Faculties of Law and Government and Victoria Business School, 2018
Colin McCahon’s gargantuan, semi-abstract landscape Gate III hangs 11 metres wide and 3 metres high in the foyer of the Victoria Business School and is one of the most highly regarded works in the university’s art collection. McCahon has had a profound impact on New Zealand’s art history and is considered to be one of the country’s leading painters of the 20th century. He had his first exhibition in 1939 when he was just 20 years old, and went on to produce a prolific and varied body of work over the course of his 45 year career.
Gate III was purchased by the university in 1971. Its title is taken from a biblical text: ‘teach us to order our days rightly that we might enter the gates of wisdom’ (Psalm 90:12). This appealed to Tim Beaglehole, the Victoria History Professor instrumental in building the collection and acquiring some of its most coveted pieces. Beaglehole felt these words made the painting particularly apt for a university. McCahon was well known for his use of religious text and iconography, and this psalm represents just a small part of the long biblical narrative McCahon incorporated into Gate III.
As well as the spiritual aspect of McCahon’s work, he is well known for the distinctive way in which he represents the New Zealand landscape. Religious themes are explored in ‘sparse, minimalist and uninhabited landscapes’ in a way which was not typical of international artists of the time. He was however, inspired by the large scale of contemporary American painting he encountered on a tour of the USA in 1958. From this, McCahon developed his interest in large scale ‘pictures for people to walk past’ like Gate III, which covers almost one entire wall of the Pipitea campus foyer.
Whether McCahon would approve of the fact many students confess to ‘just walking past’ the painting, I’m not sure. With its clear and provocative statement ‘I AM’ occupying two thirds of the canvas, it’s hard to imagine that it could be missed. The fact that the palette of colours used in the work reflects the wooden wall it is mounted on might be responsible for it ‘becoming part of the furniture’ for regular Business School users. Cafe staff do ‘notice when other people notice it’ and observe a lot of visitors who have come in just to view the work. Sometimes they’re travelling through and other times they are local, but they’ve all equally sought out this landmark of New Zealand painting. The painting always seems to generate a reaction and most people are in awe of its epic scale.
For me as an arts and business student, Gate III was something I could easily appreciate because I was able to contextualise it within New Zealand’s art history and McCahon’s wider oeuvre. However, on another level it always holds special poignancy as an affirmation of me and my place in the world. Early university years are a tumultuous time for many students. You become more critical and aware of your life choices. I remember clearly seeing the words ‘I AM’ in one of these moments and feeling emboldened, empowered in the decisions I had made to be part of the university and the Business School specifically. While this may not have been McCahon’s intention, it is an example of art’s limitless power to be relevant and demonstrates its real impact on peoples’ lives.