He is New Zealand's great 'I am'. No, not God or Yahweh, but Colin McCahon, an artist with a fondness for the words 'I am' and grand religious themes. They feature in many of his works in many different ways, and he undoubtedly is one of New Zealand's artistic greats. Someone whose work could only have been created in Aotearoa.
Painted in 1976 and bought in 2008, I am scared is simple, urgent and dark. It shows us McCahon's distinctive use of words from a time when he had said that he only ever needed black and white to do his work. Light and dark. The words 'I am scared' are lower case and hesitant; the rejoinder that speaks of a determination to stand for something in spite of that fear is written in upper case and at least attempts to look stronger.
"I'm scared," says art critic Anthony Byrt, "about the things that he is expressing on the surface of those works, which is kind of around environmental questions but also existential ones."
Te Papa's Senior Curator of Art, Sarah Farrar, replies: "There were five works that he made as part of the Scared series – through the series of five it kind of shifts from being this kind of very personal expression to being more of a comment on the human condition."
Byrt says for him McCahon had started painting landscapes so confidently, but by the Scared series he had found more violence and uncertainty in the New Zealand landscape and he was doing his best to follow that darkness where it led.
"I think we owe him a lot for that, for not turning away, for not letting the fear get the better of him in that moment."
Sam Neill has described the words on this artwork as a definition of heroism. The feeling of the fear, but the doing it anyway. In that sense, the theme is universal.
But McCahon's themes are so often New Zealand's themes: Landscape and race relations.
Says Byrt: "The 'I' comes to stand for all of us who are a product of this traumatic collision between two cultures and that’s why I think McCahon’s work is a problem because New Zealand is forever a problem. It’s a very unresolvable thing.
"And so New Zealand culture is a thing that we struggle to describe that happens on the surface of that scar, that moment of collision between two cultures that he articulates almost better than anybody else."
Te Papa paid for $600,000 for the painting in 2008.
As the first of two paintings in this series of 20 item that have helped shape New Zealand, this choice draws from the modern era of New Zealand's art, but in a distinctively New Zealand voice struggles with strength and weakness and the balance of light and dark that is as old as the old testament stories. In a way, Scared shows us darkness upon the face of the deep, and then McCahon said let there be light, in the form of these six urgent, defiant words. As he said himself of this work:
"I look back with joy on taking a brush of white paint and curving through the darkness with a line of white."