John McLean’s paintings have been described as pseudo-Surrealist, drawing on a rich visual vocabulary that is inspired by his early foray into landscape painting and the north Taranaki countryside where he has resided for the last 33 years.
Within this framework McLean explores Jungian notions regarding the individual and collective unconscious, and age-old archetypes of humanity that are found in folklore, to illuminate personality and narrative. As McLean says, … such vehicles carry penetrating and enduring statements about our common humanity. This pursuit has lead to a chronological style of imagery within his works.
The Farmer and The Farmer’s Wife make up a narrative series of over 20 major oil paintings and associated works on paper. The works centre on these two protagonists and through them observe the vagaries of our shared humanity. The beginning of the series focuses on the Farmer’s Wife, who escapes the rural idyll she shares with the Farmer and subsequently undergoes a personal transformation of emancipation and self-discovery.
The ongoing inquiry was then extended into The Farmer series where McLean then looks at the personal journey of the abandoned Farmer.
Over the past three years the series has developed into a visual saga that has similarities with Homer’s Odyssey, within a New Zealand context. The couple and their companion characters draw on comparable levels of symbol and metaphor to the ancient poem. Further, aspects of the narrative are akin to other myths, fables and parables from various times and places, including Christian Bible stories. McLean uses paint and brushes to chisel sharp-edged forms that provoke layers of meaning and interpretation, each work adding to the drama and development of the characters and their relationships. In a Surrealist fashion McLean allows the characters to change and develop as each painting takes shape. McLean says: “The works themselves emerge to meet the narrative I have engaged with. There is no prediction, nor planning. Images are derived or ‘divined’ from techniques designed to throw up paintings from unrealised, subliminal sources.”
The first 19 oils of the series, together with their precursor paper paintings, formed two exhibitions at the Tauranga Art Gallery: The Farmer’s Wife in 2009 and The Farmer in 2010. Later that year, the exhibitions were combined as The Farmer’s Wife and The Farmer, shown at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth. The Farmer then toured to Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre in Upper Hutt. The current exhibition at Artis Gallery features key representative works from the series, each one rich in the emotional and visual concerns that initially spurred the entire narrative.