John Hurrell – 24 July, 2020
In the early seventies site-specific installation art emerged that referenced the history of the buildings (often factories or offices) that later had been converted into art galleries. This obviously is not the case here. The wooden Parnell Train Station—in the services it once provided—is very different from the clandestine function of the stone block building this show refers to. They were used by two different sorts of community, and the buildings are several miles apart.
Shaun Thomas McGill
Durham St West [Men’s Convenience]
Curated by James Tapsell-Kururangi
18 July - 30 July 2020
A bottle of the banned drug, amyl nitrate is a provocative image to have on a Parnell gallery invitation, and for horny gay men seeking sexual encounters, such an image may be an indication of oppression. For an old straight guy like myself it went way over my head. I just assumed it was about amber coloured urine and the unforgettable pungent smell in men’s dunnies. The exhibition’s title is a historic reference, an old pre-Grindr downtown inner city cruising location now being demolished to make way for the city’s new rail network.
The offline gallery (papa ātea) show by Shaun Thomas McGill is in the gallery space organised by Te Tuhi—referencing furtive sex when ‘cottaging’—allowing free association from ambiguous imagery. McGill presents two paintings with masked off (skinlike) layers on thick laminated plywood (1), a mirror with an etched surface, and a grid of nine screened, loosely decorative, prints on paper.
McGill’s two paintings don’t use surface modulation to beguile, though the dominant pale cobalt is joyous—like a clear spring sky. The colour is appropriated from the original Durham St site, the glossy acrylic paint masked off to reveal knotholes and grainy textures underneath. The pale arabesque torsoor limb-like wooden shapes and internal formations are highly suggestive: nipples, eyes, mouths, navels—glory holes perhaps—and anuses hover within the exposed rippled forms.
A single ‘toilet’ mirror on the long wall, with its blurred smeary shapes lopsided on a reflective rectangle, contains the whole room in reverse as you peer into it. The thick diagonal marks floating on the surface seem to allude to steam, perspiration, saliva, jissom, or vaseline.
The nine framed screenprints on paper, with their hot exuberant colour, refer to a lattice in the urinal that looked out along Durham St West, so viewers could see friends approaching—or the police. It was a lookout that helped provide a little security against gangs of thugs or the Law—an opportunity to flee. And there is a book of photographs by McGill of the dilapidated Durham St site, for visitors to take away. In our digital dating era, such physical sites are largely obsolete.
In the early seventies site-specific installation art emerged that referenced the history of the buildings (often factories or offices that later suggested narratives from the workers labouring within those walls) that later had been converted into art galleries. This obviously is not the case here. The wooden Parnell Train Station—in the services it once provided—is very different from the clandestine nocturnal function of the stone block building this show refers to. They were used by two different sorts of community (not exclusively of course), and the buildings are several miles apart (though the planned rail link will join them).
McGill’s offline show is about a city’s secret social history; it is not really about sexual practices per se (or desire) in the way that artists like Nayland Blake or Robert Gober might indicate with their sculptures, or inventing a distinctive two-dimensional graphic language like Lari Pittman. The works are not particularly seductive, but they are nevertheless semiotically loaded and very interesting to think about—despite being visually uncomplicated.
(1) Same material as used on the construction site at Durham St West.