5 - 26 August, 2023
In ‘Vaseline’, Darcy Williams delves into queer stories that are usually ‘hidden’ among public consciousnesses, seeking to underscore and make visible what has been neglected by history. The artist is directly inspired by mid-century physique — or ‘Beefcake’ — magazines, which displayed erotic masculine imagery under the guise of health and fitness to avoid scrutiny and government censorship. Drawn to the beauty of these images and their then-unstated role as havens for queerness, Williams paints and re-stages the figures from within these pages, imbuing them with a heightened sense of history.
Iconography abounds in Williams’ paintings, which are steeped in social, political, and art historical references. The artist harnesses an array of signs and symbols, including condoms and barbed wire representing love, sex, and danger; weapons and nuclear imagery with their violent and masculine connotations; and Emojis following Grindr conventions, to name only a few. The recurring images the sword of Saint Catherine (Joan of Arc’s sword) the outstretched female hands in “Inheriting The Sword of Saint Catherine (Lay Down Your Arms or Drag me Under)”, 2023, refer to the solidarity among queer communities and the assistance of lesbian groups like Blood Sisters who organised blood drives during the AIDS Crisis. Other works include Queer figures from myth and history like Saint Sebastian, Joan of Arc, and the Greek god Apollo. David Hockney is borrowed from, as is Félix González-Torres, Sandro Botticelli. Occurring across many works are also the frenzied, intersecting shapes of the military razzle dazzle camouflage, which was painted on ships in World War I and II to disguise their class, speed, and heading in order to disorientate opposing forces. Williams invokes this pattern to symbolise queerness hidden in plain sight.
There are several tender moments among the historical weight of the paintings. In “Icon Empowers Scripture”, 2023, a post-it is stuck on a mirror to the right of the figure, a note from a friend or lover with a reminder to attend the 1932 wedding of ‘Adam + Ste-’, in a reference to the many same-sex marriages held in Brisbane in the 1930s. Williams consciously places this note on the edge of the painting, leaving the second name unfinished. Is it ‘Adam + Stephen’, a reclamation of the Christian homophobic slogan ‘Adam and Steve’? Or perhaps ‘Adam + Stephanie’? Such deliberate ambiguity recalls the cover stories of the Beefcake magazines and the safety found in plausible deniability. We are allowed to imagine for ourselves, in a task that Williams generously invites in many of their paintings.
Indeed, ‘Vaseline’ is an offering of sorts from Williams. In “An Icon for Lovers and Anarchists”, 2023, a pair of hands around a broken crown are just visible within the flesh tones of the figure’s chest. Here, they propose a new queer iconography, a breaking crown to symbolise the emergence of freedom and equality at the necessary expense of old institutions. As a young, queer artist, Williams asks what they can contribute to queer culture, aware of those in the community that came before them and the many voices that have been lost.
Williams’ multiple historical references result in a kind of temporal ambiguity, embodied by occasional anachronisms—most evidently in the bright pink post-it note. Elizabeth Freeman discusses the concept of “temporal drag” in relation to works by queer artists that involve “temporal transitivity” and “the pull of the past on the present”, in that they are cross-temporal, engage in anachronism, and imagine alternate futures. When looking at a ship painted with razzle dazzle camouflage, one cannot accurately know its distance or positioning, akin to how we cannot ultimately determine when or where in time and place Williams’ figures lie. Williams’ paintings weave in and out of history, the figures within them stepping out from the past to assume the timelessness of icons. They are of the past and of the future. They are here, and they are now.
Grace Jeremy 2023