First impression: He's a paradox, ordinary but not commonplace. High on a long-legged stool, tattoos covering both arms and shoulders, dressed in a paint-splattered singlet and pair of well-worn pants, he might well be elevated, but he's far from acting elite, though the words that drop from his mouth often seem to be snatched from a higher plane.
John McLean, award-winning artist of Urenui, is a man of well-constructed sentences, full of meaning and depth. When he talks, you want to listen - as much as he wants you to.
McLean and his wife Chris live a peaceful existence, here by the sea at Pukearuhe. They have been here for 28 years, 21 of those in a yellow house they built themselves.
Outside the door of the studio, McLean's stone statues skulk. Inside, a different kind of art waits upon an easel. The artist's working space is light-filled and framed in golden wood. The water from a shallow pool outside reflects all over the ceiling.
McLean's voice has a reflective quality to it, too. "Yes, I was always an artist," he says, while a small dog snuffs and rubs around his feet. "There are stories of how I burnt the toast every morning because I was too busy drawing on paper bags and newspaper edges to mind it."
Life-like and super-real
Most of what McLean drew in those earliest days were animals, particularly horses, as well as other nature scenes. He created super-realistic images, but not now, certainly not now.
Once revered for his life-like paintings of farmyard hens, he began one day to lurch down a different path towards a landscape of almost fairy-tale characters, to make art full of mysteries only revealed when you stand in front of his canvases long enough, and stare into them hard enough.
"I painted hens when I moved into the country because they epitomised the lifestyle and I loved painting them," he explains. "The paintings were really popular, and they were good paintings.
"I got caught up in the genre. But if your art moves on, you have to move on with it. If you start confounding your voice, which is hard enough to hear at the best of times, you're in trouble.
A Norsewear Merit
McLean's most recent works carry long, imaginative titles that can whisper at the cerebral details within. It's hardly surprising his Farmer's Wife Departs With Traveller, selected from 466 entries nationwide, won a coveted $4000 Merit Award at the Norsewear Art Awards held in Napier, in April 2007.
As chairman of the judging panel, Sydney art dealer Martin Browne said, "Everything in that painting works, its structure, its compelling narrative."
The blurb in the exhibition booklet quotes the artist: I draw on an extended painting experience of my own rural background and strong interest in the work of Jung, symbol and myth. The pictorial content provides the vehicle for compositional and painterly concerns.
It was third time lucky for McLean, whose paintings had made it through for final exhibition and judging three years in a row. And he says the win meant more than he imagined it would.
"The second one was the Farmer's Wife Leaves With The Musician. All the characters are aspects of the mind. The first were the Hunter and the Fisherman, and then the Traveller, and their families. The Hunter has always denoted the rational mind, whereas the Fisherman delves beneath the surface. He's the intuitive.
"The Fisherman's Wife loves the Hunter, the Hunter loves the Fisherman's Wife, the Hunter's Daughter loves the Fisherman's Son. It was all about the rational and the intuitive coming together. So while it looks like infidelity, it's really about seeking completion."
Tarot Cards and Genesis
While some have said of this particular series that ‘it's almost like Tarot cards’, others have seen a Biblical side, something the artist himself sees.
"It occurred to me that Farmer's Wife Departs With Traveller is a little like the myth of the Expulsion from the Garden, the Adam and Eve thing, but the God figure occupies an arid, controlled space, and in order to engage an experience, that space must be left, for a zone of wilderness so while it's similar, it's actually in reverse."
Though all this sounds organised and truly well-thought out, McLean admits it came to him retrospectively, after the painting was done.
"When I'm painting, I haven't got a clue," he says. "But the Farmer, to me, has become the symbol of being at home within bounded territories.
"The Farmer's Wife is actually part of him - the psyche is female - that's ranging forth, crossing over. What happens, interestingly enough, is that as these characters are produced, I find as I paint their faces, I paint their sense of being, their expression of themselves."
Rite of passage
Yet, it is nothing short of a massive upheaval that got McLean to this point, and it takes genuine effort for him to explain the painful voyage of discovery it took to get here, starting way back at school.
"I won the art prize every year, but when I went to go to art school, the principal prevailed upon my parents to follow a different avenue. It caused me a great deal of despair for a very long time.
"I became a successful teacher, was promoted rapidly, but there was always that sense that I had to give art a serious fly, that I would have regrets, about the age I am now, if I didn't.
"I was being torn in two directions. When I bailed out of teaching, I had a sort of nervous breakdown, but it was the most constructive thing that ever happened to me.
"A revolution, it turned me round, spat me out and allowed me, essentially, to replay. Had I drifted on semi-comfortably, I would probably have drifted a lot longer."
Today, McLean steadfastly believes that after ‘pulling myself out of the foetal ball’ he was left with a clear sense of vocation, which distilled down into pure innovation that has sustained him over time. He's quick to acknowledge the serendipitous input of key figures along the way.
Artist Michael Smither introduced him to the rigors and regime of working seriously, to painting every day, to regard his art as his job. Even now, proven as he is, McLean is usually in the studio by nine, and often stays there seven days a week, until, as he says, "Thankfully Chris comes and digs me out."
Colleagues and mentors
It was Smither who originally launched McLean as a super-realist, which he remained for twenty years. "By that time I felt I was getting into the work, but it was getting hard," McLean says. "I'd begun to procrastinate, drink too much coffee...the appetite wasn't there, and I knew that something else..."
McLean doesn't immediately finish his sentence. It's obvious that it's important for him to find the exact words he needs to account for what was happening inside him at the time, urging him beyond all his known familiar boundaries.
In the end, he simply sits his hands on his knees, palms upwards, in humble supplication, and says, "I knew that there was another voice in me that wanted to be heard."
It was on this verge of change that McLean developed a strong interest in Carl Jung and the other great philosophers, and began to explore the idea of that alternate voice being the only true one. "I took the view that the artist John knew what it wanted and the conscious John had to listen and find out more."
To do this, he devised all kinds of bizarre means to access this other voice - working half-blindfolded so he couldn't see what he was painting; sidestepping the strengths he had to unleash something new and original. As he says, "I dismantled what I knew and tried to break through that way."
An end by tortuous means
What followed was a tormented and harrowing time, when a man known for his super-realism turned his back on a notable record and began dabbling in abstract realms. According to McLean, the internal war was hard enough, but what added to the spilt blood was the fact that no one in the art world understood what he was trying to do.
But sometimes great art requires revolution, and McLean acknowledges now that his own battle became - perversely - an extremely interesting time. Once he'd made the pact with his artist self that there would be no further restraints, unexpected canvases began to emerge.
Yes, he admits, bad art did happen, but it was only bad insomuch as it was underdeveloped, untried. The process threw up welcome stepping stones. "I got to point C by stepping stone B, which might have been without merit, but it allowed me to go in that direction.
For a time he produced art made up of very simple forms, quite similar to cave paintings, and later, some with animal heads. For a long time he painted in an almost cubist way. Some of this old work still hangs on his walls as points of reference.
McLean believes now, that his art demanded a long gestation, though his agents grew more than a little concerned when the new work appeared.
"Things came right. I had a good exhibition, a couple of years ago, called Change of Mind, and things continued to develop from there to a show with Michael Smither, Friends, at the George Perry Gallery in Tauranga.
Today, he is no longer experimenting. He's consolidated, calm. "I've found the voice," he says quietly. The uproar's gone.
Don't look back
McLean has come a long way since relinquishing the dream of art school, so long ago, something he's come to view as fortunate. Instead of being left with a lingering, institutional imprint, he has found his own way through, from deconstruction to salvage.
Art, he says, is like religion, akin to taking a religious vow. "I no longer look back with regret. You can educate yourself. I've worked my way through a hell of a lot of European art museums and soaked up what was there.
"I've read hugely on art, and that to me now, is a far more valid education than three years of instruction at the age of 19, which is supposed to sustain me now as a 60-year-old.
He's swift to acknowledge the help of key people along the way. "Michael was my mentor. I hold him in huge regard. And Tom Kreisler, whom I taught beside at Taranaki Polytech, was a wonderful man to spend time with. He expanded my vision of what constituted good art. They were both very influential."
Perched on his high stool, feet on the rung, McLean uses the word gratitude to sum up - not just for his art but life in general. Having been a logger, a commercial fisherman, a farm worker, as he says, ‘working shit jobs, doing everything necessary to bring in the bread,’ it's now a given that as an artist he can, and will, survive.
Movies and motivation
In the past McLean's cashed in on his talents for the movie-making business. He began in construction, and then quickly moved into special effects with the brush, ageing buildings and artificial stones to make them look more 'real'.
Soon, his sculpting skills were put to good use, carving huge polystyrene props - castles, battlements and buildings for Prince Caspian, the latest Narnia movie, and the animals, including the lion, for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
"The first film I did was Vigil, years and years ago," he says. "Then when The Last Samurai swung through I found a job on that. Now I'm in the loop. I love it. As an artist I live in isolation, but I do like people, and there's an energy in the job you tap into, you have lots of laughs. Three or four of the crew I regard as really tight friends. It's highly paid."
But the film industry has been taken off the agenda, to leave more room for the art. "I have my agent in Australia screaming for more paintings." He'll bow to a demand, which he regards as motivation, not pressure.
That John McLean has survived the transition to arrive at the place he has, allows him a small, deserved measure of pride. He ends with a favourite Picasso quote that works for much more than his art.
"What's the point of painting something you already know?"
It's not just the destination, but the journey. That's the important thing, he explains.
First published 14 May 2007
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