John McLean’s fable for adults was conjured out of an exhibition of the artist’s paintings, discovers Dionne Christian

Corrugated iron sheds and modest farmhouses on lonely rural roads; rolling hills and stands of cabbage trees and punga; black backed gulls soaring over bountiful blue seas - the landscapes in Taranaki artist John McLean's The Farmer's Wife and the Farmer: A Painted New Zealand Odyssey series are instantly recognisible as New Zealand.

But the giant, pseudo-surrealist figures which stalk through them are anything but. Exaggerated - sometimes tortured - expressions of grief and confusion, joy and wonderment mark them out as strangers. Or are they?

Read their story and they become all too familiar. The Farmer's Wife and the Farmer is a fable for adults, especially those who know what it's like to be lonely within a relationship or who have questioned the path they've followed in life. Constance and Tom meet, marry and are supposed to live happily ever after, but Constance soon finds the rural idyll is not as idyllic as she imagined.

Drawing on everything from Jungian psychology to the magical realism found in the works of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, McLean sends his characters on separate journeys of self-discovery and realisation. It's not hard to see why he was haunted by these figures after he completed the 19 major oil paintings in which they first featured.

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Exhibited as an entire collection at the Puke Ariki Museum, New Plymouth and Upper Hutt's Expressions Arts and Recreation Centre in 2010, they also intrigued the viewing public, who wanted to know what happened after the farmer's wife left him.

McLean accepted the challenge of giving the nameless archetypes - the hunter, the fisherman, the traveller, the farmer and the farmer's wife - names, back stories and an emotional journey to undertake. The result is McLean's first book which, says art writer Warwick Brown, is a major contribution to New Zealand painting.

"It's as if the story was always out there, waiting for the opportunity to express itself."
For McLean, explaining how he came to write the book means describing his painting process which fed into the way the story developed.

"Like Jackson Pollock, I begin by flicking and throwing paint and I muse on the surface, sometimes dragging and incising with various tools, and slowly the figures begin to emerge," he says. "That's how I found the characters [in the paintings] but the farmer and the farmer's wife didn't emerge until later. I suppose it's a conjuring method and some things are just there like the bushwhackers with their tattooed faces."

Already in the early stages of experimenting with creative writing, McLean belonged to a writers' group led by author Joan Rosier-Jones. He says the name Constance, soon to become the name of the farmer's wife, came to mind during a writing exercise. With its obvious overtures, the name was made for her.

While the paintings form a narrative series, in the book's introduction McLean says there were gaps in the story itself and its continuity to fill in while the identity of the characters had to "become known and familiar".

"For some time, I had been thinking about archetypes in myths, folktales and legends and pursuing the archetypal dimensions of the human condition," he says. "The farm became a metaphor for human enclosure and boundaries so that idea inhabits the paintings and the story; the character of the young girl, Ani, represents the wisdom
of innocence."

The north Taranaki countryside, where McLean has lived for more than 30 years, was an inspiration; so were the real-life characters he's met along the way. It may be a fable, with the tropes of age-old myths and legends, but The Farmer's Wife and the Farmer is shot through with 21st century concerns: domestic violence, depression, the loneliness of living on an isolated farm in a small rural community and the precariousness of that life. As McLean himself says, the "man alone" syndrome echoes loudly here.

"Farmer depression and suicide is an issue in New Zealand. These characters live a self-contained life in an isolated environment and I think that isolation is quite a concerning thing. You can't generalise too much but [rural living] is a very different culture to the urban environment and if you're not devoted to your farm, it can be a hellish place to be."

McLean believes adding this dimension - and it's rarely done didactically - means the story, told in the paintings and in the book, hits a raw nerve.

"An art teacher came to me and said he couldn't stop crying - which isn't ideal because I don't want to make people cry - but there's an undertone in the paintings which strikes a chord. A lot of women have said to me that I've told their stories."

But he says it's not just a fable which considers New Zealand maleness; it's a more contemplative tale about being true to oneself.

"There's a more generic interpretation here; it's about finding a sense of completeness and not living a half-life or putting up with an inherent sense of frustration. Tom, the farmer, says learn to go beneath the surface."

The Farmer's Wife and the Farmer: A Painted New Zealand Odyssey by John McLean (TANGERINE, $55)