Francis McWhannell

A Moment of Optimism

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This article appears in Art Toi Magazine, March 2021

'These communities were also coming to terms with the fact that they were no longer a reviled minority and realised that, if they wished to keep an identity that had been created through legal and social oppression over the course of two centuries, they needed to work to maintain their unique culture and to remember its long history.' [1]

— David Herkt, 2013

Is this feeling optimism? It is certainly pride—and this despite the fact that the Auckland Pride Festival hasn’t yet begun. It is the night of 27 January 2021 and I’m on a kind of visual high, verily bouncing as I walk between two exhibitions: Imogen Taylor’s Thirsty Work at Michael Lett and Daniel John Corbett Sanders’ Urban Nothing at RM. I’m by no means the only person to be making this short journey. All evening, people have been flowing between the shows, talking about them both. I’ve no idea whether the events were planned to coincide or whether the concurrence was a happy accident. Whatever the case, the effect is the same. This feels like a moment of queer excellence.[2]

Both Taylor and Sanders are members of the queer artistic community of Tāmaki Makaurau—fairly prominent members too. Taylor, born in 1985, has been practising for around a decade. Her paintings often refer to gender and sexuality, especially the artist’s homosexuality, doing so indirectly by way of code. She has favoured a style indebted to non-objective painting of the early 20th century, mixing in aspects of work by mid-century painters from Aotearoa and abroad. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Colin McCahon, and Michael Illingworth all dance across her works. Queer figures, such as Romaine Brooks and Hannah Höch, hover in the wings. Taylor wryly comments to me, ‘I think sometimes my work falls into the trap of joking about Picasso.’

Sanders, born in 1994, is both an artist and the founder-director of Parasite, an artist-run space cum dealer gallery that opportunistically occupies the stairwell of the building in which they live on Karangahape Road. The space explicitly prioritises the work of LGBTQ+ artists, and it has of late produced some of the most exciting shows to take place in Tāmaki Makaurau, including Aliyah Winter’s HYPNO.MATRIX (2020) and Owen Connors’ For Future Breeders (2020–21).[3] The gallery’s presentation at the recent Auckland Art Fair was a clear highlight. As an artist, Sanders ranges across diverse media, often incorporating into their work found materials that are vulnerable to perishing.

Thirsty Work and Urban Nothing are linked by more than coincidences of timing, location, and community. Both shows see their makers move in new directions but to similar ends. Taylor and Sanders share a pronounced interest in the ways in which individuals can speak to communities, and in which we in the present might maintain an awareness of the past. Both would, I think, agree that there remains much work to be done to carve out safe spaces for queer people in Aotearoa, to say nothing of the wider world. Both would, I think, concur with David Herkt’s notion that as queerness becomes increasingly more acceptable, more ordinary, the responsibility to hold on to our unique cultures and histories does not diminish one jot.

‘I thought, I need to make some painting that actually matters. That pushed me out of abstraction.’ In Thirsty Work, Imogen Taylor tends further towards representation than she has done for some time—at least outside the pages of a zine. There is no radical stylistic shift. The paintings are still patently her work. But there has been a conscious increase in legibility. When I meet with the artist a few days after the opening of her show, she comments that an initial push in the direction of the figurative came with the emergence of Covid-19, which cut short a residency in New York. The situation led her to reassess her approach to questions of gender and sexuality, and resolve to address them more explicitly in her paintings.

Taylor returned from New York to Ōtepoti, where she had held the 2019 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, and where she had been living before embarking on the residency. She also spent time in Naseby, a town associated with Rita Angus, who has long appealed to Taylor as an artist, a feminist figure, and a member of queer-friendly avant-garde circles in Aotearoa. Angus’s use of pastiche in works such as Fungi, circa 1956–57, and AD 1968, 1968, is echoed in Opening Up, 2020, which centres on turret shells. Angus’s flirtation with abstraction is answered by Taylor’s glide into the figurative. The artist notes that the title, Opening Up, refers not only to open relationships and the openings of shells seen in the painting, but also to her growing willingness to embrace directness.

Moreover, the work ties into a longstanding fascination with Frances Hodgkins. As with Angus, Taylor is drawn to the person as well as the painter, being especially interested in Hodgkins’ queer social network and possible traces of homosexuality in her works and writings alike. Taylor has for a number of years depicted shells, being attracted to their carnal connotations, and to their function as souvenirs of place. More recently, they have become a means of connecting with Hodgkins, who included shells in a number of paintings. Working with her partner, the architect Sue Hillery, Taylor produced an expansive turret-shell mural for the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, which sat alongside the iteration of Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys staged at that institution.

Towards the end of 2020, Hillery and Taylor decided to relocate to Tāmaki Makaurau. Taylor’s Bud, 2020, operates as a sort of goodbye to Ōtepoti. Like many of her works, it is on a support with slanted sides. Taylor has for some time used the rhomboid as a personal code for her sexuality (a wonky shape for a wonky person), but she has lately moved away from it. In Bud, she confines the painterly action to a rough square within the canvas, leaving fins of white either side. Taylor is not straightening her practice. A large form suggestive of both a vulva and a stone fruit in the work pays a double homage: first, to Hodgkins’ paintings of voluptuous fruit; second, to the Otago region, with its sharply demarcated seasons and its abundance of flowers and produce.

The move to Auckland cued a deepening of Taylor’s project of making her interest in the body and sensual experience more apparent via an increased emphasis on representation. Women’s bodies, or parts thereof, are all over her newest canvases, most of which are compact and oblong. There are breasts, buttocks, thighs, vulvae—all recognisable if, to a considerable extent, abstracted. Some paintings, like the trapezoidal Al Fresco, 2021, tie into Taylor’s interest in the relationship between bodies and landscapes. No real-world identities are specified, and it is often unclear how many figures are represented. This enhances the sense of an invitation to connect and project. The works remain open. Different viewers draw different conclusions as to what they’re looking at.

Taylor notes with a smile that ‘a lot of gay men see arseholes, or “bussy”, or something’. I find myself thinking of my experiences of women and their bodies in my youth. I recall male classmates hungering after female ones, when I was a closeted teen. I desperately wanted to inhabit the bodies of those young women—both to be the object of male lust, and to experience sex as a woman. At the same time, I cultivated an ability to talk about women’s bodies, not only so I could pass as straight in a high-school environment that today seems peculiarly closed indeed, but also so I could relate to the men I desired via their desire language. Taylor notes that her work, to a degree, extends from her own process of contending with desire:

When I was about six or seven, I got caught drawing tits and vaginas by my mum. She asked me why. I didn’t know why, but it became a compulsive thing. I would draw my fantasies or desires, even through high school. If I wasn’t having sex or something I could just draw it out. Still more recently, when I’ve been with someone and it’s been an amazing experience I’ve drawn it. There’s this longing, fantasy thing that’s tied to drawing. And in a way I think that’s universal. Just look at any toilet wall.

Taylor has referred to her earlier and more overtly abstract pieces as attempts at a kind of painterly drag king performance, by which she turns out extravagant versions of works by the straight male artists who still tend to dominate discussions of modernist painting in Aotearoa, as elsewhere. Several works within Thirsty Work see Taylor continue the practice. Soft Top, 2021, for instance, evokes McCahon, especially his Gate paintings. The work includes further references to drag. At the left is a head with a wig-like central hair part, seen from above. Extending from this are two sets of eyelashes painted by Taylor using false eyelashes ‘dragged’ across the canvas.

Another private joke planted by Taylor in Soft Top (the title alludes to the position of the ‘top’ in sex) is the cigarette at the centre of the painting. The motif nods to a number of lesbian artists based in New York who are roughly the same age as Taylor. It becomes a marker of her frustration at not being able to connect with these individuals and their works more deeply due to her residency in the city being cut short. A detail that I find particularly memorable is a small scrawl at the bottom right of the piece. One part signature, one part pubic hair, the mark wriggles toward the corner. It looks a little like a violin’s f-hole and so puts me in mind of early cubist paintings with their fragmented string instruments.

The line in fact picks up on the shape of a thread of hessian that forms a small ridge on the surface of Soft Top. Taylor notes that by highlighting the detail she is underscoring the importance of the substrate in the construction of the image. It occurs to me that the gesture at once teases out a latent mark and introduces a new one. Being conscious of the artist’s interest in queer people in history, known and suspected, I think of the bolded thread as a figure for attempts at retrieval of queer identities and experiences in the face of limited traces. As queer people of the present seeking histories for ourselves, we will sometimes detect subtle cues correctly. Sometimes what we see will say as much about us as it does about our forebears. In any case, the investigation will be meaningful.

<p>Imogen Taylor, <em>Big Splash</em>, 2021, acrylic on hessian (installation detail with Dusty)</p>

Imogen Taylor, Big Splash, 2021, acrylic on hessian (installation detail with Dusty)

Daniel John Corbett Sanders works at a gay cruising club, not far from their home and gallery on Karangahape Road. They have for some years now tied their experiences of the place into their practice. Sanders’ latest exhibition, Urban Nothing, centres on a series of five large, vividly coloured paintings on paper. They are really one work, connecting to produce a panorama of the club populated by a series of unidentified cruisers. Also present are a pair of sculptures that have been made from refuse collected from the site, including newspaper used by the artist to clean the space and tissues used by the clients to clean themselves up. Sanders has commented that the works are ‘probably a public health hazard, but so are most sculptures of white men’.[4]

<p>Daniel John Corbett Sanders, <em>Urban Nothing</em> (2021), RM (installation detail)</p>

Daniel John Corbett Sanders, Urban Nothing (2021), RM (installation detail)

The refuse has been bundled together to form bodies that are lumpy, one might even say misshapen. They slouch on seats, headless, but with genitals. Because they have been made with a degree of casualness, and certainly no interest in preservation, they are deteriorating—tape loosening, bits of paint flaking off. The decay is significant, echoing the rundown state of the club, as well as its precarity. The venue feels like a remnant of K Road’s past, when the neighbourhood was the city’s red-light district, and a place in which LGBTQ+ and takatāpui people might experience a heightened sense of acceptance and safety. No doubt, it retains both statuses in some measure. But gentrification has hit the area hard. The days of the cruising club are numbered.

Sanders’ paintings have a similar sense of vulnerability, not least because their paper supports have been pieced together in a slapdash manner, like sloppily installed posters. However, the graphic dimension of the works is very much at the fore. The pictures are bold, cartoon-like, and marked by a sort of dark humour. Again, the people depicted are unconventional in appearance. Most are older-looking. Gender is not always legible, nor is it especially relevant. The figures engage in a variety of activities. One is on all fours on a bed, their nails the same vibrant pink as their nipples. Another sits at a computer, their shrivelled penis poking through their fly. They are watching a video of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

Thanks to the large scale of the paintings, Sanders is able to include many details. A copy of Express magazine on a table shows the beaming face of Jacinda Ardern. Packets of condoms from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation’s Love Your Condom campaign are scattered about the place. A small sign gives the Wi-Fi username and password. A wall carries a poster relating to Covid-19. The profusion of information has the effect of conjuring a very specific environment while opening up opportunities for connection. Few queer people, and I suspect few Aucklanders, would fail to recognise several elements. For all their grotesqueness, the pictures are not remote.

As a whole, Urban Nothing is complex and ambiguous in attitude. It does not celebrate the cruising club and its clientele, but neither does it condemn. The venue becomes a frame through which to consider social and urban changes more broadly. As sex-on-site businesses are supplanted by hook-up apps and by more mainstream spaces, how can we retain aspects of the renegade and the honest that might be of value? The club also presents a point of connection to histories that may be at risk of slipping away, as members of an older generation pass on, and without much notice from members of a younger one—perhaps because the two groups feel no real association, perhaps because they seldom actually meet.

Urban Nothing documents Sanders’ particular perspective on their place of work in real time, and queries what might be required to make the histories of the club, the K Road area, and the people who have passed through them endure. Or perhaps ‘histories’ is not really the word. Perhaps a preferable term is ‘stories’, since many remain who lived through and recall a world quite different from the current one. A biproduct of rapid change in queer experiences is the fact that recent history can feel peculiarly far removed from the present. Sanders reminds me of the importance of attending to the stories of our elders, via more prosaic means, like oral archives, but also through the making of new art and the reshowing of old. If we do not attend, things will degrade.

Part of what propelled folks between Thirsty Work and Urban Nothing was surely recognition. Most knew Taylor and Sanders to a degree. Such is typical of openings, which tend to be in-group affairs. But the shows and the works are not that. Although they are grounded in the individual, informed by the artists’ particular experiences and fascinations, and although they centre on subjects of heightened interest to certain groups, they remain available. They feature moments of broad familiarity, not to say universality. They play with partial disclosure and enigma, inviting rumination and speculation. They are visually striking. One needn’t be queer to relate to them, powerfully.

At the same time, the works of Taylor and Sanders derive special potency from their emphasis on queerness. The artists comb the past and present in order to acknowledge the texture and richness of the not straight. They seek to remember in a world inclined to forget. Both have a strong sense that processes of remembering ought to be supported by and take place within art institutions. Sanders has called for greater visibility for LGBTQ+ work in institutional collections, including that of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. In putting together her 2019 exhibition, Sapphic Fragments, at the Hocken Collections gallery, Taylor worked with Joanne Drayton and Milly Mitchell-Anyon to dig into queer or possibly queer stories, avoiding the practice of ‘erring on the side of straight’.

Acknowledging queer histories in the Aotearoa art world is hardly new. Valuable research has been conducted by the likes of Drayton and Brent Coutts for a good while now. The past few years have brought strong queer exhibitions, particularly at smaller institutions, including Simon Gennard’s Sleeping Arrangements (2018) at the Dowse Art Museum, Misal Adnan Yıldız’s two-part show THE BILL (2016) at Artspace Aotearoa, and Re-Reading the Rainbow (2015) at RM. The work is ongoing. In 2020, Te Papa Tongarewa launched the webpage ‘LGBTQI+ histories of Aotearoa New Zealand’. I recently curated a Paul Johns exhibition at Visions, the artist’s first solo in Tāmaki Makaurau in 20 years. April 2021 will see a small Grant Lingard tribute show open at the Ilam Campus Gallery in Ōtautahi.

<p><em>Sleeping Arrangements </em>(2018), Dowse Art Museum (installation detail). Photo: John Lake</p>

Sleeping Arrangements (2018), Dowse Art Museum (installation detail). Photo: John Lake

And yet, it is worth noting that the existence of good works, good shows, and good research does not necessarily translate into a good collective memory. I imagine that some, if not most, of the people reading this will never have heard the name Grant Lingard. Individuals often remain little known for a reason. To state the blindingly obvious, some queer artists don’t make very memorable work. And there’s only so much room at the top. In the case of Lingard, the fact that he passed away young and while living in Australia might well have something to do with his modest place in the local canon—at least at the moment. Forgetting, of course, also happens by accident and, perhaps most frequently, as a consequence of limited attention rather than a complete lack.

<p>Owen Connors, <em>The Harvest</em>, 2020 (installation detail: For Future Breeders (2020), Parasite). Photo: James Dobson</p>

Owen Connors, The Harvest, 2020 (installation detail: For Future Breeders (2020), Parasite). Photo: James Dobson

Producers of art history—whether curators, writers, or institutions—have a responsibility to rake over the past, thinking about what might have been missed or downplayed, and to actively foster the remembering of that which deserves to be more widely and deeply known than it already is. More familiar artists and narratives are more frequently presented, and more frequently presented artists and narratives become more familiar. When a grand new exhibition is mounted of work by Colin McCahon, new audiences meet him and his position in the canon is strengthened. Memory comes from iteration. This is clear. Just as clear, I hope, is the fact that a lack of iteration threatens memory. With limited exposure, artists like, say, Malcolm Harrison and Douglas MacDiarmid, stay niche.

There is a temptation to look at the present moment as a positive one for LGBTQ+ and takatāpui communities in Aotearoa. Our members are, no doubt, experiencing a relatively high degree of freedom and visibility, including in the art world. New Zealand’s next representative at the Venice Biennale, Yuki Kihara, is also our first non-binary representative. Established artists like Fiona Clark and Lonnie Hutchinson continue to grow in renown. Younger artists are making their mark with practices that speak about queerness or take it as a given: Owen Connors, Laura Duffy, Tanu Gago, Ayesha Green, Robbie Handcock, Ana Iti, Areez Katki, Sione Tuívailala Monū, Elisabeth Pointon, Cass Power, Pati Solomona Tyrell, Christopher Ulutupu, and Aliyah Winter, to name but a few.

This state of affairs instils pride and, indeed, optimism. Nevertheless, I am circumspect. There remains a risk that celebrations of queer artists and artworks will be few, fitful, and on a relatively modest scale, that they will fall by the historical wayside more easily than that which derives from and shores up the mainstream. Visiting Thirsty Work and Urban Nothing, I felt not only excitement at seeing excellent works released into the world, but also a renewed sense that such works need to be shown again and again, widely, in institutional spaces big as well as small. They must not be slid into the racks and left there—products of a moment remembered only in that moment.

[1] David Herkt, ‘Queen City: A Secret History of Auckland’, Public Address, 25 January 2013, accessed 25 January 2021,

[2] I appreciate that the term ‘queer’ is not universally liked or accepted, not least because for some it has not successfully surpassed its status as a slur. I intend only positive associations.

[3] I wrote about both shows, in brief, for the Pantograph Punch.

[4] Becky Hemus, ‘In Conversation: With Daniel John Corbett Sanders’, Index, accessed 22 February 2021,