The visible is plunged into the 
bath of night, to be polished.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Fait pictural’. 

FrenchBayDarkly (Starkwhite 17.05.17-17.06.17) was the second exhibition of Reynolds’ ongoing exploration of McCahon’s ‘missing hours’. Reynolds blurs the kaleidoscope rhapsodies of McCahon’s mid-century French Bay nightscapes with an imagined darker vision from those lost hours when McCahon traversed the streets and landscapes of Woolloomooloo nearly thirty years later. 

1. Gordon H. Brown, Colin McCahon: Artist (Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1984), p. 60. The Biblical reference is to Mark 8: 22-5.

After the image comes the image. In the late 1950s while living in Titirangi’s French Bay, Colin McCahon briefly adopted the habit of rising early at dawn and, as Gordon Brown relates, dashing outside, trying not to fix his gaze on anything until he was clear of the house and could look at the surrounding bush. Only then would he allow his eyes to concentrate on what he saw. He would then contemplate the bush with all the intensity he could muster so that the forms of the trees would dematerialize while his sense of spatial depth diminished. At its most intense, McCahon likened this illusionary effect to that of the blind man mentioned in Mark’s Gospel who on first receiving his sight, saw ‘men as trees, walking’.1

What McCahon saw was the phenomenon known by the optical term ‘afterimage’. The afterimage captures this movement, in which an image that has already taken leave of us, has moved on in the course of its journey elsewhere, continues to be visible in a spectral mode on our retina. The haunting (moving) shapes of the afterimage, where human figures become trees walking, are simultaneously there and not there, visible as a haunting form that is in the process of dissolving and of being replaced by the forms of other images that are ready to impose themselves on the eye. The paintings that resulted from McCahon’s experiment contain the pixellated squares or lozenges of kauri trees in the bush, and shimmering reflections of sea shadows on the Manukau Harbour in front of French Bay, an effect that amalgamates sky bush and sea, perhaps caught most enigmatically and simply in Flounder Fishing Night, French Bay (1957). As he too squints across the two time zones and two geographies of his large FrenchBayDarkly the lines of Reynolds’ Sydney streetscape reimagine McCahon’s fractured journey of missing in 1984 and the rich ground recalls Titirangi of the late fifties. Shooting out everywhere Reynolds’ silver fractals as outlined lozenges evoke the emotions of disorientation and delirium that McCahon may have experienced in 1984, while his background gathers up the fragmented luminosity of the intensified viewing of the dense blue Titirangi nightscape from thirty years earlier.

As we stand before it FrenchBayDarkly becomes an image that continues to appear, in both positive and negative valences, even after the eye is no longer being exposed to it, the afterimage is an illusion that is nevertheless real. It is an image that withdraws from its viewer by retreating from, or ‘re-treating’, what its title suggests it was meant to depict, returning that is by a strategic withholding. The silver marker conveys sort of omniprescence and uncanniness, a flash that illuminates and blinds at the same time. The ‘after’ of the afterimage is the moment that rejects the demand to be simply a now or an after, refusing to choose between French Bay or Woolloomooloo. This after of the afterimage situates itself on the limit, and as the limit — as a sort of hyphen between limiting and delimiting — the structural logic by which the distinction between a before and an after is first made. The afterimage is what returns the after properly to itself. Retreating from the strictures of a purely binary model of before and after, vision and blindness, insight and delusion, Reynolds asks if it is it possible to think the relation between image and thought in a way that would show itself responsible to the spectral dimensions of an image that is in retreat — from us as well as itself? Under Reynold’s fractured double gaze, the image becomes oriented toward its imminent absence, its departure, its future decay.

Laurence Simmons