Lucky Little Cowboy inhabits a world of his own devising. He walked into an art room in infancy and was told ‘if you want this world you just need to reach out and take it.’ He said ‘yes please’ because above all The Lucky Little Cowboy loved seeing and feeling, he was partial to a nice smell and even a stench held interest. This would later be useful when solvents and unfortunate chemicals formed part of the daily draught! The world of sensation was handed to him because he had landed oh so luckily in the 1950s, the privileged child of cow farmers.
Of course the offer of this ‘wonderful’ life of freewheeling once accepted did involve a little bit of work because you don’t get the gravity assisted whooping downhill until you’ve pushed the cart up the hill … at least as high as the cow-bales. And on the downhill there are lumps, bumps screeching turns and the inevitable stop. But my message is one of thankfulness because although the wheels might fall off there is also the miraculous chance they’ll fall back on.
This feeling of thankfulness centres on the contemporary artist’s greatest gift; the freedom to create … to be the successful or unsuccessful creator … to decide what stands, what falls. With hindsight you might see that with a different wisdom you may not have foundered quite so often, but a long life has given up the chance of being better equipped to steer through a likely crash. We are talking about art of course, in actual fact a disaster on canvas can be worn quietly in the privacy of your little room. It’s easy enough to regroup and have another go. One of the best things about being long on the job is the realisation that you’ve got better at renewing your emotional involvement with the ‘thing’ in daily work. When I was young it had to happen pretty much ‘alla prima’, but can now go on for years. The fast deliveries are still sweet of course but the old sensation that this has irretrievably turned to shit is nearly a thing of the past. I’m a long term proponent of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s – ‘Art is long. The artist must buckle himself with infinite patience’. Buckling oneself with infinite patience in this exponentially speedy age is of course relative and I’ve had to temper my adherence to old Albert’s instruction by adding urgency … occasionally.
A couple of broad statements about my motivations are; I paint the people and places in my life and my work is about Life, Love and Death. These paintings are from a long people/place moment. Since my early years I’ve vacillated between the given (people/place) and the remembered or dreamt. In 1994 when I was beginning to firmly engage with the ‘given’ again I wrote the following:
There’s an argument that goes on in my painting—it’s circular and involves degree. To what extent should one be literal and how far painterly—how much observed and how much imagined? Observation is in a sense easier and more satisfying in its process, at least I’ve found it so. One has more freedom to move around when the image is given, when the motivation is the compulsion to render sense experience. Yet to work from behind the eye, from the back of the brain—to conjure an image out of feeling seems somehow a more noble aspiration. To pull a character out of thin air is especially sweet. So the battle rages and, along the way, one alights here in the sun and there in the shade. Sometimes the image is as ephemeral as a dream, sometimes as palpable as clay, or so I hope!
Around 2011 I began the return to ‘the back of the brain’. Here inspiration’s germ is organic, you spawn the thing from a musing point or seed. Having the muse in front of you is clearly a very different approach.
Here we have representations or sensations of people sitting in front of Lucky Little Cowboy. Cezanne told his sitters ‘be as an apple’; his was a higher calling … my approach was ‘be as you are’, and so beneath these static deliveries were all manner of ‘stillnesses’… there was much talking, wriggling, giggling and musical and literary listening peppering our just being still. It was a wonderful time … that decade and a half … at that time I had no idea I’d ease out of this mode and back into the home alone days of imagining. Whatever the mode though, there is the constant that ‘it’s difficult pleasure.’ Brett Whiteley .
I hinted earlier to growing up on Bank’s Peninsula; the place where my parents were small dairy farmers. In relation to what we’re looking at here I’d like to mention our individual connectedness to time and place. We are heirs to inherited traditions. In my case this involved a conservative farming Anglicanism that yet gave me license to dream. When a child there were people in my orbit who were born in the 1870’s, my maternal grandfather was born in 1883…. point being I was touched by an inherited memory from back then and beyond because it was in the conversation that swirled around us. Now-a-days I’m kicking over those traces, but here we have people from now. Our son Francis is amongst the pictured, so too The Eruera Banks sisters; Poi-haere and Mihi-Terina from up the road. Claudia Watson is ‘Back in Black’. Lucky Little Cowboy’s significance in all this is measured by it’s relative size. All are faces and figures from our age and place: They’re entries in a visual diary of life in Grey Lynn in the early 2000’s. It is my hope that they’ll live into a coming age and suggest to their future observers a sense of connectedness. As we might visit the great museums and pore over the faces of portraits by Velasquez or Goya, then walk into the street and see relatives in the features thereabout and consider that we look much like them, though perhaps not quite as Spanishy, and our emotions probably work similarly. That comforts me somehow when our burgeoning and tragically put upon planet seems rather bleak. We are the most extraordinary species! Here’s to us and our world without end, Amen.
Richard McWhannell 12/08/2017 for The Vivian Gallery, Matakana.