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We're Not Alone

John Walsh, Matakite exhibition at Pataka. Photo / Mark Tantrum.
John Walsh, Act 2 Scene 2. Photo courtesy of John Walsh.
I Cant Stop Loving You 2012. Photo courtesy of John Walsh.
John Walsh, Matakite Pataka exhibition detail. Photo / Mark Tantrum.
The Black Legged Navigator 2006. Photo courtesy of John Walsh.
Mark Amery writes of the significance of John Walsh’s vision of a mythic land of the long white cloud.


So of Aotearoa are these paintings that they could have been born from a Paua shell. Incandescent pearl and dark bushy tones colour the swathes of scrubby landscape, ocean and mist. This is the backdrop for a spirit-inhabited land of the long white cloud: of both past and present, at once afloat in the air, swimming in the great Pacific and dug into this peaty earth. On this grand supernatural and natural plane we zoom in on the scattered human home fires - the intense, fragile warmth of community.

Matakite, a suite of John Walsh’s paintings at Pataka in Porirua brings together some of his boldest large works completed between 2006 and 2013. A matakite is a visionary, someone who as curator Mark Hutchins-Pond describes  “perceives life in translucent, overlapping layers of time and space.” For Pakeha and Maori alike Walsh provides a sublime visualisation of the felt spiritual ‘other’ embodied in New Zealand’s landscape and stories. 

Walsh needs no drone to fly across the real back of this land, evoking a dreamlike beginning to this world of ours, recalling the mythology and imagery of both his Maori and Irish ancestry. In this world elegant spirit figures appear as half bird or fish people (reminiscent of Bill Hammond’s surrealism) and as waka - vessels for our loved ones. They take shape from the smoky wisps that emanate from the glowing kainga or villages in the bush. The matakite navigate a forbidding fearsome space in-between our places. The anthropomorphic carving of the wharenui has been given its finest painterly contemporary figuration.  

Walsh is a versatile painter. An uneven Dowse survey Flying Solo in 2009 emphasised the bold impish political wit of some of Walsh’s smaller paintings and his muscular tiki-like figures. That’s not so evident here. Last year’s Page Blackie exhibition demonstrated again his political engagement and how he can swing in mood between the heart and the head. Opening this week a new Page Blackie show, with some pretty straight-up portraiture, is different yet again.

Matakite is a different realm to Flying Solo, more feminine, and Matakite benefits from its closer selection and having a clearer vision. Even then it highlights how many different and bold approaches Walsh has made to illustrating this supernatural realm over the years.

As cherry-picked magnificent as it is, it still highlights what an unsteady as well as fluid painter Walsh can be. Even in a single painting he isn’t always interested in providing you a coherent narrative, consistent stylistic approach or fixed perspective. In ‘Departure Lounge’ (why isn’t this and others aren’t in our Koru Lounges I don’t know) Walsh moves awkwardly in the dissolve from figurative into abstract expression. And yet he achieves something fresh, ultimately moving and elegant in the evocation of the departing spirit as mist turned female figure in the air. In space Walsh is comfortable turning figures as if he were a dance choreographer.

Everything swims widescreen and then goes in for the close-up. The artist constantly pushes his ideas into new spaces at the edge of his imaginings – as if flying just over the edge of the known landscape. Mostly it’s utterly enchanting occasionally it’s irritatingly uneven. But you sense that works that deserve to be among New Zealand’s most celebrated -  ‘Act 2, Scene 2’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ - wouldn’t come without such high-flying bravado.    

The full title is ‘Act 2 Scene 2, There are visitors at the Head and they don’t look friendly. Come. Let your demon go, you can catch him again later’. There’s an example of Walsh overreaching and uncomfortably mixing right there - but like his painting it charms for daring to go there and be touched by intimacy. 

The play structure reference reminds me how unafraid he is to be Shakespearean in being both epic and intimate in dramatic ambition. A comparable contemporary Maori work in theatre might be Kirk Torrance’s 2009 play Flintlock Musket, roughly, poetically melding layers of reality and Maori and English epic traditions. Our own Game of Thrones.

In these works intricate, dense detail of nature in the foreground (reminiscent of Japanese painting) moves grandly into dappled washes of land and cloud in the back. The way Walsh can bridge the tension between these two worlds is an important part of these best works charge. 

‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ could be the same scene from an entirely different perspective. We are within the trees looking out now, from dark out into the light. The enormous painting is structured around thick tree limbs extending back into the picture plane, and tree trunks framing the view off to distant cloud-bush islands. Tree people sprouting giant wings in the tree-tops hold an inner radiance (a ‘Gauguin glow’). They are spot lit operatically. Walsh gets away with offbeat shifts in perspective. The appearance of a white haired man in post-war casual shirt, jumper and trousers, complete with wings and a red pendant flying from his ear feels strangely right. It’s as if this is the world of coming into being Walsh’s koro told him about, softly singing the Ray Charles song of the title.  In ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ the not quite rightness sings.

Confusingly, not all in the exhibition is clearly of the world of the seer - though that’s easy to forgive when the exceptions are so strong. ‘Not Lost in Fiordland’ is nicely selected to demonstrate how coherently Walsh can play with a detailed more realism-based landscape, but one with its own distinct style. A group of figures seem to emerge as memories of ancestors from the rock wall beside a fiord.  

In the two large ‘Herehereuma’ paintings Walsh is grand history painter, portraying the awesomeness of encounter between warring tribes and the forbidding nature of a retreat pa, deep in the bush. More than any other painter Walsh gives you a sense of the beautiful, overwhelming nature of a land of dark forest, and the welcome warmth to be found in an isolated kainga.

A principal strength in so many of these works is the way with paint and his figures Walsh navigates us across a formidable mythic sea of land and sky to places of the heart; the warmth of a human glow located out in the bush, reminding us we’re not alone.  

  • Matakite, John Walsh, Pataka, Porirua, until 18 September 2016
  • John Walsh, Page Blackie, until 9 September 2016


Written by

Mark Amery

17 Aug 2016

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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