Soul Mining

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It is an image of purity and light, mountains merging with sea and cloud. In The Promised Land, 1948, Colin McCahon paints himself as a serious young artist receiving instruction from the heavens, with the rolling Otago hills east of Dunedin as his vision splendid. "I saw an angel in this land," he would later recall. "Angels can herald beginnings."

Colin McCahon (1919-1987) was an artistic prophet. He saw in the New Zealand landscape something that hadn't been captured before-not picture postcards, but tableaux of deep spiritual struggle. Across his olive hillsides, biblical scenes of crucifixion and resurrection would unfold and, later, his great, roiling thunderclouds of text. How to spiritually inhabit the land was McCahon's abiding theme, and his epic Northland Panels now housed in Wellington's Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, with their alternate notes of hope and despair, is his song of the earth. A father, teacher and one-time deputy director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, he would become a national treasure. "Without McCahon," curator Tim Garrity has written, "the case for a distinctively New Zealand art history would not stand up."

Fourteen years after his death, his shadow looms larger than ever. In 1999, 27 McCahons traveled to the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, as the flagship of "TOI TOI TOI: Three Generations of Artists from New Zealand," while a major retrospective of the artist is planned for Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art later this year. "There are many voices in the international art world and the important thing is that McCahon's is beginning to be heard," says the retrospective's co-curator Wystan Curnow. In the meantime, Australians can seek a private audience with the artist at the National Gallery of Victoria, where "Colin McCahon: A Time for Messages" runs until May 13.

While only six McCahon pictures are on display, what the exhibition lacks in scale it makes up for with effect. Looking at 10 Australian artists whose works resonate with McCahon's, his spirit is keenly felt: from Imants Tillers, whose post-modern appropriation of McCahon borders on the obsessive, to the late New Zealand-born Rosalie Gascoigne, whose road-sign assemblages flash like McCahon's most sublime landscapes. Made palpable in "A Time for Messages" is what the show's curator Jason Smith calls "this huge enigmatic presence."

Nowhere is this better felt than with the gallery's stunning new acquisition One, 1965. It's McCahon pure and relatively simple. There's his love of landscape (suggested by the dark diagonal) and games with word and number. But what could be a soulless exercise becomes something more spiritual at second glance. The glowing cantaloupe color draws you into the frame, where a blurry "E" hovers like a mascara-smudged eyelid. But it's the way McCahon has interlocked "ONE," the first person singular, with the massive God-like "I" that suggests a more personal rumination: the relationship one holds with a higher being.

McCahon was preoccupied with sublim-inal messages. As a boy growing up in Dunedin he was entranced by a signwriter working on a neighboring shop window, and the power of the written word was further instilled in him by parents, who set aside Monday nights for reading at the library. Later, while studying typography and design at art school, he produced, he said, "miles of the most magnificent posters." Hardly surprising, then, that words began to spill across his paintings-first in the speech bubbles of his biblical works, then in a torrent of Old and New Testament texts which eventually flooded his canvases. Quoting Keats, he said a painting should be "great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself, but with its subject."

McCahon's subject was how to find a god in his small pocket of the world. And his paintings document that struggle with uncommon honesty. With A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland), 1979, his sprawling 6 m-long invocation of the Old Testament figures who found salvation through faith, we get the sense of a man driven to the very depths of darkness and despair. If his spirit could weigh as heavily as the Northland hills, it could also soar. With The Canoe Mamari, 1969, his Maori words float above the darkness like a vapor trail. And in reconciling the Stations of the Cross with a Maori creation story in his 1973 Beach Walk series, McCahon finds peace at last on canvas; inviting the viewer to accompany him along his beloved Muriwai Beach.

"A Time for Messages" ends with McCahon's 1969 pastel inscription of a poem by his friend Peter Hooper: "Poetry isn't in my words/ It's in the direction I'm pointingŠ And if you're appalled/ At the journey/ Stick to the guided ToursŠ" Pithy and profound, it helps sum up an artist for whom the journey was everything. Painting his own road map, Colin McCahon pointed a new way through the New Zealand landscape. And the singularity of that journey-its peaks and troughs, darkness and light-remains a revelation.