Photo / Todd Eyre
“It’s really hard to make people laugh with art. Or it’s like a one-liner and you laugh once, and then it’s gone.” Imogen Taylor is speaking about the very funny zine No Idea that accompanied Body Language, an exhibition of her paintings and drawings at Artspace last year, which quite openly and slanderously mocked various local and highly recognisable “WMAs” (white male artists) and industry types, while drily pondering the double indignity of being female and lesbian.
Taylor has been making zines since she was a teenager, selling them at feminist bookstore Cherry Bomb Comics as a way of getting her art and ideas about, on the cheap. “When it came to doing the Artspace show, I always found that their text [accompanying exhibitions] was really heavy. The zine was a really good way of having something autobiographical, subjective; something to comfort you through the space and make you laugh.”
Those who weren’t laughing so much were the WMAs who encountered none-too-subtle depictions of themselves. “Things got a bit cool with some people. But most people got it.” She says the art scene in Auckland can be blokey, and art criticism in Auckland, with the exception of excellent newer websites like The Pantograph Punch, can be tediously sexist. Mentorship, thus, is often a sausagefest. “I’m always amused by the relationships between older male artists or professionals in the industry and younger male artists. That ‘standing round the barbecue’ vibe: you see it start at art school, and then it keeps going.”
Speaking her mind is a talent Taylor learned as a babe, growing up as the progeny of former Act Party politician and journalist Deborah Coddington and controversial publisher Alister Taylor. But while as a teen she often fervently disagreed, particularly with her mum, she says it was an invaluable grounding in formulating and articulating her views. “It’s actually quite amazing having your parents do something that you disagree with so much, because you have to voice your own opinion against someone who’s really articulate. It would be helpful if everyone had to learn how to do that. So I can see the positive side now. But man, a parent in the Act Party. Whew.”
After art school, Taylor spent a year touring the world as a keyboardist in the excellent Auckland band The Ruby Suns, which signed to US label Sub Pop, and which turned out to be the perfect primer for a career in painting. “Music, in terms of the process, is way more visceral and open. You don’t have to think about every single step, or contextualise it or conceptualise it, so it was really great for going back to painting and going, ‘Oh, I can totally improvise this’.”
Her paintings are what she calls a “pretty/ugly” mix of Cubism and Regionalism that somehow blend geometric forms with bodily functions. Her shows have rude titles like In & Out, Glory Hole and Balls Deep. “I got really inspired by Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag. I liked how she related a queer sensibility to aesthetics in art; I thought that was really clever and nailed all these things I’d been thinking about, about what’s good painting and what’s bad painting, and blurring those boundaries.”
Taylor is currently holed up at Parehuia, the artist’s residency next to the wee house in Titirangi where Colin McCahon lived in the 1950s. Outside are the very subjects of McCahon’s ‘Kauri Landscape’; Taylor shows me how a large window at the back of the studio chops the trees’ tops and bottoms off so they turn into weird static lines. With space, time and money for flash materials, she says her work is improving rapidly. “This is the biggest opportunity I’ve ever been given in my career, the most amount of space or privilege or ease. And it’s the first time I’ve not worked since I was 13.”
While Taylor has often paid tribute to mystical bohos Tony Fomison and Philip Clairmont for shaping her style, she has hitherto wasted no love on Aotearoa’s saint of paint McCahon. Before the residency she was a fan neither of his minimalism nor his religiosity, and found his work too manly. “I always grew up kind of hating McCahon and not wanting to be like him.” But since moving in next to his old house, now a museum, and poring over the work he made there, she realises that she and McCahon are actually pretty similar, in terms of style and use of materials like hessian, not to mention their Cubist tendencies. And it’s the paintings McCahon created on the very spot she now works, such as ‘Titirangi, Winter, 1957’, that seem the most consonant.
All the kauri and kererū action is “encouraging the elements of nature that I’m interested in, in my work. I think the colour’s changed quite significantly – but I don’t know whether that’s because I can afford really good paint now.” McCahon too, embraced new hues during his time out west. “I’ve been in the museum and looking at those French Bay works, and his use of colour was probably the most diverse out of his whole practice.”
We reflect on the fact that bush life must have been hard for McCahon’s wife Anne, who was often out there alone with their four children, in a home so tiny that sleeping was sometimes a bit improvised. But Taylor says it’s an experience none of them forgot. “Everyone always says ‘Oh, his kids slept outside underneath the house’, which is full on because there’s so many mosquitoes around here, but apparently they looked back on that time really fondly, because they could go down and play on the beach and they had a lot of freedom.”
Having architect Sue Hillery for a partner has, says Taylor, changed her perspective. “I do think about architecture a lot now! She trained as an artist too and she’s probably the first person to look at my paintings and say stuff. We talk about space and scale a lot.” Hillery says the residency has given Taylor a chance to “knuckle down and celebrate the isolation of such an amazing place. In a very subtle way, knowing that Imogen is immersed in her painting practice… I can only be competitive and ensure my practice has a similar discipline.”
While in Titirangi, Taylor plans to make “something that’s maybe more for the community than about the community”. But there won’t be another issue of No Idea. “It definitely made a lot of people laugh, but it would be good to learn how to do that in a different way so it’s not at other people’s expense.” And the art world sausage-ocracy? “For me as a now-not-so-much-of-a young female artist, it’s about taking it into my own hands and creating more communities for artists to connect and pass on ideas. “It’s just encouraging women to be themselves and be comfortable, and if you want to network with someone it doesn’t make you a slut. You’re equal.”