Carelessly Caculated: Robert McLeod and Contemporary New Zealand Art

Everybody loves a good James Nairn tale. The story of the Glaswegian artist bringing impressionism and burning sunsets to late-nineteenth century Wellington has an irresistible pull in New Zealand art history. It is often called on to explain the arrival and development of Robert McLeod as a Scottish born and bred artist working in New Zealand since 1972. The connection was first made when McLeod exhibited surreal expressionist paintings soon after his arrival, and has been regularly insisted on ever since. A 2004 retrospective at Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures tracked McLeod’s long, winding path from figuration to abstraction and back, which seemingly takes in every possible point in-between. We are told that ‘like the Glaswegian impressionist James Nairn who arrived in Wellington in 1890, McLeod comes from the Scottish colourist tradition’.[1]

Its an analogy that promises ways of understanding McLeod’s sometimes bewildering art, but ends up concealing a lot more than it reveals. McLeod was indeed born and trained in Glasgow and embraces colour. But he hardly stepped off the boat wearing tartan and waving imported tubes of the bright, lurid paint he is now known for. McLeod arrived as a young artist, fresh from the Glasgow School of Art, with formative influences like Alan Davie stuck in his head. The portraits packed away in his suitcase were intense, dark, and heavy. They are closely aligned to the Glasgow ‘dirty brush’ school of painting headed by figures like Alexander Gault, and diametrically opposed to any ‘Scottish colourist tradition’. McLeod was not the fully formed artist importing a fixed cultural tradition to New Zealand that these origins stories suggest.

McLeod’s ‘signature’ engagement with colour and ‘being Scottish’ develop later, from within and in response to New Zealand culture. Signs of Scotland do appear in McLeod’s art, often as swaths of tartan, or straight razors evoking the mean streets of Glasgow. But these signs are employed strategically to complicate rather than fix any understanding of the artist and his work. Critic Rob Taylor picked up on this ploy in his recollection of the debut of tartan in McLeod’s then abstract paintings:

He painted a series of Tartans. He couldn’t have done that in Glasgow. They would have been laughable. Absurd. He refers back to Scotland. But from somewhere else.[2]

McLeod wryly deploys these signs of the country of his birth as an affront to the continued insistence that he is a ‘Scottish artist’, to his adopted cultures obsession with ‘identity-based’ art, and to the faith that this identity offers an easy route towards the interpretation of his work. It was a strategy initially forged in opposition to the insular art practice McLeod encountered in New Zealand during the 1970s, with its insistence that art be landscape-based or hold local figurative content.

Encountering this tradition reinforced McLeod’s already firm commitment to pursuing an internationally-orientated painterly practice, most visibly a hard-edged abstraction. His work until the late-1980s moves across and between modernist painterly formats: the Davie-inspired veiled figuration morphs into an engagement with the formalist grid, then aggressive splatter paintings and later cooler minimalist surfaces. This oppositional practice soon found support. Just as James Nairn was celebrated for bringing impressionism into New Zealand, McLeod was quickly positioned by supporters as a fierce proponent and defender of international modernism in the face of a vapid local tradition.[3]

In 1980, arch-formalist Petar Vuletic invited McLeod to join his stable of artists committed to advancing the cause of abstraction. By this time the authority of Vuletic’s gallery and the arguments that underpinned it had waned.[4] Nevertheless McLeod was promoted as an exemplar of the committed modernist artist. Vuletic wrote that McLeod’s work stands outside the ‘Indigenous Regionalist School of Art’, and has ‘a strength and vitality, which unfortunately does not exist in much painting currently produced in this country.’[5] Vuletic provided an international context for McLeod’s art. He cited Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Larry Poons as important influences, before connecting McLeod ‘with a small number of other serious artists’ in New Zealand committed to modernist practice. Vuletic specifically noted that McLeod gave up the modernist device of the grid because other artists such as Geoff Thornley had more successfully mastered the format.[6]

While McLeod vocally shared in Vuletic’s dismissal of local painting traditions and practitioners, he was less devoted to Greenbergian formalism. Under Vuletic’s watchful eye, McLeod had turned away from aggressive splatter paintings to a more controlled and calculated minimalism. The restraints of minimalism soon became a limitation. The relationship with Vuletic broke down, as McLeod introduced tonal variations into his minimalist painting, started shaping his canvases, and eventually incorporated drawing marks into the painted surface. One senses a hint of frustration in Vuletic’s backhanded compliment that McLeod’s painting ‘is becoming quite obviously stamped with his own personality.’[7] Its another attempt to deal with the absurdist quality of McLeod’s art noted by Rob Taylor and proudly paraded in the work itself. One of McLeod’s minimalist paintings declares itself ‘Sick Yellow-Green’.

Ian Wedde’s comment made at this time that McLeod’s practice reads as a series of ‘aggressive reactions’ holds as much truth today as it did in the mid-1980s.[8] Wedde was specifically discussing the way McLeod’s painting set itself against the practices and concerns then deemed to constitute an authentic New Zealand art. But at this time McLeod was also battling the limitations of formalism and his own work indebted to that tradition. These remain some of McLeod’s primarily duelling partners. His art was and continues to be forged out of aggressive reactions made in a New Zealand cultural context.

The exuberant use of vibrant colour has its origins less in some Scottish painterly tradition than as a reaction against the sombre black and white tones of New Zealand regionalist artists. In one series McLeod specifically took on the classic regionalist subject of the landscape by responding in abstract terms to South Island landmarks like Mitre Peak and the Fox Glacier. The First Fox (1987) and Buchanan (1987) remain resolutely abstract. But landscape references are suggested through the stacking of these shaped abstract forms on the floor or leaning against the wall to play with concepts like horizon lines. Here McLeod offered alternative ways of responding to the New Zealand landscape and its contested histories than could be provided through the regionalist tradition.

As the central figure in this enemy tradition, Colin McCahon has offered McLeod a constant point of reference and departure. McCahon’s dark, often monochromatic vision embodies what McLeod characterises as a culturally specific ‘puritanical distrust of colour.’[9] To McLeod this ‘tribal fear’ equates to a wider affliction that still hampers New Zealand art—the celebration of the intellectual over the emotional, the cerebral over the sensual. McLeod’s constant revelling in the physical and sensual qualities of paint, colour, and surface treatment offers a hedonistic alternative to the perceived emphasis on story telling and intellectual engagement in McCahon’s work and the art history that grants it such a prestigious role.

McLeod has responded directly to McCahon’s art. The Lanark drawings of the mid-1980s, large forms of loosely hung and shaped paper, were intended to counter and complicate the possibilities inherent in McCahon’s celebrated use of unstretched canvas. The scribbled drawing marks on their surfaces replace McCahon’s use of cursive text, seen by McLeod as a cheap trick to encourage engagement from the viewer.

McLeod’s painting has always worked at last partially as a challenge to the major conventions and figures of New Zealand art.  But he has not always operated alone. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he was a central figure in a small group of Wellington artists who can loosely be characterised as expressionist. McLeod, Malcolm Benham, Rob Taylor and, later, Jack Forrest, formed a formidable grouping through this period. They regularly exhibited together and were provided a public platform through Taylor’s often duelling reviews with Ian Wedde played out in Wellington newspapers.

A loose association was forged with other Wellington expressionists Allen Maddox, Phillip Clairmont, and Tony Fomison. Maddox moved most freely between the groups. According to Taylor, he also gained the most creative nourishment from this exchange. Taylor’s review ‘Painter returns with gestures of lost direction’, claims that Maddox ‘adopted McLeod as mentor’. He then insists that Maddox lifted his characteristic X motif from McLeod’s expressionist grids, and then ‘went to Auckland to fame and fortune, infamy and misfortune … slashing ferocious crosses into New Zealand art.’[10]

Taylor saw Maddox’s exhibition at the Peter McLeavey Gallery as both a homecoming of the appropriated X motif, and as evidence of a practice in decline. He explained that Maddox ‘had lost a dialogue Auckland was not, and indeed is not, aware of; he had lost his sustaining connection to McLeod,’ who over the same period had continued ‘onward and upward’.[11]

Taylor’s insistence that McLeod was the centre of a vital and authentic Wellington tradition of painting is smeared over many reviews. As in the Maddox review, this tradition is often set in opposition to a fashion-conscious and market-driven Auckland scene that holds the potential to corrupt artists. Taylor would later deploy this argument against McLeod, commenting on the ‘Aucklandish sense of post-modernism’ that had crept into his work.[12]

McLeod’s ‘sustaining’ role in Wellington art is also evident through his teaching at Wellington High School from 1972.  McLeod was a forceful and persuasive teacher, despite his continued insistence that the profession really just provided the security to push his painting practice and not depend on the market. Rob Taylor suggests that McLeod may have proved too persuasive an influence on the emerging practices of ex-students like Michael Cubey and Catherine Bagnell.[13] But while these artists’s painterly practices (still maintained by Cubey, subsequently jettisoned by Bagnell) have close ties back to McLeod, it was his total dedication and commitment to artmaking that seems to have most strongly resonated with students. This influence has potentially unfolded in many different forms, encompassing Tim Bollinger’s comics, Luke Savage’s filmmaking, and Fiona Campbell’s philanthropic work with the Real Art Roadshow.

A younger generation of contemporary artists directly in touch with McLeod and his work reveals his strong, motivating example. The image-laden paintings of Matthew Couper have shared in a productive ongoing dialogue with McLeod’s art for over a decade. Couper’s Barr Barr Black Sheep (2007) charts his own development through Alfred Barr’s iconic diagram of cubist and abstract art. He places McLeod in the prime position originally allocated to Vincent Van Gogh as a formative influence on modern art. According to this artistic growth chart, McLeod’s presence ushered Couper’s first moves into abstraction and then into appropriation and postmodernism. McLeod’s painting made similar forays in and around these territories through this period. A dedication made to the younger artist in an earlier publication, ‘Thanks to Matt Couper for keeping me in touch’ suggests that this was not a one-way conversation.[14] Similar dialogues can be found embedded in Victor Berezovsky’s amorphous contemporary abstractions. 

As McLeod’s work shed its formalist skin and exploded into figuration and a wildly unpredictable range of forms and shapes over the past decade, it has begun to share qualities with that of a number of contemporary painters with whom he has no close contact, or any contact at all. His intensely coloured, off kilter paintings share genetic traits with Rohan Wealleans’s oddball painterly forms. Weallean’s creatures are similarly drenched in and breathe viscous layers of paint, have their skin stretched, pulled and pierced, and often bare teeth or offer inviting openings. Connections can also be forged with Miranda Parkes’s highly inventive treatment of the painterly surface in bulging forms that threaten to explode over the viewer, the gallery space, and modernist painterly conventions. ‘Ejaculatory’ has been applied as a verb to McLeod’s art both positively and pejoratively for decades.

Justin Paton pinpoints how McLeod’s irreverent approach to the act, processes, and histories of painting has found fresh allies in a new generation of New Zealand artists. He writes:

It’s hard to make a painting look convincing today if you can’t find a way of admitting its corniness, its disorder and—let’s face it—its glorious irrelevance. That’s why goofy, off-kilter, wilfully delinquent abstract art races to the fore right now, with McLeod as a veteran exponent—an old master off oddball abstraction.[15]

Paton’s review caught McLeod’s art at a cusp of the shift away from an admittedly already debased abstraction to a cartoon-based figuration. This trajectory has subsequently opened up connections to other strands of contemporary practice. Mark Braunias taps into a similar vein with his madcap comic visions set on upsetting the niceties of high art, as do Seung Yul Oh’s high-energy, high-impact paintings often orientated around the grosser end of the bodily. McLeod may well be a ‘veteran exponent’ of such a painting practice. But it makes more sense to discuss his recent work in relation to these younger artists committed to complicating their inherited histories and approaches to painting than to those still active artists he was connected to in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Milan Mrkusich and Geoff Thornley.

McLeod’s art truly reveals its stripes when cast in relation to such contemporary practices and concerns instead of simplistic notions like the importance of colour or Scottish traditions. Despite constantly reinventing and redefining itself over the last forty years, McLeod’s practice is still often saddled with these readings and values. His most recent showing in a public gallery? As part of Te Papa’s The Scots Abroad exhibition, where he is once again set up as a colourful, contemporary James Nairn.

Published in Dandini Comes Clean: Paintings by Robert McLeod, Gisborne: Paul Nache Gallery, 2011, 6–14

[1] Helen Kedgley, ‘Rob McLeod: a long way home’, in A long way home: three decades of painting, Porirua: Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, 2004, unpaginated.

[2] Rob Taylor, ‘British artists in land of opportunity’, Dominion, 7 July 1986, p.12.

[3] See Neil Rowe, ‘Robert McLeod: A biographical note’, Elva Bett Newsletter, n.6, October 1978, unpaginated.

[4] See Edward Hanfling and Alan Wright, Vuletic and his circle, Auckland: Gus Fisher Gallery, 2003.

[5] Peter Vuletic, Robert McLeod: Paintings: Drawings, 1972-1981, Wellington: City Art Gallery, 1981, umpaginated.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ian Wedde, ‘Art’, Wellington City, October 1985, p.38

[9] Helen Kedgley, ‘Rob McLeod: a long way home’, in A long way home: three decades of painting, Porirua; Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, 2004, unpaginated.

[10] Rob Taylor, ‘Painter returns with gestures of lost direction’, Dominion, 26 November 1985, p.31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rob Taylor, ‘Painters get space off gallery walls’, Dominion, 13 November 1987, p.6.

[13] Rob Taylor, ‘Bagnall exhibition sets off déjà vu’, Dominion, 1 July 1988, p.18.

[14] Robert McLeod, ‘Acknowledgements’ in An orange in a fried fish shop: paintings by Robert McLeod, Nelson, Craig Potton Publishing, 2002, p.2.

[15] Justin Paton, ‘Creature Feature’, Listener, 21 June 1997, p.41.