How the hammer is broken

A million years ago, my new boyfriend took me to the Auckland Art Gallery. I suppose he was enamored with me at the time because it took him over 20 years to feel the urge to accompany me there again. Both visits were to see the works of New Zealand painter, Colin McCahon. Well, I was interesting in the paintings, he may well have had different reasons - I'm not going to presume to assume, and all that jazz.

But it was very nice of him to do so, and I appreciated the company very much for both the Gallery visits, and for the lifetime in between.

He took me to the Gallery all those years ago, and it seemed fitting (in retrospect) that we made that visit to see McCahon's works again on the last weekend I spent in Auckland before moving to Australia.

A million years ago in the 80s, McCahon's huge canvases hung from the ceilings at the Gallery, gently moving in the quiet air, like huge painted sails in sombre, flat colours with fraying edges.

Or that's how I remember the experience.

The works that I remember were huge. I found it hard to take in what was painted on the surface of the canvas as I was more distracted or bothered or busy negotiating my way around the space they occupied. I remember mostly their pressence, the way the floor sloped sometimes, the coolness of the blank white walls, but not much other than the earthy, flat colours of the works.

Which is why, upon seeing Towards Auckland in my final week in Auckland I wasn't at all prepared for what I found. As I entered the Gallery space, and I saw the works on the walls, neither did my knees because they failed me in such a slow motion weakness that I had to sit, for what ended up being quite a long time, while the paintings soaked into me. I sat there in a room surrounded by works by Colin McCahon and realised I was looking at the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen.

I had been told way back in the distant past, by teachers who I pretty much dismissed as white noise, that paintings such as Victory Over Death 2 had to be seen to be appreciated and reprints didn't do it, or other McCohan work justice. But now, I understood. Now, I understand. Properly. With both eyes open. How, apart from the importance of his work, apart from the messages of his work, apart from the significance of McCohan as an artist; how absolutely beautiful his work is.

The colour depth is amazing, and subtle, and when I looked at the scanned images in the book I purchased at the time and online at a site documenting all his work, those luscious rich intonations of colour are gone. The gallery had set the Second Gate Series along two walls in a continuous breathtaking stream of panels and I couldn't stop looking at them. I felt like I could sink my arms to the elbows in the colour. Here I give thanks to Mondrian was so colourful in its whites, so rich in its brushstrokes, it felt like it was singing at the edges of the paint.

In 25 years time, when I remember this exhibition, I won't remember the floor or the walls or huge sails wafting in the cool air of the Gallery. I will remember the way the light caught the brushmarks in the oil paint. I will remember how the colour drew me into it with rich softness. I will understand even more clearly, that art can be an emotional, physical experience that affects both the heart and the knees.

“How the Hammer is Broken” by Colin McCahon