Artist John Reynolds' new works explore McCahon's disappearance, and much more

Portrait Meek Zuiderwyk

Artist John Reynolds in front of his work ‘FrenchBayDarkly...’ which is currently showing at Starkwhite gallery.

John Reynolds’ new works at Starkwhite are full, floating and generally incredible.

Right now, City Gallery Wellington is exhibiting the most important Colin McCahon show in years – a stunning examination of the artist’s long affinity with Māori spirituality and narratives of resistance. The works in it are among McCahon’s best: bold, dark, brooding canvases, with white text emerging from a black gloom – arguably the first paintings in which a Pākehā artist found a visual language that was unmistakably and totally of here, freed of colonial baggage.

These works have cast long shadows over New Zealand art ever since. John Reynolds is part of a generation, alongside the likes of Judy Millar and the late Julian Dashper, who were the first to really grapple with McCahon’s legacy. Reynolds, in particular, has taken on the master many times. But his latest exhibition at Starkwhite gallery, FrenchBayDarkly… is his best attempt yet.

Reynolds’ clever new works conflate two essential moments in the McCahon mythology: first, his move to French Bay in Titirangi in the early 1950s, where the bush views gave him the fuel to fuse cubist logic with the New Zealand landscape; and second, the night in 1984 when the artist went missing in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens and was found the next morning, disoriented and confused, five kilometres away.

No one knows what happened to McCahon in those missing hours. In 2011, Martin Edmond wrote Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, a brilliant piece of speculative non-fiction that wove the textures of inner-city Sydney together with an imagined version of McCahon’s journey. Reynolds has now turned his attention to the incident with the same hallucinatory energy.

There are six paintings in all, which nod to McCahon but remain distinctly Reynolds’ work – the relatively flat ground and hard, graphic lines: cartoony cubes and wobbly paths that act both as structural blueprint and dream-map, full of dead ends and hard turns. Five of the paintings are stretched, but the sixth – the big blue hero of the show, ‘FrenchBayDarkly…’, at three by five metres – hangs free, the edges of the linen visible in a clear homage to McCahon’s later unstretched works. It’s a knockout painting: the best Reynolds has made in years.

Much of McCahon’s work boiled down to belief: an attempt to understand his place in the cosmos via the two spiritual languages he had to hand – Christianity first, and, later, te reo Māori. In this body of work, Reynolds has found a similar kind of release, if not from a private existential angst, then certainly from the postmodern whimsy that often inflects, and occasionally, I think, deflates his work. Here, the balloon stays full and floating, his surfaces caught in a kind of ethereal dance with McCahon’s ghost, with New Zealand modernism, and with the creative potential that comes when you  allow yourself to get lost.

FrenchBayDarkly… is at Starkwhite, 510 Karangahape Rd, until Sat 17 Jun