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Sold on Fragility: Mercy Pictures & the Martyrdom of Colin McCahon

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Colin McCahon, Scared, 1976, synthetic polymer paint on paper, 730 x 1095 mm, Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. Courtesy of Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust Teghan Burt: Zara Mother China; New Look Mother China; Prada Mother Italy; Boohoo Mother United Kingdom; All Saints Mother Turkey  (all 2018). These works were part of Burt's Empire Waist exhibition held in TG gallery in Nottingham in October last year. Teghan Burt: Primark Mother Romania  (2018). Part of Burt's Empire Waist exhibition held in TG gallery in Nottingham in October last year. Teghan Burt: Asos Mother Romania; Pretty Little Thing Mother United Kingdom; H&M Mother China (all 2018). These works were part of Burt's Empire Waist exhibition held in TG gallery in Nottingham in October last year. Teghan Burt: Top Shop Mother Sri Lanka  (2018). Part of Burt's Empire Waist exhibition held in TG gallery in Nottingham in October last year.

It was as if, in the tortured depth of his being, the deeply Christian McCahon had taken upon himself the burden of original sin for all mankind. Yet like Christ before him, McCahon would find bodily resurrection in a second coming, but not as foretold of Jesus in The Revelations of Saint John the Divine.

EyeContact Essay #35

Wherever there is identity politics there will be culture wars. This holds equally true in art as it does at Ihumātao, except we saw at Ihumātao more convincing urgency, passion and intensity than anything that has been seen in New Zealand art for some time. Lately, student led cultural activism in some of our art schools has conflated Identitarian issues, anti-faculty ageism and reverse racism into an impassioned mess of accusation and unsubstantiated insinuation. In art, as in politics, when criticality collapses, civil disagreement deteriorates into belligerence and political nativism. Yet against such tendencies, institutional messaging speaks of professional excellence in the same breath as it speaks of cultural acceptance, student diversity, and empowering all students equally. Despite such woke institutional messaging, whenever art is taken seriously and considered critically, culture wars of some sort will also be simmering.

This is also true of one of Auckland’s most earnest and benign art milieux: the kiddie-club openings at Mercy Pictures. The last time I was there it was the body-ego that is eighteen year old fashion model Ch’lita Collins and her photographs, principally of herself. Soon after her Mercy Pictures opening the young model announced on Instagram @chlita that she had given up photography. Thanking all those who supported her stripling photographic practice, she declared that she was now focusing all her efforts on her modelling career. Good timing Ch’lita: it was her photographic modelling success that carried her at Mercy Pictures.

But culture wars at Mercy Pictures are not racial, nor are they Identitarian; they are social and sartorial, and above all they are tentative. Being Auckland, fashion has immense cultural and visual currency. In the social milieu where the fashion stakes are high and clothes are psychologically weaponised to seduce and wound, money is the real weapon. By world standards, the idea of haute couture at Mercy Pictures is wannabe, so they look to novel ways to explore it. No-one has enough money to wear the real thing; except the occasional local-girl-become-international model who sometimes appears in expensive originals. Lesser mortals however, buy from the dissemination ranges of eponymous brands (say, Dries van Noten) that have diluted their mystique by developing cheaper lines aimed at world-wide popular markets and internet shopping.

Nevertheless, New Zealand fashion continues to maintain extremely high standards of pretence because we really get to see the original thing here. This means that when it comes to fashion, the narrative ground for exaggeration is wide open. For anyone who has lived in big cities in North America and Europe and engaged in the social pantomime of sartorial expression, to witness this sort of make-believe pretence in fashion, can be extremely depressing.

I am depressed.

More so because I can’t buy Kilian Hennessy’s subtle multi-dimensional gender-ambiguous fragrances here, although I hear that David Jones in Sydney and Melbourne sells it. Kilian by Kilian fragrances exude the nuance and eccentricity born of class that does not exist here — after all, Kilian is a Hennessy. In the meantime, the retail associates at Smith & Caughey’s will tell you that Tom Ford’s vulgar practically-mono-dimensional fragrances “are amazing” because the suburban people who hang out downstairs at S&C (people with money go overseas to buy) favour loud flamboyant nightclub fragrances that proudly boast their own ignobility. 

In the gravest sartorial error since crop tops on slightly plump women, there is in Auckland the horrifying propensity for gentrified yoginis to wear Lululemon Wunder Under HR yoga tights — the ones that look and fit like underwear — in broad daylight on Ponsonby Road. Thank God the popular imagination of Auckland’s vulgarians has not yet discovered Le Labo’s Santal 33 fragrance with its rich sandalwood base (Oliver Creed also does his own Santal). It’s only a matter of time before they read somewhere that Meghan Markle wears Santal 33 (1). In terror I foresee them bolstering their self-belief by over-puffing themselves with it, in the erroneous belief that the Eastern-smelling sandalwood savour suggests this is how inner peace would smell if it were to have an olfactory component.

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Seriously though, fashion at Mercy Pictures is their mandate, and because they are young they bring a refreshing edge to it. In a typically young Auckland sort-of-way, fashion with the Mercy Pictures crowd is a sometimes clever, usually inventive, piss-take mix of visual irony and earnest self-belief. Delightfully visible is some faggot-punk detailing (if it’s only Docs on kids without money) and chunky thick-sole ‘90’s revival trainers worn in a way that is reminiscent of Rick Owens’ eponymous brand. I love Owens’ stuff so it’s nice to see his detailing mimicked and reappearing in new and novel ways.

The dress code at Mercy Pictures seems nicely overlaid with subtle sexuality, but its libidinal intensity has been unnecessarily tamed by the sort of invisible censorship that one learns from too much time on Instagram.

@Te6han Burt (a principal at Mercy-Pictures-The-Enterprise) makes great art objects that are women’s dresses, usually exhibited pinned to the wall. The dresses are often overlaid with baby onesies placed where the female womb would be located. This “couture” is amongst some of her best works, garments critical of women’s fashion at the same time as they celebrate it. They seem cleverly autobiographical.

In New Zealand art, associative self-inflation is a common way of building up the semblance of importance. Mercy Pictures knows this. What you do is just hook on to a name bigger than your own (which is just about anyone from overseas) and inflate your artistic stature in the process: like Julian Dashper did in the 1990s with longtime Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, whom he invited to New Zealand through CNZ (Landesman recently fell from grace under a #MeToo cloud of sexual harassment charges made by nine women (2)).

During Landesman’s New Zealand visit, Dashper invited mercurial Māori curator George Hubbard to show him around. George was hilarious and he charmed Landesman, but Hubbard’s goading charm was nowhere near as wheedling and as cheesy as Dashper’s could be, especially when it came to Julian advancing his own self interest. Charm can mean money in the bank, which is something that Dashper learned from the late Peter McLeavey, yet Dashper went deeper than mere sales and professional opportunism. Developing professional and personal associations with important players for him was about self-chuffedness, competitive professional prestige and any personal esteem you could draw to yourself. In his heyday, Billy® was the greatest.

Recently, Mercy Pictures made contact with the self-styled corporate errants, the New York City based sort-of-fake-almost-situationist fashion collective Bernadette Corporation. At the time, this allowed the Mercy Pictures kids the chance to drum up substantial noise.

The excitement of their initial contact (it was really Tegan) with Bernadette Corporation and visits to New York etc. culminated in a couple of associated Auckland exhibitions at Mercy Pictures — which included some works from Bernadette Corporation luminary Bernadette van Huy. The shows were definitely worth seeing. However the stature of this association currently appears to be in a rhetorical holding pattern and runs the risk of diminishing because of that historical blip. My point: it’s tough to maintain important overseas art associativity when you’re stuck in New Zealand.

Bernadette Corporation’s committed interrogation of the capital/couture couplet has not seeped through to what they wear at opening times at Mercy Pictures because everyone is so nice to each other. Couture is capitalised body armour, which when worn smartly and projected with a sharp edge of social cruelty, becomes a fascinating sport of intimidation. Fresh’n’Fruity learned that last bit very early on, although it was words that they mobilised and sent into battle.

The Mercy Pictures crowd is a new generation of artists who have been sold on their own fragility. I blame the art schools where critical inquiry has been superseded by a sort of rhetorical extortion that determines how and what may be spoken (Yeah! AUT and Whiti o Rehua): lest students suffer the hugger-mugger retaliation of bad grades. No wonder the kids at Mercy Pictures don’t know what on earth to say and how to think for themselves; and certainly not in the way Giovanni Intra was able to do at Teststrip. Mercy Pictures is not Fresh’n’Fruity, and Auckland is not Wellington. Nor is Auckland the Deep South.

Long gone from New Zealand art is the gothic banshee figure of Lita Barrie — before she escaped New Zealand — whose nutty mix of feminist rage, complex desire and smart intellection could be both daunting and entertaining. Even from the beginning, you could only ignore Lita at your peril.

Tag on Chris Kraus’s New Zealand visits in the nineteen nineties; after which her Semiotext(e) monograph I Love Dick became unofficial compulsory reading for cool young art farts. Even today, male sceptics who no longer drink the Chris Kraus Kool-Aid can raise the hackles of believers, such is the love and esteem Kraus has engendered in New Zealand. This is not the case in California where her name can still incite vitriolic anger. Especially in Santa Barbara where “the cowboy” Dick Hebdige resides - the target of Kraus’s obsession. However, don’t forget the complicity and culpability of Semiotext(e) publisher and theorist, Sylvère Lotringer, in this hilarious I Love Dick affair. To those who know him, Dick continues to assume the figure of a male #MeToo victim of a mad woman’s obsession, or so it seems. The only thing wrong with such resentful indignation: I Love Dick is extremely funny. The story’s antagonist was so busted for being a serious rooter, making Kraus’s romp an uproarious symbol of feminist pay-back (3).

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Opening times at Mercy Pictures are timid affairs, where a new generation of Auckland artists hold court and play out their hopes and wishes about what it means to be successful. Because they’re young, this play still involves a lot of guesswork. The young will always assert their will on a world that does not yet completely include them. Yet Mercy pictures is not Teststrip under the theory-driven ego of Intra, nor is it Gambia Castle with Denny et al (I don’t mean Merylyn Tweedie) puffing themselves up ready for art world success. Mercy Pictures is, …, I’m not quite sure how to describe it. I’m going against my better judgement by calling it “sorta-new-postmodern” because I cannot think of another handle. Yet there is something unique going on at Mercy Pictures and I am not entirely sure what it is.

Even if all they are doing at Mercy Pictures is to unwittingly dismantle and undermine the very thing they appear to venerate — the master narrative of success — like every New Zealand artist-run space before them (they loathe the brand “artist-run gallery”) their enterprise is about exhibiting art that the established galleries are not yet interested in.

These are new times, and the second decade of the new millennium is not the nineteen eighties nor the nineteen nineties. Yet one thing is patently clear: this is a time of world-wide political chaos and stupidity that was unknown two or three decades ago and no one has a clue as to what is happening nor what can be done about it.

Political and cultural nativism is the legacy of postmodern pluralism at its worst. Couple this with the brutal consequences of neoliberal reform and unprecedented levels of oligarchical corruption with impecunious consequences for the poor. Civil discussion amongst people who disagree with each other is lost to the public domain. The erosion of the rule of law and common decency, and the malleability of truth, is rife in political structures that have the power to fuck up the world. Add to this the unprecedented rise of family violence and the narratives of hate that a corrupt social media has enabled.

Due to the resistance and unwillingness of social media’s magnates to eradicate from their platforms hate speech and false political advertising, internet bulling of the young and the anonymous trolling of anyone unpopular — it’s too lucrative to do otherwise — we have become the victims of social and political impotence which has made us inured to the corruption and craziness around us. Cancel culture and the erosion of trust, through the uncontrollable power of insinuation, can blur the lines between acceptable behaviour and the abuse of power. This makes us all vulnerable, more so if we feel we have done nothing wrong and no longer know how to act for fear of repercussion. If deep down we fear that we can’t do anything about it, then we run scared. More so the young who have a lot more to lose — a future.

In better times, being young, talented and exhibiting not-so-tasteful degrees of political gaucheness, could work for young artists and fast-track their artistic ferment to levels of visibility that would otherwise make them ignorable. Giovanni Intra had an animal cunning, which could be covert and self-serving. He could quietly betray friends and allies if it suited him but he quickly learned to mix his natural artistic talent and artist’s conceit with flattery. He did so in ways that were not smart-arse and would not ruffle feathers. This quickly engendered him much love and support.

At the same time he could subtly implant the suggestion in the minds of his seniors that he would not displace them, even if it was always his intention to do so. He removed any doubt that if they committed to his work, he had the acumen and professional consistency not to betray any artist mythology that they might tacitly endorse if they were to support his practice. Dying young (due to a heroin speedball overdose at a New York City party in 2002), and in lieu of leaving behind a significant body of work, meant that his mythology could be easily dry-baked into elegy — with his legacy being promulgated by the historical exaggeration of his importance and his professional achievements.

My point is this: creative ferment can be invisible in a world distrustful of truth and intolerant of the unfamiliar. If you want to create kick-ass art that defies the benign bourgeois tastes of the status quo that is contemporary art, then you may need to piss on the feet of those who would otherwise venerate you. If you are going to be this badass, then you’re going to need a really good story.

Even if Mercy Pictures do not seem to know quite what they are doing nor how they are doing it, their self-belief, determination and commitment is entirely refreshing, and right now that’s about as much as I can believe in. If the separation of generations is simply the difference between optimism and cynicism, then it is because words can speak more loudly than feelings. If so, then cynicism will amount to nothing more than the reverse poetics of something once loved but now lost: youth and innocence.

All this begs the question: how would an art community inured to anything radical and upsetting accept the condition of “pure change (4).” In 1991 in Berlin I lived firsthand the uplifting excitement of such change, im wunderbaren Jahr der Anarchie, gleich nach dem Mauer (5).

That was a year after the Berlin Wall fell. Before then, and despite my utter distrust of the modernist myth of artist as heroic victim, I saw the personally destructive consequences of an artist whose art was radically new for its time and place. If new art severely challenges the status quo, as did McCahon’s at the beginning, then how bitterly the artist can be treated with the rhetorical weapons of incredulity and resentment. McCahon’s perceived errancy however, his early rejection and eventual veneration, was borne by the artistic legacy of an artist who was sold on his own fragility to those so easily beguiled.

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Singular occurrences in art are radical, they are unique and disruptive. Radical art will always be minacious to the authorities of good taste and the keepers of the status quo. I call such art “strong singularities” and consider them to be rare and their makers to be unique individuals who will shun the communities to which they belong (6). Yet the world is also full of “weak singularities” whose makers have learned to live in peace with a world that had once occluded their revolution. I call such art makers the subjects of a “McCahon singularity.”

Artists are the subjects of their own art. Radical art will always set itself apart from the principles of order and stable continuance under which established art communities prosper. Yet the professional and personal image an artist as the maker of radical art, may itself not fit the stereotype of the unruly iconoclast.

The subjects of a McCahon singularity will communicate their intuitions to a sceptical world. Yet the world that once rejected them, can be won over by the power of art to fascinate and beguile. The subjects of weak singularities learn to live in peace with a world that once rejected them, but they do so at their own peril.

From the beginning, the subject of a McCahon singularity must learn that the only way to prosper in a world that once rejected them, is to forgive the abuses of the ignorant — for they know not what they do — and to internalise any collateral damage to family and loved ones that their practice may have wrought. Such subjects may then abide happily in the forbearance of art history — meaning artists shouldn’t mess with their own mythology — and thereafter enjoy the peace, harmony, love and respect that always comes with widespread acceptance. If only.

The seduction of pecuniary success and the canonical messaging of art history will be life-giving to those artists who have learned to live in a world that could easily destroy them. The paradigm figure of a McCahon singularity is of course Colin McCahon. Having produced an amazing body of work in the modernist tradition with forcefully overlaid Christian symbolism and sometimes mawkish sentimentality, McCahon fell to severe alcohol abuse that eventually destroyed him.

It was as if, in the tortured depths of his being, the deeply Christian McCahon had taken upon himself the burden of original sin for all mankind, in the belief it could be redeemed through art. Yet like Christ before him, McCahon would find bodily resurrection in a second coming, but not as foretold of Christ in The Revelations of Saint John the Divine. Oh no, the body of McCahon that would live on beyond his death was his body of work whose pecuniary worth was beheld, initiated and upheld by the wily management of his Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey.

McCahon-the-person drowned in a swill of alcohol and the crapulous implosion of his mortal body. Yet, as Christ lives on in the sacramental host of the eucharist, McCahon’s other body, the body of art that survived him, was cut into parts to become the value-added capital investments of collectors. Everything was artfully orchestrated by McLeavey from his fabled “back room” upstairs in Cuba Street. With inscrutable priestly cunning, the choicest sacramental cuts would go to the rich and the worthy, such was McLeavey’s vision and control.

If McLeavey was New Zealand’s high priest of art dealers, then McCahon was an angel of light cast down upon earth and abandoned by a God whose love he would forever bespeak. Peter McLeavey was a good Catholic boy from Raetihi. McCahon had a marginal protestant upbringing. Yet on some profound level, the relationship between Peter and Colin seemed predicated on the specialist knowledge of those who knew well of the deleterious consequences of sin without redemption. On another, even more obscure level, it was Catholic guilt and sin that drove McLeavey to material success. Personal success in the real world may indeed be the gift of God’s love, but this is a story told by Protestants in the Prosperity Gospels that made many evangelists rich.

But material worldliness as a gift of God is not the Catholic way. Reward comes later. Personal riches made from the labour of others is not righteous Irish Catholicism. Despite his poor beginnings, McLeavey became a canny manipulator of the capital gains that could be made from art. He knew how to sell art and to see how to make an art market unfold in ways that serve one’s interests. He especially knew how to sell McCahon. It was as if his salesman craftiness and furtive ruthlessness was born of a cunning resistance to the fiscal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church.

Throughout his career McLeavey’s underlying Catholic guilt would both sadistically delight him and masochistically haunt him. He once told me that he had been in Freudian analysis, but much of what Peter said about himself was wistful and to be taken only with a grain of salt. Those who knew him saw not only the torture he suffered from his personal errors, but also how cleverly he could conceal them. As if, under The Prosperity Gospel According to Peter, both he and McCahon could be art world successes because Colin was the perfect art martyr to atone for both their sins; Peter’s sins were material and social but Colin’s drew closer to the original sin of mankind and therefore were deeply psychological. Yet when McCahon spoke to God in written word, it was for the atonement of all our sins that he so bespoke.

Sin would continue to haunt McLeavey in ways that few could understand or even believe was possible, but his cunning wiles and twinkly-eyed guile made him one of New Zealand’s greatest art dealers.

More recently, the centenary celebrations of McCahon’s birth proved to be the perfect resale opportunity for many private (and mostly anonymous) collectors of some of McCahon’s lesser and better works. Strategically gathered along a line in Auckland stretching from Webb’s in Normanby Road to Gow Langsford’s downtown, many of McCahon’s works were rolled out for auction and resale.

Despite the best intentions of the McCahon 100 pantomime, it was clear from the many inter-institutional and collector collaborations that included some of McCahon’s best works, that the celebrations gave rise to an unexpected denouement: given time, even McCahon’s greatest works can look ordinary. While the opposite is also true — a great work can look even better over time — in an incompatible context, a great work of art can look not as great as it may have once been remembered.

I call the subjective diminution of art over time “the historical legacy of a weak singularity.” Only the smartest curatorial nous can choose the right time and place to blow a curatorial trumpet in ways where no one notices anything but the art. Wystan Curnow and Alexa Johnston could, at times, do this extremely well and their McCahon surveys are still amongst the best.

Terrence Handscomb

(1) Follow Le Labo’s clever Instagram branding campaign @overheardlelabo.

(2) See: “Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Knight Landesman and Artforum Magazine,” Matt Stevens, The New York Times, January 3, 2019.

(3) Amazon Prime has recently released an awful television series I Love Dick based on Kraus’s book. The series stars Kevin Bacon as Dick.

(4) The idea of pure change is due to the quasi-mystical French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson’s philosophy plays an important role in the writings of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze scholars will loathe the heretical appropriation of Bergson’s idea of pure change, using it as a catchphrase and then planting it in the same theoretical ground as the destructive nihilism of a Badiouian event. Cf. Daniel Smith, “Mathematics and the Theory of Multiplicities: Badiou and Deleuze Revisited,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2003) Vol. XLI, p.426.

(5) The “wonderful year of anarchy,” just after the Berlin Wall fell, was felt with a sense of freedom and anti-bourgeois sentiment, which ran rife in what was typical 1980’s Berlin squat culture. This time also fomented the clash of leftwing anarchists and a newly visible ultra-right fascist revival. For an interesting and informative discussion of post-wall Berlin’s underground political and social cultures, see the recent Boston Review article by Berlin-based writer Paul Hockenos; “Zero Hour: The First Days of New Berlin,” Boston Review, 6 November, 2019: http://bostonreview.net/world/paul-hockenos-untold-story-berlin-wall-east-germany.

(6) My paradigm figure of a strong singularity is the Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman (b. 1966) and his proof in the affirmative of the famous Poincaré Conjecture. Perelman’s proof succeeded because it included (i.e. not rejected) singular occurrences. The politics surrounding Perelman’s discovery was first one of rejection and resentment before a maths-world consensus accepted it. Perelman won — and declined — the Fields Medal for mathematics in 2006 and a one million dollar prize for his proof. He was the first mathematician to ever decline the Fields Medal. The last I heard, Perelman had given up professional mathematics and lives at home with his mother in Moscow.

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This Discussion has 2 comments.

Comment

Terrence Handscomb, 8:06 a.m. 2 December, 2019

Oh dear, Σισσημαντεία is trolling gen-z adversaries again. You write a great text so why do you cast resentment spells from your anonymity closet? Come out in your own name and we’ll have a proper mud wrestle with everyone looking on and betting against who will win.

People will pay to see that, and we can say that the proceeds will go to #SaveAucklandYouth.

Reply to this thread

Terrence Handscomb, 9:49 a.m. 7 December, 2019

Okay people, stop emailing me “who was the anonymous troll?” questions: “Σισσημαντεία“ is a Greek transliteration of “Sissymancy.” Those who recall the show of the same name will recognise that the appropriation of its title, and the use of ancient Greek, is a wilful act of associative name calling.

Art kids who hang out in the K’Rd arts precinct, and for whom 1+1=2, will recognise its referent.

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