The McCahon House Artists' Residency was set up in honour of Colin McCahon. The inaugural Artist in Residence, painter Judy Millar, spoke to Francesca Emms about her relationship with McCahon and what the residency meant for her.
Judy Millar had just resigned from her lecturer’s position at the Elam School of Fine Arts, to devote all her time and attention to her work as a painter, when she was selected to be the very first McCahon House artist in residence. ‘The residency gave me a platform to launch my new life from,’ she says. In December 2006 she moved into a purpose-built studio just next door to the bach where McCahon and his family lived in the 1950s.
Millar created many new paintings while she was there. Large brightly coloured works, huge bowls of paint, and oversized handmade squeegees covered the floor of the studio. She also produced 12 smaller orange and black works on paper. The works sold quickly and one is in the McCahon House Residency Collection. While she kept very few of the works from that time, Millar says the months spent ‘trying to prise open new ways of working and thinking,’ were hugely important for later developments.
Currently Millar is working on the largest work she’s ever painted. It will be nearly 40 metres long and will occupy all the walls of the exhibition space. ‘It follows from a group of extremely large paintings, seven by four metres wide, that I painted for my survey exhibition earlier this year in Switzerland,’ she explains. The large painting is ‘still under wraps’ so she won’t tell me anything else, other than it will be exhibited in the South Island (watch this space). In September a single very large painting will be shown at Robert Heald Gallery in Wellington, and she has a number of paintings currently on show in a group exhibition, alongside artists from around the globe who deal with gesture in painting, at Kunstmuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. Millar’s site-specific installation Rock drop is described as ‘delighting in plundering the expressiveness of gestural painting.’ It can be seen in Auckland Art Gallery’s South Atrium until the end of the year.
McCahon is a figure that was always ‘there’ for Millar. She says that when she was growing up he stood for rebellion and represented the same threat to a mediocre life as Rock and Roll, or Punk Rock. ‘As an art student I raced to visit his new exhibitions. Climbing the stairs to Barry Lett Gallery in Auckland felt like climbing a mountain, forsaking oxygen to get a better view. And once there you knew you were on hallowed ground even though not fully understanding why.’ After art school Millar moved to live on a cliff overlooking Auckland’s West Coast beaches where, ‘I saw McCahon, the landscape painter, every moment.’ Later, when she was travelling overseas, artists of her own generation replaced McCahon as major reference points and it wasn’t until she took up the residency at McCahon House that she confronted him anew. Millar say she was ‘forced to reconsider his seriousness and independence, to rethink his ambition to make paintings the equal of the greatest paintings from the past. Now I think of him as a co-conspirator, somebody I work alongside.’
One of the best parts of the residency was having the opportunity to visit the McCahon family home, now a museum, anytime of the day or night. ‘In the house are recordings of Colin speaking and copies of letters and notes that he wrote. While on the residency I loved to go into the house late at night and listen to him. It was as if he was talking directly to me. Telling me to listen up, get serious, stand my ground. He forced me to look deeply into myself and find out what I had to offer as a painter. Those messages came at the perfect time for me.’
Reflecting on her time at McCahon House Millar says, ‘Experiencing Colin’s commitment, and the sacrifices that he and his family made, was humbling. But I also saw there was a sense of community that existed between writers, artists and thinkers in McCahon’s best years that we no longer have.’ She says the policies that have governed New Zealand society since the 1980s have divided us, leading us into competition with one another rather than encouraging collective action, and the way artists and other intellectuals no longer join forces is symptomatic of larger societal issues. ‘It is easy to romanticise poetry readings on his Titirangi deck but they do represent an exchange between minds that we don’t experience today. This has helped me see my own epoch differently and has led me to a new consideration of the importance of place and close community.’
First published ArtZone #80
Further image credits:
Judy Millar, Installation view, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland 2019.
Judy Millar, Installation Kunstmuseum St Gallen, 2019.
Judy Millar, Rock Drop, 2017. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, commissioned with support from Auckland Contemporary Art Trust, Auckland City Sculpture Trust and the Auckland Art Gallery Foundation Annual Appeal, 2017.
McCahon House. Photo by Peter Jennings, 2019. Image courtesy of McCahon House.
Colin McCahon et al on deck in Titirangi. Between 1953 and 1960. Photograph by Barry Millar. Image provided by McCahon House (c/o Auckland Art Gallery – Toi o Tāmaki).
McCahon Studio. Photo by Ruby White, 2019. Image courtesy of McCahon House.