Rosalie Gascoigne and Colin McCahon

A Sense of Place
Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney

McCahon, Gascoigne and Displacement

An exhibition at Ivan Dougherty Gallery that paired the work of Rosalie Gascoigne and Colin McCahon under the title A Sense of Place gave such significance to the spiritual, the intuitive, the idea of the artist knowing the land that it clearly sprung from an emotive curatorial position, a type not often encountered in Sydney.

Louise Pether's decision to once again place McCahon beside Gascoigne does not have the support of all McCahon enthusiasts who would prefer to see his work in isolation, just as McCahon liked to be thought of as the artist working in anxious isolation.

Any pairing of artists forces a comparison but the McCahon and Gascoigne relationship is an awkward one if the intention is to highlight empathies. Despite the show's thematic umbrella of landscape, with an apparent stress on religious-feelings-for-the-landscape, the two artists differ because of McCahon's allusions to the metaphysical and Gascoigne's celebration of the beauty of the material. Three catalogue essays try to draw the two artists into a single discussion, but in two of these the difficulties of doing so are apparent in the way these essays have been structured into two parts, one for each artist. It is Ian Wedde's essay, using a story about an encounter with roadsigns, that addresses the difference between McCahon and Gascoigne with respect to the idea of the artist's place in the world. McCahon's sense of being-in the-world directed him to give philosophical significance to the casual object in the environment, whereas Gascoigne gives significance to the material and aesthetic presence of the object.

The title of the show and its realisation as an event suggested a curatorial rationale for binding McCahon and Gascoigne beyond the superficial facts that both are New Zealand-born, that both include words in their work and make reference to landscape. However the difference in theoretical orientation of these artists, which is partly the result of the different eras in which their careers developed, makes a binding problematic. Certain organisational and structural aspects of the exhibition suggest that the intention was always to create an exhibition of two parts–the essays were discussion of one artist was separated from the other, the installation of the works in separate parts of the gallery, even the two-colour contrast of the catalogue cover. Inevitably though, McCahon, who is for many the most significant and most topical Modernist in Australasia, was the artist privileged by the exhibition. Any intention of having an exhibition of two equal parts could never have been realised.

It was ironical to be made aware of a sense of displacement in this exhibition. For certain members of the audience it was disorienting to see those icons of New Zealand art hanging on the walls of Ivan Dougherty Gallery, disconcerting to hear some Australians say they are not moved by McCahon, and therefore disconcerting to realise that the emotional significance of his work is given rather than inherent.

Those who believe that McCahon's work is a mirror of the self also believe that he had a special and intensely spiritual relationship with the land and the universe that allowed him to recognize and extract essences and truths. In his own writing he made references to 'the human condition' and many of his word paintings spell out Utopian messages (Let us Possess One world...) A Sense of Place underscores the myth of McCahon as spiritual by dwelling on the theme of religious landscape. McCahon's attitude of being emotionally and physically committed to New Zealand is an attitude that also aligns him with certain artists in Australia and New Zealand in the 1940s and was based on the idea that spirituality could only be authentically present in his work if he was physically connected to the soil.

New Zealanders and Australians have been preoccupied with the question of what makes them special, and like Australians many New Zealanders feel it is the land that determines this difference. The way that Rosalie Gascoigne has been written about is similar to the way McCahon has been in the sense that both have been presented as artists with a heightened sense of their physical surroundings, with the power to extract essences, and as sensitive travellers in the landscape. Gascoigne's inventive assemblages evoke a nostalgia for a folksy past. The simplified nature of both their work has been explained by writers as their clarity of vision. McCahon played on this idea, romanticising an innocence in himself, as if he was seeing a young country with young, fresh eyes.

The difference is that McCahon set himself a much more profound project than just the Regionalist one. He said he was an artist with a message to communicate. The catalogue quotes his objective of "relating man to man and man to his work, to an acceptance of the very beautiful and terrible mysteries that we are part of". McCahon talked about inventing a way of seeing New Zealand, always offering his work as truths. Gascoigne's assemblages transform materials but they are for contemplation of her immediate landscape. Her work reveals an attraction to the aesthetic of patina on found objects. Her rearrangements are formalist and it is because of a singularity of purpose that her part of the exhibition at Ivan Dougherty Gallery had greater cohesion than McCahon's. McCahon was represented by a range of work spanning thirty five years compared to Gascoigne's fifteen, but the awkward variety of the McCahon component of the show was apt because the diversity of his visual language over those years shows him in the way that he thought of himself, as the artist in a constant state of struggle, crisis and risk.

Now that a wider audience in Australia has been familiarised with the work of Colin McCahon through such exhibitions as A Sense of Place, it would seem appropriate in the future to increase knowledge of the range of his work by giving less emphasis to the paintings that dwell on National iconography and Regional sensibility and giving more exposure to the subtleties of works such as Numerals, Numbers and Teaching Aids. On the other hand, the Australian audience is more likely to be engaged by McCahon if they could see him in relation to contemporaneous Australian art. Many visitors to A Sense of Place must have been interested in the connections between McCahon's religious landscapes and the 1947 religious landscapes of Arthur Boyd. A recontextualisation of McCahon in relation to Australasian art would help dispel the idea that McCahon was working in lonely isolation.

Rosalie Gascoigne, Monaro, Swell. Looking through to section of Colin McCahon's Landscape Theme and Variations: Series B. Photo: Heidrun Lohr. 

Colin McCahon, Victory Over Death, Waterfalls and section of Landscape Theme and Variations: Series B. Photo: Heidrun Lohr. 

notes: 

For more on the work of Rosalie Gascoigne click here.

For more on the work of Colin McCahon click here.