Colour, abstraction, and queerness in the art of Derek Dunlop

2 May 2020

By Hannah Godfrey


and speak in vain to the silent ash                                                                                                                                                     

Catullus, “101,” trans. E. Cederstrom



and talk (why?) with mute ash                                                                              

Catullus, “101,” trans. Anne Carson

I was boarding a train from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. At the end of the platform, on the wall of the station, above the clock, was some large, pink neon handwriting.

I Want My Time With You.

I was on my way to see my gay Parisian lawyer for the first time in years. Gazing at these words, I thought of time and space, of traversing distance in order to place my body in proximity to someone I love, have not been near for many years. I thought of the colour—shocking pink—and how pink is one of Derek Dunlop’s favourites. The pink is mounted in front of old red bricks, the sturdy Victorian bones of this station, and it is shocking to see it there above the sensible old clock, but the shock is pleasurable, much as being emotionally open and unruly in public is. It was within this eddy that the interplay of colour, abstraction, and queerness in Dunlop’s work began to take root in me. By examining them, I hope to contextualise his practice and express the effects of looking at and thinking with his work.

Dunlop’s engagement with abstraction has been a central tenet of his practice. He has been continually preoccupied with “claiming a tradition of queer abstraction which emerged in the second half of the twentieth century”, seeing it as a “means for artists to negotiate complicated subjectivity through coded expression.” (1) The latter sentence sounds like a summation of the history of nonheteronormativity. The notion of claiming a tradition indicates Dunlop’s ability to make complex manoeuvres in his work. ‘Tradition’ can be imbued with irony as well as authority­­—it implies a parallel lineage of defiance and antagonism, of something that has pushed against it. ‘Tradition’ denotes a lineage of presence and so points to another important note of queerness in Dunlop’s work: that of ancestry. There is a desire to follow a non–straight line into the past and find one’s ancestry as a queer person and as a queer artist. But, as always with anything queer, there is a curve—one should not assume straight chronology, or that the person identified as kin would wish to be so, or that these lines are fixed once they’re discovered and communicated. 

Figures that refuse to be redeemed disrupt not only the progress narrative of queer history but also our sense of queer identity in the present. (2)

1. Dunlop, Derek. Artist statement for the exhibition PARK, Martha Street Studio, 4 May – 16 June 2018:
2. Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 2002): 8.

During a conversation in Toronto, I asked Dunlop how he would like people to encounter his work. Over the previous couple of hours our conversation had ranged over familiar and unfamiliar terrain, a kind of wayfaring (this is a concept I will return to later). He talked about cruising art in exhibitions. The act of looking that is required by cruising situates the person who is doing the looking as a body open to and seeking particular experiences. The gaze has intention: it is evaluative and holds the desire for exchange and gratification; it carries expectation, even that of simple rejection. The gaze requires a familiarity with at least rudimentary codes in order to effectively engage. The gazer is in a heightened state, alert to subtle and not so subtle signals. Situating one’s body in proximity with others (be they humans, artworks, or places designated for certain activities) are hallmarks of cruising and wayfaring, as are discovery, affirmation, and the sense of occupying time and space in unconventional ways. Cruising and wayfaring are a means of being open to experience, laying the trail as one goes, as roots do; both are ways of being in the world, not of it, and both involve ephemeral lines of movement. (3)

3. I am indebted to Tim Ingold for his concept of wayfaring and the language expressing these thoughts. See his Lines: A Brief History (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2007). I am also indebted to Courtney R. Thompson, who introduced me to this book.

I’m reminded of my first studio visit in Winnipeg with Dunlop in 2012. He took me through a few bodies of work including Television, wallpaper variations, Palms, and the palace, the cake, camouflage and curtains. The palm paintings made a particular impression on me. Painted from stills taken from television footage of the Iraq War (2003-2011) Dunlop depicts distorted palm trees over and over. The repetition has a complicated effect: it subtly asserts the volume of sites destroyed by US and UK missile attacks while undermining the association of these trees with oases and rest: there are no safe havens in war. Palms also symbolise the West’s troubling relationship with otherness—often exoticising, exploitative, and extractive. Dunlop’s images imply historical narratives of representation, such as botanical drawings and their relationship to classification, colonising land, exploration and trade, and the fetishisation of ‘foreign’ lands. Palm leaves and trees are also laden with classical symbolism from many cultures. In ancient Greece and ancient Rome, palm leaves signified victory and thus carried into Christianity, signifying the victory of spirit over flesh and giving the name to one of the faith’s important moveable feasts, Palm Sunday. In Islam it sometimes represents peace, since victory denotes the end of a conflict. For ancient Egypt it signified long life and was used in some funerary rites, and in Mesopotamian religions it was used as a symbol of fertility. Dunlop’s work is tugged on by these associations and the complex history of the relations between Europe (and later, North America) and the Middle East that include and precede the Christian Crusades.

Dunlop’s paintings of filtered, digital images of palm trees are taken from footage recorded by drones and other aircraft undertaking military strikes, which was then given to the media for broadcast by news programs. This locates us within but paradoxically farther away from the conflict, since so many filters have been placed on the images (the story) before we see them. The partialness (incompleteness) of Dunlop’s depictions speaks to the partialness (bias) of information and its dissemination.

Dunlop’s gestures, the smears made by his fingers and the movement of his body, overlay the black pixelly palms and imply the bodies we do not see in these works or in the televised footage they were sourced from. He is portraying effacement, a theme that recurs in his work and which his skill with abstraction and colour imbues with a profoundly productive troubling of what is and is not seen.

Fear of Invisibility (Erased oval on the back of Annie's Drawings), 1915 2014 2014 14 1 8 Inches x 30 1 4 Inches Graphite on found paper
Image: Fear of Invisibility (Erased oval on the back of Annie’s Drawings), 1915/2014 (2014) by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

It was during our second studio visit in Winnipeg a year or two later that I saw Fear of Invisibility (Erased oval on the back of Annie’s Drawings), 1915/2014 (2014). (4) On the backs of three artworks by his great, great aunt Annie Rose Collie (5), were build-ups of graphite from the drawings moving against each other in her portfolio. Dunlop rubbed away a light, large oval shape the size of a face (the title of this piece points to its double irony). It was an act with several overtones;  one, perhaps, of contact with the only other artist he knows of in his family (and also a distant family member he believes was queer): two characteristics that dominate her memory. By working on the backs of these pieces, Dunlop ensured he did not further her effacement by altering her modest artistic record. He is tentatively tapping an unknown relative on the shoulder in an unknown place, hoping she will turn around, knowing she cannot. This choice is also a way of encompassing the idea that even if she could respond, she may not want to. Heather Love’s book, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, discusses this dilemma. It is a trope of queerness to try to spot one’s queer kin in the past in order to reclaim them, welcome them into a more accepting time—to save them perhaps. But, as Love asks, what if they don’t want to be saved? What if they refused the identity, would not recognise it as their own and not recognise us as their kin? How do we navigate this? On approach is through radical readings such as those Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick deployed:

[W]e might want to be more alive to the potentially queer ways in which other words might resonate for a character or writer. … [C]iting literary critic, Jonathan Dollimore, Sedgwick also suggests that grammatical inversion might have an equally intimate relation to sexual inversion. (6)

4. The piece was exhibited at the Drawing Centre in NYC as a part of the show, The Intuitionists in 2014.
5. “I made the Annie pieces after my grandfather gave me my great, great aunt’s sketchbook and portfolio of drawings. [Annie Rose Collie (1890-1951)] was an artist in Winnipeg and graduated from the very first graduating class at the university of Manitoba fine arts program. She worked for the bank of Montreal but was a part of a small local art scene at the time. … She received limited success at the time, and my grandfather said that everyone thought she was a lesbian.” She was one of the founding members of the Western Art Academy. (Email: 7 June 2019). I am deeply grateful to Derek for such generosity in sharing this information with me.
6. Edwards, Jason. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (London and New York: Routledge, 2009): 59.

The opposite extreme (totally ignoring any queerness) has had a pretty good run so far. Recent queer theoretical moves of making declarations of affection, love, and friendship to hoped-for kin, though well intentioned, can feel more about the person making them than who they are directed to. 

Dunlop’s treatments of Annie’s work incorporates another concept ingrained in queerness: haunting. Dunlop is haunted by his aunt, by her possibilities. He in turn haunts her, rejecting straight time (that is, the heteronormative way of ordering life events and histories) and placing himself in the context of her work and vice versa.

… haunting is not about invisibility or unknowability per se … it refers to … what’s living and breathing in the place hidden from view: people, places, histories, knowledge, memories, ways of life, ideas … brings it to life on its own terms … not merely to light.

Haunting registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or being done in the present and is frightening. (7)

This is Avery Gordon’s interpretation of the concept of haunting, who is not a queer theorist but whose idea has relevance for how queer people can relate to personal and collective pasts, presents, and futures, as well as providing a means for understanding trauma and its effects. Gordon describes haunting as producing “a something to be done”[8] that is independent from (though perhaps informed by) immediate crises. José Esteban Muñoz builds upon this concept, seeking

[H]aunting and haunted cultural work that remembers and longs for a moment outside of this current state of siege. My critical move here, that of employing key words and thematics such as “ghosts,” “memory,” “longing,” and “utopia,” has been to decipher the networks of commonality and the structures of feeling that link queers across different identity markers, including … bodies separated along generational lines. (9)

7. Gordon, Avery F. “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity,” Borderlands 10:2, 2011:
8. Ibid.
9. Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York U P, 2009): 47.

Dunlop’s Fear of Invisibility (Erased oval on the back of Annie’s Drawings) is a brilliant example of this.

In a way Dunlop’s engagement with his aunt is also an exemplar of how the erotic manifests in his work, and is perhaps key to what unites abstraction, colour, and queerness for him. Though Dunlop is engaged with the implications of the sexuality of gay male bodies, it is not simply a matter of sex and sensuality—he understands the power of the something that informs and underlies these things. The erotic here is power situated within work, work that serves to realise one’s self and that simultaneously reveals and dismantles structures of oppression. Although Audre Lorde was addressing black women and their specific experiences in her essay “Uses of the Erotic,” her description functions as a powerful means of understanding the erotic as a queerly utopic concept. With the Annie works, Dunlop is paying homage to the erotic as a power that does not fade, as work that can be recognised and that engenders response, as a means of experiencing one’s self as absolutely alive and absolutely connected to other queer bodies across time. Situated in part within care (a carefulness) that is seen in his gestural marks on paper, there is a charge to Dunlop’s work, a potent gentleness that is beautifully realised in the Annie pieces. He is not timid; he is purposeful and has a powerful intuition for balancing presence with absence along with their messy togethernesses. This balance informs an eroticism rooted in joy and melancholy, physical sexuality, and intimacies that pass between people without touch or sound. He documents moments of communion between bodies: related and unrelated bodies, thinking bodies, dead and living bodies, sexual bodies—brushes, glances, grips, embraces, joinings.

Fear of Invisibility takes us back to another moment of erasure that became a milestone in Western art history and which Dunlop is surely nodding towards—Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing from 1953, for which Rauschenberg took de Kooning’s own methods to an extreme as an ironic, sincere tribute to (and surpassing of) his own influences and sources. (10) The work requires us to know whose drawing was erased and that it was consensual, in the way Dunlop’s piece requires us to know that his aunt was the progenitor and his relative; his ‘feeling backwards’ doesn’t require the erasure of his forebears or their recognition of him but instead privileges their presence. He works on the back of her work, a thin barrier of paper between his marks and hers is the only thing preventing their touching each other.

“Individuals” are infinitely indebted to all others, where indebtedness is about not a debt that follows or results from a transaction but, rather, a debt that is the condition of possibility of giving/receiving. (11)

10. Craft, Catherine. “How Robert Rauschenberg erased a Willem de Kooning and created a landmark of postmodernism”:
11. Barad, Karen. “On Touching,” The Politics of Materiality, ed. Susanne Witzgall, pg.7 (Durham, North Carolina: differences, 23 (3), 1 December 2012: 206–223).

Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Aunt Annie, Dunlop—bodies connected across time, invisible in different ways (Rauschenberg’s early closetedness, the aunt’s absence, de Kooning’s art work, all three of these people disconnected but exerting their force over Dunlop whom they do not know, have not seen), hiding, obscuring, denying, and revealing through the movements of hands upon papers.

I … meet my own touch – the past materials I have worked with and how they have adjusted my hand [emphasis mine]. (12) The history and repetitions held in a hand, the experiences of the body, and the knowledge it has acquired informs how it moves, the marks it makes, the touch it desires. It is, as Karen Barad says, situated utterly within the body, utterly without it, and in absolute connection to so many others all at once. (13)

12. Jonah Groeneboer quoted in Dunlop, Derek. “A Conversation with Jonah Groeneboer,”: PLATFORM: centre for photographic + digital arts, Winnipeg, 2016.
13. Barad, Karan. “On Touching”, 2012.

It’s tempting to situate the Annie pieces within portraiture, as well as Dunlop’s recent work, PARK (2018), which is informed by engaging with older gay men and past cruising areas in public parks. Portraiture always begs context as well as inferring the nuances of the artist’s own presence. Who is this, why are they recorded this way, what was the scene, who is being represented, what do they symbolise? Dunlop’s approach is invested in fraughtness. Not providing a body but instead placing the imperative on a disembodied presence, on what is left behind or disturbed such as leaves or berries or the back of a painting, the sounding out of this, is portraiture queered. It is also a particularly melancholy kind of portraiture: loss and trauma are internalized as acts of memory and refusal, rather than acts of memorial or elegy. (14)

Melancholia is not only a denial of the loss of a beloved object but also a potentially politicized way of presenting that object in the midst of a culture that fails to recognize its significance. (15)


Melancholia represents a holding-on to loss in defiance of bourgeois (and capitalist) imperatives to forget, move on, transfer attention to a new relationship/commodity. (16)

14. “The melancholic internalizes the lost object as a way of preserving it.” Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona. “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, eds. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erikson (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana P, 2010): 334.
15. Ibid., 333.
16. Ibid., 354.

Bullrushes (2015) is a painting that is an almost-square gathering of pink. I say ‘gathering’ because there is something collected about it; it has mass, like gathered clouds, and although the painting is dominated by pink, the more one looks, the more a light patch of smoky yellow on the right asserts itself and floats a number of associations. Yellowy smoky skies are not uncommon in Manitoba when fires engulf forests in faraway Alberta or Saskatchewan. Summer days with windows closed but that smoky smell still everywhere, lungs irritated, eyes too: there’s a wonder of these mild symptoms being experienced here—what must it be like there? Crises elsewhere are never that far away, since their effects are far reaching. The yellow patch is roughly the size of a hand and has been applied by Dunlop’s fingers. The colour, the technique, and his body provide an aesthetic link to Fear of Invisibility (Erased oval on the back of Annie’s Drawings) (1915/2014), but here since the canvas is marked only by him, he is contained in a different way. The movements of his arm and fingers, this repetition brings something to the fore rather than an archeological brushing away. The yellow is also reminiscent of another kind of smoke, that of cigarettes (and all their flirtatious involutions), nicotine stains on fingers, recording a habit of years.

Artspeak - "The accursed share" - ALEESA COHENE, DEREK DUNLOP,
Image: Bullrushes, 2015 by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The patch also conjures J. M. W. Turner’s sea paintings, particularly Seascape With Storm Coming On (c. 1840), an unfinished work whose colour takes precedence over the forms of waves and clouds. The interaction of Turner’s colours are messy and noncommittal, the notion of the sea— sensual, uncontainable—emerges from them but the approach of the storm is felt immediately. The presence of a similarly portentous yellow in Dunlop’s painting deepens the eroticism of the licks of darker pink paint around the edges of Bullrushes: a nod to tumultuous pleasure, to the flash points of sex on the edges, an uneven rimming, queer sexuality, the yellow of decomposition, the shaping of gay and queer identity in the era of HIV/AIDS. Sex and death. Fight back. (17) Placing Bullrushes in the context of Dunlop’s overall commitment to queer abstraction and how this seems inextricable from the history of HIV/AIDS and contemporary art, Dunlop’s fingerprints and dragging marks, the rubbing of the yellow area (a worrying, a recovering, an assertion) seem to reference this history as well and his connection to it as a gay man.

As he [the angel] tries to linger with the dead, the winds tear at his wings, carrying him against his will, into the future. … Benjamin suggests that taking the past seriously means being hurt by it … Yet this … passive figure, [is] so clearly unfit for the rigors of … the battlefield. (18)

17. “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!” was a rallying cry of ACT UP events and actions during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US.
18. Love, 148.

There is a light shadow on the left of the painting, again a diagonal, repetitive gesture, and these two interruptions atop the pink that contain so much movement infer wings, or at least their shadow, and wings in this analysis brings to mind Benjamin’s angel of history (19) but more importantly the criticism of this figure that Heather Love makes, referencing Avery Gordon’s imperative “something to be done” by countering:

What is to be done? We don’t know, just as we don’t know what an angel is.(20)

19. “… the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, 1973. Source: Wikipedia.
20. Ibid., 152.

The painting is not necessarily a place for a political or activist response, despite being impossible to unhitch from its cultural moorings. It presents us with a state of absence that heightens presence and collapses straight time.

The title of the painting invites readings that are both biblical and historical: Bullrushes brings to mind the story from the Book of Exodus where the infant Moses is placed in a basket woven from rushes and set out on the Nile in order to escape the murderous decree of an Egyptian pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew children. It is not too great a leap to draw a parallel with the wilful inaction of the Reagan administration towards the men and women infected with HIV/AIDS that was, in effect, a decree to let them die. The notion of escape is central in the story though, especially since gay men’s escape into spaces where they can meet each other without inhibition or prohibition is an evasion of straight censure.

Bullrushes is also the name of a playground game (also known as British Bulldog), in which one or two children stand between a group of their playmates and ‘home,’ which is usually a wall. The group must pass these individuals to get to ‘home.’ If touched or tackled, the group member must join the defenders and get the other children. When I turn this game over in my mind, it oscillates between symbolising a queer fear of assimilation and a conservative fear of contamination.

www Graffiti
Image: Graffiti, 2016 by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Then again, maybe it is simply revealing the glimmer of a body moving within the sedge. Bullrushes belong to the sedge family; it is a tall, phallic plant, providing good cover. Another work by Dunlop, the digital print Graffiti (2016) shows a reflection pool in a once-popular cruising spot along the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg. The pool is thickly planted with bullrushes. Hiding and being found—potent ingredients for intimate encounters in public parks and the like.

During a residency at The Golden Foundation in New York in 2014, Dunlop was given access to an enormous range of paints that the Golden company manufactures, including Williamsburg Oils, paints originally created by an American artist called Carl Plansky, and which Dunlop prefers using. The quality of these paints is renowned. Small batches are produced through a traditional, non-industrialized way, the result being that “each colour has a unique texture, mass, sheen, density, brightness, and depth”, making it the “only oil [that] can achieve the subtle effects of colour that I seek.” (21) The uniqueness of the colours and particularly the physical qualities of the paint itself are in opposition to the ultra-slick quality of mass-produced paint. Creating the Williamsburg Oils countered the inferior homogeneity of paint available to artists, and moved to strengthen ‘traditional’ painting (in opposition to painters such as Frank Stella, who used commercial paints in a radical reworking of traditional artistic values). Yet Plansky’s paints perform as a queer analogy for non-normativity and resistance to twentieth-century neoliberalist drives to homogenise.

 Thinking of this paint’s texture and density, its physicality and individuality, and thinking of Dunlop’s fingers in this paint, moving it around, the oils from his own body mixed in with it, creating an archive of his gestures preserved in colour, brings to mind something Joshua Rivkin wrote about a poem by Catullus—“[he] doesn’t begin Poem 101 with his own grief but with his journey home … how do we live after loss?” (22) Dunlop’s archive documents reaching into himself and the forces that have shaped him.

All touching entails infinite alterity, so that touching the other is touching all others, including the “self”, and touching the “self” entails touching strangers within. (23)

21. Godfrey, Hannah. Conversations [Interview with Derek Dunlop], Lisa Kehler Art + Projects, 6 October 2015:
22. Rivkin, Joshua. Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (Brooklyn and London: Melville House, 2018): 285.
23. Barad, Karan. “On Touching”, 2012.

Dunlop’s painting Colour Chart (2015) contains almost fifty colours. Four circles containing squares that are themselves divided into four triangles, and beneath these two squares containing circles also divided into four quarters: round pegs in square holes, square pegs in round holes. They are set like a half-dozen boxed eggs on an almost grimy grey background. There is an extraordinary amount of activity in this painting. Around each containing shape (the stacked circles and squares) is a light aura: around four of them is a backwards L of light grey, around the other two a tracing of the infinity symbol. These lighter areas give the impression of precession, of something else covering it before, preserving the lighter, cleaner space behind it, such as one sees after removing a picture from a wall that has hung there for decades. Thus the background is gently haunted, but by what? The long history of painting? Colour theory? Other/ed artists’ bodies? The marks traced by fingers that have circled them remain, repetitive, obsessive, a site revisited over and over, wayfaring along the path walked by those who came before.

The painting itself has something dreamlike about it, an associative diagram enlivened by the warp and weft of individual biography. The geometry and repetition coupled with unexpected colour combinations summon Jung’s mandalas; Kandinsky’s Farbstudie Quadrate (1913); Sigillum Dei; Cosmati patterning; Hilma af Klint’s diagrams, palette, and repetition; (24) the Russian flag and that country’s brutal homophobia.

colour chart
Image: Colour Chart, 2015 by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I think about how our feelings towards colours have histories, how they are subjective and yet still specific. (25)

24. Specifically the SUW/UW series: Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 11-15 (1915).
25. Godfrey, 2015.

In one circle there is a curved sliver of pink that alerts the eye to the only other pink in the painting, a triangle, its longest side a concave line. The sliver would complete this triangle, and thus signify the full history of this symbol: from the reclamation of it as a mark of fatal condemnation of homosexuality by the Nazis, to a symbol of resistance to homophobic states’ murderous inaction during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The split, mismatched pink triangle asserts that violence against nonheteronormative bodies is still present, affective, and divisive, and that resistance is defiantly responsive, adaptive, and necessary, and is part of many other agonisms. 

In another circle is another triangle, but this yellow one instead invokes Ellsworth Kelly’s bold monochrome paintings, his drive “to extract shapes from the external world, purges of detail … which facilitate ‘the act of seeing itself.’” (26) The act of seeing—what does it mean to see? A falling away of as well as assertion of associations.

Shall we utter some words about nothingness? … Perhaps we should let the emptiness speak for itself. (27)

 By naming and exhausting our associations, we have a chance to be emptied, filled, enmeshed. Touched. Abstracted. Represented.

Would it be correct to say our concepts reflect our life? They stand in the middle of it. (28)

26. Daniel-McElroy, Susan. Cited by Clare Gormley, Yellow Curve, TATE summary:
27. Barad, Karen. “What is the measure of nothingness: Infinity, virtuality, justice,” 100 notes, 100 thoughts, Documenta Series 099 (bilingual ed.), (ed. C. Christov-Bakargiev (Kassel: Hatje Cantz, 2014(a)): 4.
28. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Some Remarks on Colour, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. Linda L. McAllister and Margaret Schättle (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977): 52e [point 302].

As noted earlier, Dunlop’s use of colour has a specificity rooted in queer subjectivity. The colours in many of the paintings exhibited as part of the Accursed Share exhibition at Artspeak in 2016 (which included Bullrushes) and previously in the End-Forms exhibition at Lisa Kehler Art + Projects Gallery in 2015 (which included Colour Chart), have a certain domesticity about them—the muted greys speak of walls and surfaces. These colours are created by mixing complementary colours in order to create shades of grey, the tone of which is then altered. (29) Looking back to an early work by him, a series of digital prints called A Lover’s Geography (2008), one can see similar colours amongst unmade beds, pillows, sofas, and other soft furnishings. Moving forward to some of the works he created in 2017—such as Untitled (found pillows) and Untitled (three stones)—these colours can be found again. In the sculptures he made in 2016 and 2017 with found objects, he veered to the worn tones of weathered timbers and bricks but provided jolts of bright colour by using mass-produced items such as the thick bands that bind Canadian vegetables like broccoli and asparagus. He uses these bright bands as well as coloured zip ties to bind objects so ubiquitous in contemporary green spaces (weathered bits of timber or worn bricks, for example) that they do not seem totally unnatural. Although the colourful commercial materials he uses with the more muted colours are strangely jocular—including uninflated party balloons placed over the heads of old rail spikes—they are still haunted by the domestic and have a disturbingly surreal mournfulness.

29. Godfrey, 2015.

There is also an insistence that complicates tenderness in Dunlop’s work. Pastel rubbed into paper until a halo appears (2014) is an example in addition to the works discussed above. Another is Obstacles and Oversights (2016), a sculpture comprised of ‘deadstock gloves’ filled with sand and piled in a rough pyramid. The gloves are actually mitts and thereby gesture at notions of gathering bodies (fingers sharing a single chamber rather than separated in a glove) and the piled rows of hand shapes laid upon one another infer touch, healing, and solidarity. ‘Deadstock gloves’: the unwanted and unmissed piled high, filled with sand, a material imbued with notions of time and reminiscent of the flood-defensive sandbagging common in Manitoba. Affection is often charged with its opposite.

23 2016 Obstacles and Oversights
Image: Obstacles and Oversights, 2016 by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Dunlop’s practice is informed by wayfaring, a nonlinear seeking that excavates personal histories and wider genealogies. The mediums he chooses to do this with are ones he takes pleasure in, but, just as importantly, also become part of his process of thinking, of being-with history and materials. Dunlop is a sensitive listener and observer, and this is underwritten by an extraordinary intuition that offers up moments of temporal and spatial collapse. Yet his work is also an earthy mix of earnestness and wryness. He provides a harbour for those who know the signs—as such, he is firmly situated in a queer cultural tradition.

During 2016 and 2017, Dunlop produced works that seem connected by layered notions of bondage: sexual practices, forms of connection or kinship, indebtedness. Some are called Devices for Speaking to the Dead and others simply Untitled (Found objects). They often but not always consist of several vertical, found objects such as timber and stone, their upright togetherness achieved by metal ties or rubber bands (the latter of which, over time, degrade, become brittle, and eventually snap). It is hard not to anthropomorphise these sculptures: they appear huddled, intimate, snugly leaning. Their title gives further credence to this reading and underlies it with loss—the objects now communicate ritual, embody the disembodied. Not only does this speak to the nature of personal and political relationships (they will end) and ‘ties that bind’ (we are never free of their effects) but also to the durability of these objects that so sympathetically fit against one another. They continue to endure whether divided or unified, remaining more or less unchanged, the shapes of their togetherness perhaps persisting in memory, if not in form.

Portraiture registers again, for Dunlop has photographed these objects, so the images don’t seem to be simple documentation, especially as some of those sculptures may have changed over time. The imperfect background of a grimy white wall or backcloth betrays a degree of staging, raising again the question of mediation—how do we come to see something? What are we perceiving: photos of assemblages, of sculpture? Portraits of sacred, ritualised objects? Is the photo itself the ‘primary’ artwork? The current of portraiture betrays a bond to painting, to representation, and the choice of what is recorded and who can decipher it.

The largest Device for Speaking to the Dead (2016) deploys droll burlesque with this monument of sorts. Solitary and hopelessly erect, the weathered fur is an adorned as well as formalised object, crisscrossing boundaries of abstraction, symbolism, and ornamentation. Colourful elastic bands have been stretched around the girth of the form, providing a jolly, striped aesthetic whilst alluding to cock rings and the themes of bondage touched upon earlier. The fur stretcher also carries other inferences—hunting, death, prey/predator, ecologies, colonialism, trade, relationships to the land, and the interplays of maleness and masculinity with these concepts. Symbolically, it is a massively loaded object. As well, it looks old, has survived its original use and survived being discarded in the wilderness. But its shape is also reminiscent of a headstone. This emotionally and temporally complicated piece evokes a drawing by US artist Joe Sinness, who works with camp eroticism and explicitly sexual gay male bodies in a deft game of revealing and concealing. In his Slow Reveal (2013), a gorgeous, colourful, stripy fabric with large green leaves placed in front of it performs like a strange cabaret ghost in mid fan-dance or as a headstone under a sheet. The potent associative mixes of each artist’s work give a raucous sheen to ambiguous objects. The aesthetic is at first ebullient, but the title reminds us: this is a stand-in for bodies no longer with us: unmissable yet missed, sensual but bodiless, phallic and solitary. Dunlop is creating visual spaces for the remembrance of bodies and the places they frequented, which have not survived a white, heteronormative, conservative, neoliberal ideology.

One piece from these years, Untitled (2017), has a slightly different impulse, which is developed in Dunlop’s later work PARK.  The book is John Rechy’s City of Night (firmly planted in the US gay literary canon). It vividly describes a young hustler’s experiences in New York, San Francisco, LA, and New Orleans on a journey of self-discovery and sex in the early 1960s. It was a sensation. Observing this worn paperback underneath the paving stone in Dunlop’s sculpture brings to mind another cultural signifier of that radical era. Sous les pavés, la plage!—underneath the pavement, the beach!—a rallying cry of the 1968 protests in Paris. Underneath Dunlop’s pavement lies not the beach but another symbol of freedom and sensuality.

The stone on top of it is actually a paving stone that I took from this area in Chelsea that was really close to this really well known cruising ground in the 80s. … And so, then I wanted the paving stone from that area as an architecture of that neighborhood to go on top of it. It is a form of an elegy, I think. … in terms of thinking about the history of that area and then the new architecture that’s replacing it. (30)

The paving stones the students prised from Parisian streets to form barricades and expose the vulnerable foundations of their society are now safely back in place, and the rise of sexual freedom expressed by Rechy—rooted in the 1960s and exploding in the ’70s into the ’80s—was checked by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a government with a vested interest in not addressing it. Not only that, but with neoliberalism causing massive gentrification, which in turn erases gay spaces such as bars, cruising grounds, parks, and other community hubs—in fact whole neighbourhoods—the paving stone speaks to a heavy reconstruction of architectural and social space that enacts conservative values.

[M]odern natural spaces influenced by institutions and practices … have assumed and imposed particular sexual relations on them. (31)

 [E]nvironmental contexts and city forms have impacts on sexual cultures. (32)

30. Derek Dunlop quoted in an interview with Hannah Godfrey, 15 February 2019.
31. “Introduction,” Queer Ecologies, 2.
32. Ingram, Gordon Brent. “Fragments, Edges, and Matrices: Retheorizing the Formation of a So-Called Gay Ghetto through Queering Landscape Ecology,” in Queer Ecologies, 257.

Exposing what lies beneath, that is, excavation, is one of several threads running through PARK, a collection of monoprints, digital prints, and an installation that was exhibited at Martha Street Studio in Winnipeg in 2018. The name of this centre coincidentally has a link to Winnipeg’s othered sexual history. Martha Street and many of the other streets in this area are named after several of the city’s madams from the early twentieth century (33) and so provides an interesting additional note to the exhibition, which takes outlawed sexual behaviour as its starting point.  

33. Dafoe, Christopher. Winnipeg: Heart of the Continent, (Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 2002).

Dunlop engaged with three places that have a history (if not current use) as sites for cruising. Such sites have been reduced by gentrification. As well, more liberal attitudes to homosexuality have made it easier to find sex in less public but still anonymous settings, via apps. Dunlop is not engaging with these sites along classic pastoral lines (solitary males roaming in rural idylls enacting ancient Greek homoeroticism), or even elegiacally. However, male bodies seeking one another in natural settings—coupled with Dunlop’s sense of history, queer time, and the lyricism of the monoprints—make these traditions of memory and desire a contemporary reality. Perhaps it is this, in combination with similarities in form and movement in those monoprints, that evoke a work by an artist obsessed with these themes, Cy Twombly. Quattro Staggioni: Autunno (1993-5), is one of a four-part piece by Twombly whose berry-coloured patches possess a similarly urgent physicality. There is an ascending and descending sense of movement as well as a remarkable use of white and light that rhymes with Dunlop’s prints. (34) Quattro Staggioni: Autunno is by an artist himself mining the past to give expression to his experienced present, let alone his homosexuality, and provides another instance of ‘feeling backwards’ within the overall PARK works.

34. Other moments of recognition between Dunlop and Twombly can be seen in Dunlop’s stumbling block (2011; oil and acrylic on canvas, 30” x 28”). See Twombly’s Cold Stream (1966; oil on canvas, crayon, 78” x 99”).

Dunlop’s monoprints were created by taking flora he gathered from Lees Trail, a well-known cruising spot in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, and placing them on the printing press to directly stain the paper. The two sets of monoprints—Lees Trail (field studies) and Rubus (Lees Trail), both 2016— contain couples and gatherings of shapes in a state of propulsion, enacted by the movements of the heavy press over the berries and leaves. This state speaks to other movement, the rhythm of bodies engaged in sexual activity, ejaculation, walking, looking, life cycles. The moisture from the berries and leaves alters the shape of the paper upon which it has been pressed: the paper arches sympathetically. Is the colour (whose release is ambiguously poised between joyful exuberance and violent crushing) fast? Will it look the same in thirty years? Or will time and exposure change it, as it changed the elastic bands in some of the Device pieces? “Colour is never crushed,” wrote Barthes in an essay about Twombly (35); and, in another about colour in general,

The notion of happy, gentle, sensual, jubilant sexuality is never to be found in any text. Where are we to read it then? … in colour[.] (36)

35. Barthes, Roland. “The Wisdom of Art,” Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1979): 10.
36. Barthes, Roland. Colour: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. David Batchelor. (London: Whitechapel Gallery; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2008): 163.

While the specific geographic site is named in Dunlop’s monoprints, he gives only the general name of the berries he uses—rubus—which also names its colour (red). (37) Rubus is a sprawling genus that includes up to seven hundred varieties of flowering plants. Most produce fruit (blueberries, raspberries, etc.); many, such as brambles, have ‘rambling’ and ‘mounding’ growth habits. These common plants provide a satisfying metaphor for the illicit activity on Lees Trail and other green cruising sites, as well as for that recurring idea of wayfaring.

Wayfaring follows a path one has previously travelled in the company of others. It is guided rather than mapped and has a sense of flowing. The itinerary is reconstructed as one goes. (38)

37. The word ‘rubus’ is easily mistaken for ‘rebus’ (I have just corrected it in this essay) and it is satisfying to note this in the context of the work. A rebus “combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words and/or phrases” and comes from the phrase Non verbis, sed rebus, “not by words but by things” ( This seems to encompass part of the tension in Dunlop’s practice—the engagement with materials and subjectivity that rejects language at some level, an attempt to express the experience before the word via movement, colour, and mark making. Perhaps more generally the rebus expresses much of the experience of engaging thoughtfully with contemporary art—there’s a certain amount of puzzling and deciphering to do when one is looking deeply and openly, which gives rise to accidental tangents that are also illuminating.
38. Ingold, 16.

Tim Ingold goes on to apply this term to readers in antiquity, relating it to the layered concept of ductus, (39) the path of a thinking mind on its way through a composition—it insists on movement. He argues that for medieval thinkers, “the work of memory inscribes the surface of the mind much as a writer inscribes the surface of paper” (40) or, for our purposes, an artist makes marks on his palimpsest.

 [T]he past is within us as we press into the future. In this pressure lies the work of memory, the guiding hand of a consciousness that, as it goes along, also remembers the way. Retracing the lives of past lives is the way we proceed along our own. (41)

39. Ductus: being led, a conduit, the number of strokes that make up a written letter and the direction, sequence, and speed in which they are written.
40. Ingold, 16.
41. Ibid., 119.

These ideas are deeply sympathetic to Dunlop’s work.

I spent many days walking through trails, retracing steps, spending time with gay men from a previous generation, foraging for a collection of queer things. Queer culture is not easily transferred from one generation to the next—one needs to seek it out, create unique routes of communication and eventually claim a history that fits. … Creating improvised compositions on the printing plate, I imagine the printing press to be a kind of medium that has the ability to commune with the dead [.] … This series of prints becomes the material evidence of my process of making contact. (42)

42. Dunlop, artist statement for PARK.

Even for those who populated the sites years ago, there is a strong sense of the past, of reliving, an instance of ‘eternal return’ (also the title of one of his 2015 paintings, which he exhibited in both The Accursed Share and End-Forms), or perhaps something akin to amor fati. (43) They were social sites, places for gay men of very different backgrounds to meet when they never would in their regular lives. While careful not to romanticise these places and people and thus untrouble them, Dunlop is located in a tradition of revisiting as a means to ground identity. Derek Jarman provides moving accounts of his own experience of this, describing a few visits to Hampstead Heath, an old and well-known cruising ground in London, England. His excitement and tender observations are part of the site’s mythology but also contribute to a portrait of an anonymous scene, as well as of himself. Jarman’s story speaks to multifaceted queer kinship; as well as frequenting the Heath, Jarman’s last primary relationship was a platonic, deeply affectionate one with a younger gay man who took care of him during the latter stages of his life. Written in his journal (published as Modern Nature), which also documents the flowers and plants of his beach garden along with his physical decline from HIV/AIDS, Jarman’s personal history becomes inextricably tied to these sites and bodies, as have so many thousands of other men’s in similar places around the world.

43. In Nietzsche’s view, “a sense of contentment with one’s life and an acceptance of it, such that one could live exactly the same life, in all its minute details, over and over for all eternity”:

Garden is a floor piece in PARK created from found objects and mud taken from the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg. Dunlop describes these as

leftovers or unwanted remainders estranged from the process of industrialisation. The biological, mineral, and chemical growth on the metal artifacts possess a subtle alchemy of place. Existing somewhere between the natural and the man-made: metal resembles bark, oxidization has created a complicated crystal, formless shapes reference the human figure … this exhibition proposes that the presence of the objects in the gallery have the potential to activate the [cruising] site. (44)

44. Dunlop, artist statement.

The title of this piece implies cultivation and deliberate placing and showing, as well as a lighter inference to the divine gardens found in a few of the major religions. A garden—as well as a gallery—seeks to contain, and therein lies a tension: what is resisting containment? There is something a little uncanny about seeing the inorganic materials of industry and urbanisation— which contributed to the transformation of millions of acres of land into towns, cities, and sprawl—lying amongst scattered dry mud and dirt, decaying on a gallery’s polished concrete, seemingly eternal floor. Cement is so starkly other to earth, to mud, and yet so intimate with it (it lies atop: sous les pavés …).

PARK mss 09
Image: Garden, (detail view) 2016 – 2018 by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Cement’s key ingredient is clinker. Clinker is made when the products of a chemical reaction aggregate at their sintering temperature to form small nodules that are ground into powder, thus creating (Portland) cement. The word ‘clinker’ has an onomatopoeic root and is connected to the name of one of England’s oldest prisons, The Clink, which operated from the mid twelfth century until the late eighteenth century and gave its name to a still-current British colloquial term for prison. This leads to the question: which bodies and what acts are criminalised and require such places? In this context one thinks of the criminalisation of homosexuality, which, in Britain, can be seen as early as 1533 with The Buggery Act, which outlawed sodomy. The law was refined in 1885 with the introduction of the Offences Against The Person Act, which made any act regarded as homosexual illegal (this could include the writing of letters), and so became known colloquially as the Blackmailer’s Charter. British law formed the basis of much Canadian law, including the criminalisation of homosexuality, which existed in Canada until 1969. That polished floor in Martha Street Studio proves a fertile ground for thinking and excavating. These nonlinear associations are an example of the way in which haunting can manifest and affect bodies: “The non-present is the past: something that is over … nonetheless lives on.” (45)

45. Love, 6.

Bodies are deeply present in PARK, from the viscera-esque rubus prints (colours of blood, shapes similar to anuses, ejaculation, inferences of penetration) to the phallic and anal shapes present in Garden and in the photos of sites made notorious by unsanctioned bodies’ interactions. But it is an unintentional evocation of a specific point in the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US that is perhaps the most startling thing about Garden. Sometimes referred to as the Ashes Action, this was a provocative piece of activism by ACT UP that invited the lovers and family members of those killed by AIDS to assemble in Washington DC with the cremated remains of those they had lost. They then gathered at the railings of the White House’s garden and emptied box after bag after bag after box over them, puffs of ash and bone chips sinking into the manicured lawn. The texture of dry mud and chips of rust that Dunlop scattered on Martha Street’s gallery floor and the clusters of metal phalluses and orifices arranged upon it suggests the history of violence, death, and loss of gay and queer people, as well as the radical pleasure those bodies engaged in. It is an invitation to remember, to mourn, to enjoy, and to be with the queer bodies we have lost, with those that remain, and with those that will be.

Colour, abstraction, queerness: they have qualities that are hard to describe in themselves but which, when alluding to one another, provide circumferential, subterranean illuminations. When considered in Dunlop’s work, they provide lines of sight that are altogether arrowlike, rapturously curly, and knotty. Unexpectedly, they also ruckle and snub conventional notions of time in ways that only abstract concepts can do to another abstract concept. But in Dunlop’s hands, with his sensibility and sensitivity, there is something elevated and sensual happening that we can experience, a sort of pleasure-stricken, intensely whole, intensely material, absent presence. And the experience is, strangely, not abstract at all.



Feature Image: Device for speaking to the dead, 2016 by Derek Dunlop. Photo courtesy of the artist. 


Hannah Godfrey wishes to thank Derek Dunlop, Courtney R. Thompson, Colin Smith, Neil Parkinson (London Colour Library), Beth Schellenberg, Jayme Spinks, Justin Muir (Malaspina Printmakers), Sharon Alward, Boss Ross, Ali King, and Lauren Lavery. This essay is a part of Critical Fictions, an experimental writing project about queer, Canadian contemporary artists. It  also features monographs and fictions about Hagere Selam shimby Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, Kristin Nelson, Andrea Oliver Roberts, and Logan MacDonald. Critical Fictions was funded through generous support from The Canada Council For The Arts.