Sumptuous exhibition Sapphic Fragments at the Hocken Gallery, Dunedin is the result of painter Imogen Taylor’s year as Frances Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago, bringing her work on canvas and walls into conversation with Hodgkins, Sappho and other women artists to explore pleasure in abstraction. It reminds us, writes Bridie Lonie, that today’s comfort with queer pleasure has been hard-won
Colourful and placed on colour, Sapphic Fragments comprises a large wall-work on a green wall, acrylic abstracts on skewed rectangles of hessian, and formalist watercolours. From the inner side of the wings that mask the entries to the side galleries, Frances Hodgkins’s ‘Double Portrait’ (1922-3) and works by Dorothy Kate Richmond and Lois White are brought into play with Taylor’s contemporary understandings of queer pleasure, and in particular, women’s love for women.
The central room is dominated by long wall-work ‘Double Portrait, Screw Thread’, a collaboration between Taylor and her partner the architect Susan Hillery. Hodgkins’s ‘Double Portrait’ shows two women seated slightly apart, introspective but intense, the space between them as alive as their thoughtfulness. In contrast, Taylor and Hillery’s interlocking twin spirals are tilted in pink, green and a hyacinth-purple on a grass-green wall, always in motion and always together.
In Taylor’s nine paintings, minor representational effects reinforce deliberate references to pleasure. These bright hessian paintings are thick and shiny, broadly brushed and layered. They reject precision. Their plastic, dimpled surfaces and asymmetrical compositions press against the paintings’ edges, or crowd toward corners challenging the rectilinear purities of artists working with similar material in the past.
In the accompanying catalogue and in the wall text the twisting and destabilizing of rectilinear forms here is suggested as a queering of abstraction. Yet the exhibition’s colours are as significant as the forms, as is the focus of the exhibition on pleasure. Hodgkin’s portrayal of caution and introspection reminds us that today’s comfort with a portrayal of pleasure was hard-won.
Taylor has drawn on Greek poet Sappho for the curation, the paintings’ colours, and the exhibition’s sensibility. Sappho uses “grass green” in her poetry for the dizzying sense of looking at a loved one; hyacinths occur in both fearful and pleasurable contexts; and bodies turn and tremble. The spaces of the lesbian poet’s images of desire are never still and always at odds with the status quo.
The right hand gallery’s witnesses are Hannah Richie and Jane Saunders, the subjects of Frances Hodgkins’s ‘Double Portrait’. Their eyes consider Taylor’s almost monotonal ‘Another word for abyss’ (2019) with its tessellated niches of saturated crimson, orange, purple and turquoise.
The left-hand gallery, also red, is introduced to us by Dorothy Kate Richmond’s warm still-life, ‘Roses with Rainbow Scarf’ (1930). This faces twenty formal meditations, from a year of daily drawings by Taylor as Hodgkins fellow. Calm alternations and sprung rhythms of triangle, semi-circle, arc and bioforms have resonances with 20th century French geometric abstract painter Sonia Terk’s brushed arcs, Russian abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky’s symbolic geometries and the more decorative French abstraction of the 1950s.
Tucked into the darkest corner, safe from the light, Auckland mid-century symbolist A. Lois White’s ‘Trio’ (c.1930) performs tight rhythms of dance, their formal structures echoed in Taylor’s sequence.
Sapphic Fragments is the result of Taylor’s year-long exploration of queer theory and queer pleasure considered in the light of the works and intentions of women modernist painters. Its catalogue makes the exhibition’s intentions very clear. Writer Joanne Drayton describes Hodgkins’s experiences of both the “push-pull” between heterosexuality and homosexuality and between representation and abstraction, while Milly Mitchell-Anyon argues that a parallelogram “might be considered an inherently queer structure, formed by these paths of desire”. Cellphone images of fragments of domestic and studio life reinforce the exhibition’s argument that art, daily life and desire cannot be separated.
Abstraction has generally required the rejection of anything remotely resembling or drawing on the world outside the picture frame. This rejection of representation is often positioned as an indicator of intellectual purity, ethical superiority and political exclusivity. For feminist painters in the 1980s, abstraction meant playing what was on the whole a male game. In the 1990s and early 2000s, concerns with art’s complicity in the ideological structures of neoliberalism had a similarly dampening impact on art’s licence to deliver sensual pleasure, both in its making and in its reception. Taylor’s work by contrast is successful in being able to absorb representational readings that subvert abstraction’s iconoclasm while also embracing the sensual freedom of abstraction.
In an exhibition floor talk, Taylor stated that her original impulse was to gather the histories of earlier women artists into today’s queer histories, until she realised that today’s identity politics don’t quite work retrospectively. For instance, contemporary British novelist Nicola Upson, in her recreations of lesbian relationships of the 1920s, describes the anxiety experienced by women whose initial liberation from the necessity to marry – in the face of the deaths of their prospective partners in the trenches – was followed by an uncomfortable focus on what had previously been a largely unquestioned opportunity for and habit of closeness. A. Lois White’s own feelings are undocumented as far as we know but, as in ‘Trio’, she often used rhythmic and metaphorical means to show women engaging with women.
D.K Richmond and Frances Hodgkins wrote to one another in terms of endearment that suggest more explicit but perhaps anachronistic readings today, yet the women were, undeniably, very close. But Hodgkins’s solitary intellectual pleasure was generations away from the comfort that, for the moment, and only for some is afforded in a space today for queer sexuality.
It’s a comfort that is still not secure and that warrants the saturated colours and delicate linear explorations of this celebration.
Sapphic Fragments, Imogen Taylor Hocken Collections, Dunedin until 28 March
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