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Sapphic and sexual

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Award-winning artist Imogen Taylor creates works that are playful, generous, and decidedly queer. She talks to Claire O’Loughlin.

Imogen Taylor. Portrait by Sanne Van Ginkle

Vivid colours, soft, curvaceous shapes contrasting with sharp, skew lines on rough textures – there’s movement, noise, and physical grit in Imogen Taylor’s abstract paintings. They feel alive, almost throbbing. Parallelogram-shaped canvases tilt the works so they seem to be on the edge, but they exist there confidently. Strange and irregular, they’re decidedly queer.

For Taylor, queerness is an attitude that goes against the norm. “When I’m painting I’m reacting to past histories, always pushing against something.”

The works speak for themselves, but context adds rich layers of meaning. They’re always investigations, exploring modernism and queer theory, and interrogating Taylor’s biggest influences, like Georgia O’Keeffe and Frances Hodgkins. “The link is constantly made between me and Hodgkins. I’m a huge fan of her work – the paintings are quite grotesque.”

Born in Whangarei in 1985, Taylor grew up in Kororāreka Russell, and moved to Auckland in the early 90s. She knew she wanted to be an artist at five years old, and started with drawing. “I was privileged in that in my family art was always taken seriously as a career.”

Her first adult artistic endeavours were musical. She toured with a band around the world, playing the flute. Music remains a big influence in her work – particularly punk feminist music and the Riot Grrrl movement. “I like anything that’s grotesque or inappropriate,” she says, “I’m always trying to find the ugly.”

Imogen Taylor, "Refusal to yield", 2018.

Elam School of Fine Arts pushed and challenged her – it was based on postmodernist frameworks, rather than formal investigations. Since graduating in 2010, she has exhibited all over the country, and in Australia and Hong Kong.

In 2018 Taylor won the Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award for Refusal to Yield, a gold-toned work that seems to glow, and speaks to the Bauhaus, Cubist, and Modernist movements. The prize was a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York. She deferred it to take up the one-year Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago.

During her year in Dunedin, Taylor explored queer theory and pleasure in the work of women modernist painters. In her exhibition Sapphic Fragments at the Hocken Gallery, she included paintings by Hodgkins, Dorothy Kate Richmond, and A. Lois White, thus bringing four New Zealand women artists into conversation with each other.

The Hodgkins painting she chose, Double Portrait, Friends (1922–3), Taylor calls Hodgkins’ “potentially gayest work”. In it, two women sit side by side. They seem comfortable but reticent. Something is being withheld, there’s a sense of tension. Some people looking to understand Hodgkins want to pin her as a lesbian, something she herself never said, but Taylor doesn’t know if this defining is necessary, or useful. “She slips through the cracks – I quite like respecting that slippage.”

Imogen Taylor. Portrait by Sanne Van Ginkle

For Taylor, the queerness in Hodgkins’ work isn’t about her sexual identity. It’s about the way artists and lovers have always existed in her and Hodgkins’ queer contexts, and worked together and supported her, and each other – like the Bloomsbury Group in England.

These circles of support are a passion with Taylor. With artist Judith Darragh, she co-created Femisphere, a zine that encourages “inclusivity and visibility of women*s practices in the visual arts sector of Aotearoa,” with “women” defined as “inclusive of all variations of gender that identify with the term.”

She also works with her life partner, architect Sue Hillary. Among many other works, they’ve made two large installations responding to Hodgkins’ Double Portrait. Their work Double Portrait, Screw Thread, shown in her Hocken exhibition, is a repeating, spiralling accordion of pink, orange, and purple. There’s a sense of togetherness, of intertwining on and on forever.

In 2020, Adam Art Gallery invited the couple to develop another Hodgkins-inspired work. The result was a site-specific wall painting featuring two huge, shell-like shapes lying languidly, and intimately, across each another.

But it’s only in her most recent exhibition, Thirsty Work at Michael Lett Gallery, that Taylor has gone deep into representational painting. Works like Al Fresco and Pervert are openly bodily, womanly, sexual. The natural hessian material contrasted with the synthetic acrylic paint is a physical manifestation of a push–pull in her work.

As a woven fabric, hessian is a nod to the Bauhaus women, who weren’t allowed into the wood or metal workshops and so specialised in weaving, and also to mid-century rural New Zealand. Back then imported European canvas was so expensive that artists such as McCahon and Clairmont painted on sacking.

Imogen Taylor, "Rock", "Pervert", "Soft Top" and "Bud".

Images courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett.

It’s an interesting time to be making paintings that demand to be experienced in person, when they’re mostly to be viewed on screens. Fewer people are coming into galleries, while online viewing rooms are on the rise, and not just because of Covid. Taylor wonders what online viewing might do, over time, to how people appreciate and understand the art’s physical quality, and what goes into making it.

For Taylor, it’s all about giving the work over to the viewer, and whatever they make of it. “That was what was great about Elam – it taught me it’s always the viewer who completes the work, you hand it over to them."

Coming up, there’s a new issue of Femisphere coming out, this time online. When she can, Taylor wants to complete her New York residency – she got one month into it in 2020 before Covid cut it short. For now, she’s getting back into the studio, thinking, and making.

“I always hope the work comes across as playful, sexual, funny, and open to failure. I always hope to have a practice that’s generous.”

Photography by Sanne Van Ginkel

First published ArtZone #86

This story is available in te reo Māori. Read it here.


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