Art becomes more recondite

Artist John McLean
Artist John McLean

'Why would you paint what you already know?"

Picasso posed the question, and North Taranaki artist John McLean agrees.

Many of McLean's works are painted over numerous times, some so much that the canvases almost double their weight.

But he doesn't see this as failure.

"It's stepping stones.

"I don't work with an idea in mind, I find the idea through the work.

"You just take a blind walk and it's a surprise what you turn up.

"You're basically asking the work, 'If you've got something here, let's hear about it'."

McLean was on a boat fishing in Dusky Sound, Fiordland last year, and some of the landscape has filtered into a recent work Sharing the pond.

"It was the most amazing time.

"A group of guys, catching crayfish and blue cod and shooting deer.

"Then the guy who ran the boat had this amazing sound system and we went up the coast rolling over the swells with AC/ DC playing flat out."

The scene in the painting isn't Milford Sound per se, but McLean's impression of the place is obvious - waterfalls cascading from cliffs and bush-clad hills.

Despite this inspiration from reality, he's moved from creating narrative works; now they are more recondite - a word he found in a book about one of his admired artists, Mimmo Paladino.

"When I looked it up, it meant things like obscure, esoteric, occult.

"One of the things I wanted to get away from was this idea of the narrative, that the thing had a definite, literal interpretation available."

He believes the word "recondite" revealed itself at a time when he was ready to evolve in his work.

"When you're ready and there's a part of you out there searching, that part actually finds what you need to know and presents it to you.

"It just hit the chord.

"What it meant was that the painting was its own authority. It has an authenticity; it doesn't have to be a logical authenticity. It can ask questions and leave them unanswered."

This acceptance that works don't need to make sense is late arriving in McLean's career - in his earlier days he painted in a super-realist style.

He yielded his realist eye because he found the part of his painterly self not getting a chance was his imagination.

When McLean left school with a desire to head to art school, his parents were told he should pursue an academic path and muck around with art during the weekends.

He went to teacher's college then taught art for 10 years, over which time he was offered more and more senior roles until he thought, "if I carry on like this I'll never do it".

"So I bailed."

At age 29 he quit teaching and began doing an array of work to support his art.

Agricultural work, fishing, logging, rousying in shearing gangs, milking cows.

Does he think doing all this work feeds into the art he creates?

"Definitely. I've worked a spectrum of things and I have a great regard for people who do that work."

He had a guy at his place recently cleaning the septic tank.

McLean was in there with the long-handled shovel helping him out.

"I think that was a new one for him. Most people, the lid comes off and they're gone."

Jobs like commercial fishing and logging are dangerous and hard, and unless you've done them it's very easy to feel that if you've risen up into the high income bracket, somehow you're just a little bit more special, he says.

"My view is that everyone contributes."

If McLean had gone to art school he would have been a contemporary of Dick Frizzell's.

He's under no doubts it would have been a different path.

"The art school experience would have been good, because it exposes you to a whole bunch of stuff.

"But in the end you can come into art by way of imitation, or by way of exploration and a sort of self-knowledge.

"Ultimately, you've got to find your own voice. That's what the trip is about."

He is grateful for taking the course he has because the essential discoveries that have made his art are discoveries he's made himself.

McLean says the Arts Trail is a good way of allowing artists, especially those who are lesser known, to show their work.

"Art's to be seen.

"Everybody's got to start somewhere and art is not an elitist thing."

In traditional cultures, art- making and art use belongs to everybody, he says.

"Art is for the people. I've always felt that.

"I think it's sad that our view on art has almost made it an audience activity for most people, and a special activity for a few.

"Something like this [the Arts Trail] is great - get people to show their wares, fantastic."

Joining McLean in the north section of the Taranaki Arts Trail are painter Sharyn Hoskin, woodturner Gavin Stilwell and McLean's neighbour, sculptor Howard Tuffery.

Taranaki Daily News