Justin Paton is Chief Curator of International Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. His books include McCahon Country (Penguin, 2019) and How To Look at a Painting (Awa Press, 2012).
New Zealand’s Best Art Writer on a Classic Picture
It’s been 16 months since I’ve been back in New Zealand – the longest I’ve ever been – and I’m looking at Robin White’s 1975 painting of fish and chip shop Maketū and thinking about what’s changing and to what remains.
When I get back, I know things will have changed in that now-expected Covid way: slightly grayer friends, tweens-turned-adults, laugh lines, absences, newcomers. Looking at Maketū’s fish and chips in the Google Street View archive, I can see his face has changed as well. In the 2010s, someone paid homage to painting (life imitating art) by restoring the shop to its original aqua blue and redoing its old-fashioned handwriting. In the most recent photo, it’s been renamed Te Ika a Maui Wharekai and accented with a bright lime green mural of a food cart.
“God, how things have changed. Such is life,” Robin wrote to me when I sent him screenshots of the streetscape – and so it is. Even when we seem to be still, time flows around us, through us. We lose cells, buttress our sandcastles, lean against the headwinds of entropy. However, oddly, when I look at Robin’s painting, almost fifty years old, I am soothed and reassured. Because sometimes in this storm of loss someone does something that drowns out the turmoil – doesn’t exactly stop time (as if that’s possible), but holds back a moment for us to consider.
The sun rises daily over the former fish and chip shop Maketū in the historic Bay of Plenty. But look how carefully young Robin White worked to hold, to benevolently trap, such a late-morning moment, taking up the sacred and ancient construction kit called geometry (as used by Piero della Francesca in the 1980s). 1400, and the common property of all willing painters since) and use it in this township in the blink of an eye and you’ll miss it. A triangle of light is installed exactly in the lower left corner of the storefront, the surface of which reflects light onto the pavement at corresponding angles. The cowl of the ventilation shaft participates in this colloquium of triangles, while pointing upwards towards a gentle incoming isosceles of cloud.
A misspelling would, at this point, give us angels rather than angles, and it turns out that Robin’s teacher, Colin McCahon, the religious modernist who “saw an angel in this land”, can also be seen in this painting – where a building reflected in the window of the fish and chips shop is also a McCahon cross hovering in the dark, under a white sign that announces (a believable prophecy) “CLOSED MY + KILLED”. In a painting of pedantic realism, one would expect to see the artist reflected in this window. But Robin, remember, is responsible for the time in the temporary paradise of her painting, and she went out, went on, went away, leaving the street strangely empty.
I’m not here to say it’s symbolic or metaphysical. It’s the fish and chip shop, Maketū. But the stillness and emptiness that Robin built into her painting is why she endures. It allows us to be in a moment. It transforms what was into a magically lucid is. And it sends you off to its wonderful blue Pacific day with one beautiful last word: far away.
Excerpted with permission from Robin White: Something’s going on here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga ($70, Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom devotes the whole week to this beautiful illustrated biography of White’s career. Yesterday: Steve Braunias on “the beautiful collaboration” between White and Sam Hunt. Tomorrow: In his own words, Robin White on his Bahá’í faith.
A major retrospective exhibition featuring more than 50 works by White is now on display at Te Papa until September 18, then will open at the Auckland Art Gallery at the end of October 2022.
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