Sydney Morning Herald Column

Braving Time: Contemporary Art in Queer Australia

Published February 25, 2023
Amos Gebhardt, 'Family Portrait' (2020), from Braving Time

Art has never been short of queer things but it’s beginning to seem as if “queer” is the new word for “avant-garde”. Not long ago, artists would proudly proclaim their avant-garde credentials, identifying themselves as part of a small, élite group pushing back the boundaries of art. Nowadays, that cutting-edge brigade all seem to be “queer”, a word that relates more directly to gender and sexuality.  

Gary Carsley & Renjie Teoh, AKA. The Architects, ‘Thine Shrine, Divine’, National Art School Foyer.jpeg

What’s striking about the artists brought together by the irrepressible Richard Perram for Braving Time: Contemporary Art in Queer Australia at the National Art School Gallery, is that much of it could fit into any standard survey of local contemporary artists. Some “queer” artists make amazingly straight work. 

The rise of this reclaimed word, which originally meant “strange” or “unusual”, has hastened the decay of another reclaimed word – “gay”. It seems so orthodox, so ordinary to be gay nowadays that it’s wondrous to remember all the agonies so recently associated with “coming out”. Instead of being surprised at the thought of gay members of parliament, we’re now asking why there are so few! When someone as straight as Albo decides to march in the Gay Mardi Gras parade it suggests there’s not an iota of transgressive force left in the closet.

Vivienne Binns, ‘Seated Woman’ (1958-62)

Hence the rise of “queer”, a term which implies a much broader field than boring old “gay”. In theory, one need not be gay in order to be queer. Straight people can make queer art, and any artwork whatsoever can be “queered” by an appropriate (or inappropriate) interpretation. Perhaps this is why Perram attached the term to Australia, rather than Contemporary Art, in the subtitle of this exhibition. The main title, Braving Time, is taken from Ezra Pound, who was one of the queerest characters in modern literature, but as far I know, heterosexual.

The very first piece in the show is an example of artists ‘queering’ a part of the gallery that many might not even notice. Gary Carsley and Renjie Teoh (AKA. The ArtHitects), have installed a wall and a set of elaborate doors at the entrance to the show, obliging visitors to push their way in and out. We use doors endlessly, but rarely stop to think about them. In this instance, the rearrangement of the gallery entrance is so hard to ignore, it can only be art.

Todd Fuller’s ‘1727; Pieter for Adriaan’ (2021)

Other works in the show are more directly concerned with issues of sexual identity, but most of the participants, while identifying as ‘queer’, have broad-ranging concerns. Perram lists the major themes as follows: “Our Queer Ancestors, Queer Worthies, Death and History, Feminist Expression, Family and Community, Maleness and Power, Humour, Gender and Sexuality.” 

Vivienne Binns, now viewed as an icon of Australian feminist art, is represented by three works, including a conventional figure study, dated 1958-62, most probably from a life class held at the NAS. Another veteran, Michelle Collocott, is showing a series of abstracted landscapes based on far-flung places such as Lightning Ridge and the Pilbara. Peter Cooley and Nell have contributed characteristic ceramic sculptures. Ramesh Mario Nithiyrendran, just for a change, has made a piece in bronze.

Luke Thurgate, from ‘Adore You’

There’s also a significant bloc of Indigenous artists – Tony Albert, Brooke Andrew, Karla Dickens, Clinton Naina, Christian Thompson – who pursue familiar themes in mostly familiar work. 

Of the artists who address topics specific to the LGBQT+ community, the most significant is Wiliam Yang, whose photo sequence, Sadness (1990), has become a famous work of the AIDS era. This series, which traces the gradual decline and death of his friend, Allan, is a melancholy classic, which still moves viewers no matter how many times they’ve seen it. As part of this year’s Mardi Gras events, Yang will be presenting one of his slide-show performances, Gay Sydney: A Memoir, at the Seymour Centre.

The versatile Todd Fuller has researched what he thinks may be the first European same-sex relationship recorded on these shores, between two sailors on a Dutch vessel wrecked off the Western Australian coast in 1727. Needless to say, it didn’t end well. Fuller has created a fictionalised version of this story in drawings and an animated film.

The Dyke Bar comes together

I can’t recall a year in which there were so many exhibitions scheduled to coincide with World Pride and Mardi Gras, but if you’re doing the rounds, Braving Time should be your first stop. The added attractions at the NAS campus are Luke Thurgate’s Adore You, at the Drawing Gallery, which consists of three wall-sized drawings, based on a mutant version of the Van Eycks’ Ghent altarpiece. The work will be gradually completed over the next few weeks – then painted over. 

There’s also a video show called Fulgora at the Rayner Hoff Project Space, and what I expect to be one of hits of this year’s Mardi Gras: Macon Reed’s Eulogy for the Dyke Bar. This colourful, flamboyant bar, which was still under construction when I visited, continues a series the artist has made in the United States – and it’s a winning idea. The Dyke Bar is a real bar, open to everyone, as well as a venue for special events. I imagine it will be standing room only on most nights.

The Huxleys. What else can I say?

From the NAS, it was over to Carriageworks, for Paul Yore and the Huxleys. There was absolutely no-one around on a Friday afternoon, but presumably things will pick up in a week or so. Queerer than anything at the NAS, these shows were a study in contrasts. The Huxleys are as slick and professional as anything one might see in a top nightclub. The large photos of the duo posing in the most bizarre costumes, are deliberately poster-like, as if fans might like to hang them on their bedroom walls. A music video in which the artists celebrate a succession of dead gay heroes in one long montage, is equally seamless. It would slip neatly onto MTV.

If the Huxleys’ show is a camp cabaret act, Paul Yore’s The Word Made Flesh is a primal scream. I saw the original version of this show at the Australian Centre for Comtemporary Art in Melbourne last year, and it was mind-boggling. It’s hard to imagine an exhibition more crammed and crowded with imagery, words and objects. Obsessive-compulsive, angry and fearless, while not exactly enjoyable it was perversely impressive. Yore gives one hundred percent in just about every medium one can imagine: painting, sculpture, collage, video, installation, even embroidery and quilting. His show had affinities with some of the great works of Outsider art, but also with legendary Dada projects, such as Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau.

Paul Yore: the Queer cosmos of clutter

The cut-down Carriageworks installation doesn’t have the same ferocious energy as the ACCA display, or the same claustrophobic feeling. ACCA is like the bat cave, but nothing could induce claustrophobia in the bright, airy interiors of this former railway workshop. Yore is represented by a transformed hearse covered in mosaic mirror tiles, and a few makeshift pavilions plastered with slogans and pictures. Two of them are towering rectangular structures, another is a geodesic half-dome. Inside, one is assailed by a cacophony of beeps and jangles, fragmentary tunes, flashing lights and plastic junk. The entire ensemble is surrounded by a high barbed wire fence that may be intended to keep the art in rather than trespassers out. 

Yore’s subject is the world today, and he doesn’t much like what he sees: a tsunami of crass consumerism, crypto-fascist politics, hatred and prejudice. In this installation he gives as good as he gets. Some artists try too hard to be transgressive, but with Paul Yore I don’t think he has any choice. This is a show in which aesthetics wrestles with pathology for the possession of the artist’s soul. As yet, no winner has been declared.




Braving Time: Contemporary Art in Queer Australia, 

Luke Thurgate: Adore You, (both 3 February – 18 March, 2023)

Macon Reed: Eulogy for the Dyke Bar, until 4 March, 2023

National Art School



Paul Yore: Word Made Flesh, 5 January – 26 February, 2023

The Huxleys: Bloodlines, 5 January – 5 March, 2023





NOT Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25  February, 2023