Oaia and clouds

Colin McCahon, Oaia and clouds, 1975, synthetic polymer paint on paper, 070x715 mm. Pippin Barr on loan to the Jim Barr and Mary Barr loan collection, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, courtesy McCahon Research and Publication Trust. 

 

Kate Newby

Kate Newby in her New York studio, 27 March, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jim and Mary Barr.

Jim Barr and Mary Barr

Patrons, Writers, Curators

We lived with Colin McCahon’s Oaia and clouds (1975) for 26 years. Most of that time we were working from home so we saw a lot of it; on different walls, in different moods, under varying light. For the first five years it was simply pinned to the wall like a poster (as McCahon had originally intended) but as time went on we lost our nerve and had it framed. That changed things. A coastal view that might have swept on out across the wall became a slice of ocean. The reflections from the glass further complicated an already complicated composition.

This is a painting that looks at its subject from two different points of view. Down through the clouds as well as straight ahead at Oaia Island. It’s a kind of DIY Cubism. And yet if you go to Muriwai and look out at Oaia, you will see that the two viewpoints cobbled together in the painting are part of Muriwai’s geography. You can look down from the cliffs and you can look across to the island from the beach. It’s what Picasso once called, ‘a lie that makes us realize the truth’. There is another reason for McCahon grabbing at the bird’s eye view. Muriwai is a shelter for seabirds and Oaia, was originally a safe nesting place for gannets until pressure of numbers pushed them to rocky outcrop nearer the shore.

The clouds themselves look kind of lumpy and solid, not something you’d want to fly through, and probably why McCahon called similar works from around this time ‘Rocks in the sky’. Knowing this particular work so well, we asked him on one of the couple of times we met where that title had come from. He told us to go down to the beach at Muriwai and in the rocky outcroppings we’d see circular hollowed out pools of water. On the right day, McCahon reckoned, you could see the clouds reflected in them – rocks in the sky. We’ve never seen this story mentioned anywhere, maybe we just made it up.

And then of course there’s the whale. McCahon was fond of connecting Oaia Island with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the whale chased by Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod across the oceans. In Oaia and clouds, McCahon has enhanced the island’s whale-shaped profile and, like the albino Moby Dick, it glows white in the dark sea. When you compare it with most of the other Oaia/Moby Dick works where the whale seems to be headed north, the ‘whale’ in Oaia and clouds points south, right to left. It’s always made us wonder if perhaps McCahon’s viewpoint was from the sea, out in Melville’s ‘appalling ocean’, looking toward the shore rather than his typical view from Muriwai’s cliff tops or the beach below. McCahon once said (we were trying not to quote him…but it’s impossible), ‘My painting tells you where I am at any given time, where I am living and the direction I am pointing in.’ So we’re opting for McCahon, probably metaphorically, in a boat pointing back towards the shore and flipping the whale to face the same way as all the others, ready to swim back North and ram a ship or two. That said, it’s not uncommon for real white whales to be spotted on the New Zealand coast; one was photographed four years ago drifting through Cook Strait. How well McCahon does transference. Christ in our landscape, the fabled white whale Moby Dick diving deep in our waters.

The first time we saw Oaia and clouds was on the floor of Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey’s gallery. Peter vanished upstairs to his you-can’t-come-in-here storeroom and returned carrying a large roll of paper sheets. Laying the bundle on the floor he began scrolling back the edges and McCahon’s cloud paintings rolled by one after another - if he had done it at speed they might have animated; painted clouds scudding across black paper skies. There were wiry ones that looked like kids’ drawings, lumpy leaden ones ready to fall on our heads, ones so delicately painted they practically moved as we breathed, and finally nine rocks in the sky parting to reveal Oaia Island.

It’s odd to recall that for much of our lives McCahon’s brilliance was seen as a problem for other New Zealand artists. It was McCahon as blockage, a wall if you like, a thing to get over. Now it’s clear from the international success of later generations of artists, like Fiona Connor, Simon Denny, Kate Newby and Luke Willis Thompson, that something else was happening. By taking some stick and holding firm, McCahon cleared the way for the ambition of such modern careers. Not a wall so much as a gate.

CONNECTING CULTURAL LEGACY WITH CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE

Index
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Bridget Riggir-Cuddy
The House Protects the Dreamer
Naomi McCleary
Kauri
Séraphine Pick
Northland Panels
Brian Sweeney
View from the top of the cliff
Rudi Fuchs
North Otago Landscape
Rex Butler
I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Donna McDonald
The Fourteen Stations of the Cross
Harold Jones
Muriwai no.7
Ted Spring
On Building Bridges
Areez Katki
The Three Marys at the Tomb
Rosanna Raymond
Jet Out
Rufus Knight
Waterfall
Megan Tamati-Quennell
Black Landscape
Nick Mitzevich
Victory over Death 2
Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Victory over Death 2
The Governor-General, The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy
Gate III
Grant Banbury
I Paul
Sir Bob Harvey
Dark Landscape
Young Old Girls (Christchurch Girls’ High)
North Otago Landscape 19
Sophie Bannan
Van Gogh - poems by John Caselberg
Linda Tyler
Urewera Triptych
Emily Karaka
Tangi. Muriwai
Robert Gardiner
Are there not twelve hours of daylight
Thomas Crow
Are there not twelve hours of daylight
Jude Rae
Victory over death 2
Brent Harris
The Family
Cora-Allan Wickliffe
15 Drawings Dec '51 to May '52
Salome Tanuvasa
Landscape
Yona Lee
Landscape theme and variations (series B)
David Kirk
Kaipara
Priscilla Pitts
Fourteen Stations of the Cross
Ruth Watson
This day a man is
Tessa Laird
Keep New Zealand Green
Nell
East window
Nicola Farquhar
Kauri trees
Hon Grant Robertson
Otago Peninsula
Jane Macknight
Untitled (North Otago Landscape)
Karen Walker
Titirangi
Wystan Curnow
The Green Plain
Philip Clarke
Necessary Protection (IHS)
Mary Kisler
A candle in a dark room
Ayesha Green
I AM
Matthew O'Reilly
Muriwai
Bettina Bradbury and Kararaina Rangihau
A poster for the Urewera no. 2
Al Keating
A Grain of wheat
Cushla Dillon
Entombment (after Titian)
Hamish Coney
Here I give thanks to Mondrian
Stephen Wainwright
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Sue Gardiner
Landscape theme and variations (series A)
Robert Leonard
Numerals
Judy Darragh
Clouds 1
John Coley
AS THERE IS A CONSTANT FLOW OF LIGHT WE ARE BORN INTO THE PURE LAND
Shannon Te Ao
Ka pōraruraru ahau. I am troubled.
Helen Beaglehole
GATE III
Ralph Paine
Jump E9
Judy Millar
Muriwai: Necessary Protection
Fiona Pardington
Waterfall
C.K. Stead
All mortals are like grass
Gretchen Albrecht
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Martin Edmond
Cross (1959)
Lisa Reihana
Urewera mural
Peter Simpson
Jet out to Te Reinga
Christina Barton
Gate III
Dame Jenny Gibbs
I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Zoe Black
Ruby Bay
Jim Barr and Mary Barr
Oaia and clouds
Vivienne Stone
Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is
Kate Sylvester
Northland Panels