film sets, including The Last Samurai and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

On each shoulder he has tattoos etched by ta moko artist Rangi Kipa. These depict elements of the sea, including the shark and stingray. In early 2009 Kipa tattooed a new work on McLean’s right wrist and hand. “It’s based on the notion of tipua,” he says. The Maori translation of tipua is strange or supernatural. “This is the hand that is out in front of me working and painting and I wanted an exit out of my arm. He sat for a long time holding my arm and he said, ‘I know’.” That hand, often as paint-splattered as his messy paper musings, also sketches the shapes found in those ritual beginnings. Using tracing paper, McLean grids up these unbidden pictures, transfers them to large canvases and brings the characters to life with oils.

John McLean, Farmer Training His Dogs and Considering a House Keeper, 2009, oil on canvas, 140 x 120 cm

After painting The Farmer’s Wife Departs With Traveller (which won the merit award at the Norsewear Art Awards 2007), he began asking questions—where did the journey take her? What happened to The Farmer after she left? The first question resulted in an exhibition of seven paintings called ‘The Farmer’s Wife’shown at the Tauranga Art Gallery in July and August last year. Answers to the second appeared in the form of 12 paintings in a series called ‘The Farmer’shown at the Tauranga gallery in April and May this year. Both exhibitions were curated by Penelope Jackson.

All 19 of these works will be exhibited at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth (from 21 August to November 2010). At the combined library and museum, viewers can follow the passage of both protagonists in The Odyssey of The Farmer and The Farmer’s Wife. Puke Ariki exhibition manager Gerard Beckingsale is designing the show, which includes audio-visual footage. In the fresh works, the 65-year-old introduces new characters, including The Housekeeper and The Housekeeper’s Daughter.

To me it feels very significant,” the Tauranga-born man says. “I think they’re the best-realised works of my career. The fact that there is this narrative link running through this whole series makes it pretty special as well.”

In the The Farmer’s Wife series, she heads off with The Traveller, who rides a white horse. Whether they have a sexual relationship is unknown—that’s up to the viewer—but McLean feels they are companions rather than lovers. Water, birds and animals are recurring themes in both series. Water is seen as cleansing, life-giving, flowing and changing. It’s also referred to in some of the painting titles: The Cleansing; The Abandoned Farmer Cooling His Heels; The Farmer Restoring The Flow.

In The Farmer’s Wife series there’s a white horse and a fantail; in The Farmer paintings he’s regularly flanked by dogs, like McLean himself who typically has two dogs at his own feet—Patsy, a young fox terrier and Sprite, a mature Jack Russell.

Birds often appear in these paintings, including magpies, seagulls and a ruru (owl). McLean sees the birds as totemic.

Turning to Jungian theories, he says The Farmer and The Farmer’s Wife can be viewed as two parts of the same person—the animus and the anima, or the masculine and the feminine.

Initially The Farmer represents boundaries, rigidity and an unwillingness to change. She is the opposite, symbolising movement, growth and change. In their separate journeys, hers with The Traveller at her side, his with help from The Housekeeper and Her Daughter, they’re both transformed, coming together again in the final painting, The Farmer and The Farmer’s Wife Raise Sole and Recognise Each Other (2009).

John McLean, Farmer and Farmer's Wife Lift Sole and Recognise Each Other, 2010, oil on canvas 140 x 160 cm

The paintings are intended to function on two levels. On one level they’re a literal narrative image,” McLean says. “On another level they may have layered, symbolic, allegorical associations, which give them the possibility of functioning as visual parables.”

Then there is another possibility altogether; that the odyssey is McLean’s personal story. The Abandoned Farmer could represent his realism painting from the past and The Farmer’s Wife may stand for his own emancipation—his Jungian-inspired way of approaching his painting, free from constraints of the past.

My work can be autobiographical.” McLean admits he too feels like he has been on a journey with the husband and wife farmers, and has been strengthened by the experience. “It’s been a strong reaffirmation that the modus operandi that I use and the voice I’ve been attending to are more familiar; the engagement is closer and the trust is deeper. It works.”

A further affirmation occurred the day after McLean finished the last painting, cleaned off his palette, blessed the series with incense and raced off to WOMAD in New Plymouth. In the last three works there’s a character playing an accordion and McLean imagined him as a man who looked at his world and expressed his visions through music. To his astonishment, he sat in Brooklands Park listening to Finnish duo Lepisto & Lehti and found his character on stage. The accordion player, Markku Lepisto, bore an uncanny resemblance to McLean’s painted character and talked about playing the sunset. “It felt to me like cosmic applause—either that or a cosmic joke,” he grins. “That synchronicity, the timing, was right on the button.”

But the regular Norsewear and Wallace Art Awards finalist is careful not to applaud himself too much. “In the odyssey of The Farmer and The Farmer’s Wife—in the end they arrived. But I feel that if an artist feels as if they’ve arrived, they’ve lost something. So their arrival has to be my new point of departure, and where that takes me, remains to be seen.”

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