Andrew Paul Wood – 17 March, 2020
What are we to make of the compositional parallelograms in the compositions of the almost pathologically heterosexual and patriarchal realms of cubism and futurism, and the shaped canvases of the equally pathologically heterosexual and patriarchal sphere of the constructivists? At the end of the day, a parallelogram is still straight lines, it's just the angles that are obtuse.
Imogen Taylor: Sapphic Fragments
Essays by Joanne Drayton and Milly Mitchel-Anyon
52 pp, photographs of Frances Hodgkins Fellowship exhibition
Design: Ella Sutherland
Hocken Library, Dunedin, 2020.
It’s been just over thirty years since Tilly Lloyd published ‘Some Thoughts on the Publishing of Lesbian Art’ in the landmark text, A Women’s Picture Book: 25 Women Artists of Aotearoa (1). It’s a book that deserves to be taken down from the shelf a lot more frequently, and one that a lot of younger art writers and artists seem worryingly unaware of. The essay came to mind as I was examining the Sapphic Fragments publication accompanying Imogen Taylor‘s 2019 Frances Hodgkins fellowship in Dunedin as it seemed, given Taylor‘s direct appeal to queer theory and history, a useful place to start by seeing how much has changed in that time. Sure, Lloyd was coming from a particularly ringfenced definition of queerness (‘lesbian’ rather than a more inclusive ‘queerness’), largely defined by a now unfashionable view of gender, but the general themes remain relevant to the discussion.
The first part of Lloyd’s essay is a critical biography of the time understood in the context of frustration at what she (and others) perceived as near total invisibility and a lack of history or lineage, even within the broader field of feminist art and art writing. Plus ça change. While off the top of my head I can think of around a dozen or so women artists in New Zealand who are openly queer, only a few make art about being queer, and Taylor is the only one I can think of citing queer theory as the impetus for the work being made. The point about the lack of a history is even more relevant as the premise for the work in Sapphic Fragments is a reclaiming of Frances Hodgkins’ life and work as a modernist for the LGBTQIA+ pantheon. That particular combination of words is a sure summoning spell for Joanne Drayton—and indeed hers is one of the two essays in Sapphic Fragments.
Drayton’s essay, ‘Imogen Taylor’s Sapphic Fragments’ concentrates more on Fanny than Imogen (one suspects other venues to thoroughly discuss the topic of Hodgkins’ queerness have not been forthcoming, which is a shame and more than a little provincial on the part of the gatekeepers), except to cite Taylor directly and attempt to contextualise it. To be honest, I find much of it unconvincing, or at least inflated.
‘I became really fascinated with stone fruit as symbols in Ōtepoti Dunedin,’ says Taylor via Drayton, ‘there is something about the fruit of a place … that is so telling of the environment, the climate, the culture, the work…so representative of the land’, and ‘Discovering the richness of Ōtepoti Dunedin was like tearing open a peach…under the surface it’s really rich, expressive and passionate’. (2)
Drayton suggests that ‘While the peach might stand-in for female sexuality (3), the more overt message is a playful ‘mashing-up’ of abstraction with representation. … Taylor find Hodgkins’ Cut Melons ‘full-on’ and even ‘a little vulgar’.’
Do forgive a little eye-roll on my part, as my mother’s side of the family were orchardists in Central Otago, two hours away, whence Dunedin’s stone fruit, and one wonders for the implications for Cromwell with its giant fibreglass apples and pears. Yes, fruit has long held a symbolic sensual significance, but excessive pseudo-Freudian interpretations seem oddly old-fashioned. Sometimes a peach is just a peach. Anti-intentionalism is fine and dandy, but I can’t help recalling Georgia O’Keefe’s countless protests that her paintings really were just close-up details of flowers.
The other theme of Taylor’s that Drayton comments on extensively—with reference to the queer theory writings of Sara Ahmed—is Taylor’s use of stretcher shape:
Taylor’s canvases of unease are all parallelograms which adds to the sense of disorder. ‘The audience is immediately displaced or disorientated in the space,’ Taylor explains, ‘so they don’t have any way of comparing a parallelogram to a square because everything is crooked. Even the walls are crooked. It’s a way of reclaiming the space, when we constantly live in a world…that supports one way of living…it’s a way of reconsidering that.’ Skewed canvas and queer lives challenge a conventional reading. Asymmetrical shapes against the wall and same-sex love make us question what we believe to be normal. Taylor’s work reveals our prejudices to us…One cannot help being perplexed. (4)
Same. Putting aside the really awkward construction of the assumption that the hypothetical reader/audience is heterosexual and Drayton’s self-identification with their viewpoint (really sis?), is it really just my boringly complacent bougie white gay man instinct to bridle at representations of queerness as ‘crooked’. I say that as a genuinely appreciative fan of Drayton’s illuminating writing and diligence over the years, but this, by far the superior essay of the two in the publication, feels functional at best. Sara Ahmed is trotted out again in the other essay, Milly Mitchell-Anyon’s ‘Notes on ‘Queer Regionalism”:
Sara Ahmed explores the etymology of ‘being straight,’ which is about ‘not deviating’ in direction. However, to deviate from the ‘well-trodden path,’ has the potential to deliver new possibilities. When I look at the canvas parallelograms Imogen works with, I think about them as queer objects, deviating from the ‘straight’ and right-angles of ‘normal’ stretched canvases. Ahmed notes that in architectural terms, the ‘desire line’ describes ‘unofficial paths’ where ‘people deviate from the paths they are supposed to follow’ —in essence a short cut. She writes it ‘is certainly desire that helps generate a lesbian landscape a ground that is shaped by the paths that we follow in deviating from the straight line.’ A parallelogram might be considered an inherently queer structure formed by these paths of desire, deviating from what is prescribed as ‘the normal’ accepted path. (5)
…Which totally ignores the possibility for transgression within heteronormative contexts, otherwise what are we to make of the parallelograms in the compositions of the almost pathologically heterosexual and patriarchal realms of cubism and futurism, and the shaped canvases of the equally heterosexual and patriarchally-dominated sphere of the Constructivists. At the end of the day, a parallelogram is still straight lines, it’s just the angles that are obtuse. It works in a Foucauldian genealogical framework in the sense that the line of beauty in mannerist, baroque and rococo art is intrinsically ‘queer’ because the novelist Alan Hollinghurst found a metaphor in it in 2004, and some regard it as effete in contrast to the straight lines of classicism, but Hogarth, the Catholic Church etc understood it in terms of dramatic and dynamic composition. It’s not necessarily a straight line of transmission at all (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Here I loudly applaud Taylor for taking up the challenge, but I strongly suspect she is tilling some particularly unforgiving and poor soil. Also, it’s just weird that neither essay mentions Gretchen Albrecht (if they did, it was fleeting, and I missed it) despite her doing shaped canvasses and assorted parallelograms for decades—or does that not fit the narrative? It’s almost as if the body of work needs the heavy-handed title to explain what’s going on, not that Sappho makes any further appearances beyond the adjective ‘Sapphic’—though I note Jane Zusters had a couple of paintings titled Sappho I and II, the first of which was published in Spiral’s Herstory 7 (1987) and the latter appears in A Women’s Picture Book, which might have been worth a hat tip, but then the absence of reference to other queer contemporary NZ artists is strange in general. And given the pun of the ‘fragments’, Taylor’s propensity for titles like Loins, Gusset, Power Bottom, Spit Roast, Swollen, Limp Wristed and Rock and a Hard Place, and the ubiquity of Hodgkins as a stalking horse, why didn’t she just call the show “I Love Fanny” as a nod to Chris Kraus’ 1997 novel I Love Dick—it would have been less kitschy-pretentious cringe.
Mitchell-Anyon’s essay is (loosely) modelled after Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp‘ although she doesn’t note the irony of Sontag’s internalised homophobia in that text. Sontag couldn’t see the versatility and protective qualities of camp, blinded by her snobbery. Camp, in terms of subverting the heteronormative patriarchal assumptions of abstract modernism by the creation of a less-serious, deliberately superficial simulacrum in parallel with that art history, is an observation one might genuinely apply to Taylor’s work.
I will be quite honest in saying I don’t like Taylor‘s acrylic abstracts—possibly I don’t understand them, because they seem neither to regard modernist abstraction as an authentic going concern, nor are ironic or critical of that tradition. They sit rather flat and dead on the canvas for my taste, lacking gesture or expression and generically impersonal. Even then, they’re not bad, just not as good as all the fustian and persiflage is making them out to be, or rather they are not good in the way the boosters want them to be, demanding they conform to palatable-but-anachronistic modernist myths about the painter-philosopher-hero having extraordinary earnest insights into the nature of existence.
If Taylor et al affected half the insouciant shit-lording disinterest her paintings do, they would be all the better for it. Padded out with their own mythologising, the large acrylics come across as what the politer American critics call ‘process-based abstract painting.’ Some of Taylor’s more enthusiastic boosters might do well to sit down with a cup of tea and read David Geers’ 2012 essay Neo-Modern. Be bad, eat trash, break things and be free.
The closest comparison to Taylor I can think of, and whose work I prefer, is Saskia Leek, whose work definitely embraces camp and has a more self-conscious relationship with the aesthetics of modernist abstraction, so I can see how ‘campness’ can be said to have a genuine role in Taylor‘s painting. I think Mitchell-Anyon comes close enough to see the outline of the coast, but her treatment of camp in her fragmentary essay is superficial and problematic:
In a discussion about provincialism, an art historical re-examination of Aotearoa’s regionalist past is warranted. This story defers to paintings like Christopher Perkins’ Taranaki (1931) or Rita Angus’ Cass (1936) where the ‘sharpness of the New Zealand outline’ is evident in sculpted landscapes with dramatic and exaggerated lines. According to Francis Pound, the myth of the ‘harsh clarity of New Zealand light’ was to blame for the hard-edged, brutal style that formed a religious-like following. Neglected in the regionalist canon, however, is a conversation about how all this drama and emphasis reads within understandings of ‘Camp’. Susan Sontag notes that ‘Camp’ comes to be typified by ‘the love of the exaggerated’, ‘the outrageous aestheticism’, the ‘glorification of character’ and a certain ‘theatricalisation’. Works like Angus’ Central Otago (1940) are ‘Camp’—the delineation of forms using heavy lines, the intersecting hills and curved roads set against this cartoon-like mountain range. A conventional reading has fixated on the stylistic relationship between Angus and the ‘aesthetic time warp’ of New Zealand in the early twentieth century. What space opens up if we reconsider this kind of visual language, ubiquitous as Aotearoa’s most celebrated twentieth century painters, as ‘Camp’ or queer? (6)
Not much of a space at all if we are taking a particularly Sontagian definition of camp, which is rather restrictive with its emphasis on the apolitical and individualistic, a formalised aesthetic of excess ramming the so-bad-it’s-good through the Kantian filter of ‘purposiveness without purpose’. To uncritically accept Sontag’s seductive worldview is a trap for young players. With the justifiable exception of Angus’ Rutu (1951) where is the guilty pleasure in the rest of her paintings? Exaggeration, drama and artifice are not, in context, camp. Romanticism isn’t camp, neither is expressionism, which is the tail end of Romanticism. Angus’ painting contains within itself aspirations and an empathy that makes it far from camp by Sontag’s definition. They are not camp. That’s a silly thing to say. Taylor’s paintings may very well be camp and if the point of Taylor’s painting is that so-bad-it’s-good campness, why not just say so? Does the PR machine lack the capacity for the pleasures of irony?
Mitchell-Anyon would be on sounder ground to invoke Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s reconstruction of camp as a form of queer reparation rather than subversion (7). There is nothing less camp than defining a work of art as a cultural object in the first place. It is notable that this discussion of Taylor’s mostly abstract oeuvre is confined to figurative artists because figuration generates narrative and narrative gives you somewhere to rest your sentiment and sentimentality. That’s why Greenberg dismissed figurative art as kitsch. Excepting the intentional camp Komar and Melamid’s Holland’s Most Wanted (1994), or the playfully flamboyant and joyful camp of Miranda Parkes, and the unintentional camp of Zombie Formalism, it’s a hard ask. Taylor‘s low-stakes, somewhat disposable iPhone photographs from the residency are far closer to camp than any of the paintings.
In fact, it’s such a hard ask I’d rather just look at the art. As I said above, I’m very candid about not especially liking the large acrylics—to me they feel like grim and altogether too-close reworkings of Sonya Delaunay and Sophie Taeuber-Arp without the feeling, animated mainly by a loaded palette and the bumpy and tweaked hessian beneath (tricks borrowed from big dumb 1980s painting for bank office walls). Again, emphatically, this doesn’t make them intrinsically bad and taste is subjective, but why does the writing focus on hyping up the banalities while ignoring the bravura performance surrounding them? Are the paintings even the point?
I appreciate the shaped canvasses—don’t get me wrong—I just don’t buy that parallelograms are especially queer. The retinal pleasures of the intriguing shaped stretchers, and the qualities of the hessian and the artist’s de-straightening of it (‘queering the pitch’ as it were) are much more rewarding to my eye than the abstract compositions on the surface.
I feel as though she has been side-tracked from a natural gift for monochrome or colour field. I can, however, see Taylor‘s brilliance in her subtle, lyrical watercolours and the drawings in ballpoint pen on ruled and graph paper which hint at the surreal magic of Louise Bourgeois’ Night Drawings. The layered vagaries of the watercolour and the insouciance of the drawings have all the spontaneity and life that the acrylics rely on the hessian for.
Andrew Paul Wood
(1) Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie, Tilly Lloyd (Eds) (1988), A Woman’s Picture Book: 25 Women Artists of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Wellington: Spiral Collective/Woman’s Gallery
(2) Joanne Drayton, ‘Imogen Taylor’s Sapphic Fragments’, Imogen Taylor: Sapphic Fragments, p40
(5) Milly Mitchell-Anyon, ‘Notes on ‘Queer Regionalism’”, Imogen Taylor: Sapphic Fragments, p14 on angles and parallelograms
(6) Ibid. p13 for camp
(7) See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003), Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. New York and London: Routledge, and (2008), Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, in al.