This painting, overwhelming in scale, typifies Colin McCahon’s painterly struggle to explore the space between belief and doubt. It is a direct response to Jesus’s inner conflict as he faces death and questions how his life might glorify God.
McCahon is New Zealand’s most well-known artist, having garnered an international profile. He is admired for his painterly calligraphic style and handwritten texts. In his lifetime, he was an artist driven by a theological interest in visualizing faith and its absence. Through affirmations and negations McCahon explores the ultimate horizon of existence. He dares to explore the role of the artist as theologian.
The vast surface of the canvas is structured by the architecture of the divine affirmation; ‘I AM’. The ‘I’ appears like a crack of light that both illuminates the composition and breaks it in two. To the left there is a darkly shadowed ‘AM’ that emerges out of the darkness, turning the affirmation into a question. ‘AM I’? Like a delicate filigree the text of John 12:27–36 shivers through the in-between spaces, evidencing erasure and re-inscription. There is no final or definitive edit. We see all the changes, and the jostling of words as they compete for importance in conveying a clear meaning. There is no comfort here in finding a black and white declaration, but rather a moderated surface that evidences the history of questions and answers, affirmations and negations, faith and doubt.
Metaphorically speaking, this enormous text work teeters under the precarious weight of its construction. Here is the universal human search for understanding rendered in the only thing we have available: humble and fragile phrases. McCahon delineates the intense drama of this passage from John, by giving material and visual expression to the contrast between light and darkness, life and death, doubt and faith. Given its size (207.5 x 597.7 cm), there is an invitation for viewers to inhabit this space and to feel the weight and significance of each gesture as it forms itself into words, phrases, defining and redefining what we understand God to be, the ‘I AM’.
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21So these came to Philip, who was from Beth-saʹida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus. 23And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. 24Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; 32and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33He said this to show by what death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?” 35Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”