Francis McWhannell Writer and exhibition-maker

No other way

On Paul Johns’ BEEN HERE LONG?

Interesting what your parents say to you at the end. I said to my mother, ‘I’m probably not the type of son that you would have aspired to have,’ to which she replied, ‘I wouldn’t have wanted you any other way.’

—Paul Johns, 2021

BEEN HERE LONG? is the first solo exhibition by Paul Johns to be held in Tāmaki Makaurau in two decades. It represents a compact survey, spanning almost his entire career, from 1977—three years after he graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts from the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts at Ilam—to the present. Johns is recognised as an early exponent of conceptual and pop art in Aotearoa, and for his longstanding interest in gender and sexuality. His work is in sympathy with that of artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Billy Apple. While he is perhaps best known for his photography, Johns uses a wide range of media. BEEN HERE LONG? attests to this, including lens- and light-based works, paintings made by digital and manual processes, and a sculpture incorporating found objects. The styles and temperaments of the different works are similarly diverse. Some centre on text, some on image. Some are humorous, some more plaintive. But all touch on questions of intimacy and belonging, enfolding aspects of the artist’s personal experiences, while seeking to connect with anyone who might come upon them.

Hung just inside the gallery is Spell bound (1999), which reproduces a portion of a message sent to the artist. The words are hand-painted in block capitals, stacked, and without punctuation, such that they evoke—or perhaps become—a concrete poem: ‘BURNING / LIPS THEY / COME EVER / NEARER / NEARER’. Removed from its original context, the phrase achieves a level of ambiguity, openness to reimagining. But it’s also inescapably loaded. There’s no mistaking the feeling of ardent desire, which is shored up by the intense contrast between the black ground and the cream letters, and by the little bodily dribbles coming off the latter. Equally, there is a sense of frustration and pathos. This, too, is encoded in the words (‘nearer’ means not yet touching) and the physicality of the painting. Indeed, it is far from clear which element of the work, the formal or the textual, is doing the most work in terms of expression. I am reminded of Colin McCahon, who so confidently married the two (and often in black and white), and of poet and printer Alan Loney, who has written extensively on the significance of the form in which a text is issued.[1]


Continue reading on the Visions website.

Paul Johns

11 February to 20 March 2021
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland

[1] See, for example, Alan Loney, The Books to Come (Buffalo, NY: Cuneiform Press, 2010). Like McCahon, Johns is interested in big questions. McCahon, of course, was wont to draw on biblical texts, tapping into the purported universality of the ‘word of God’. Johns’ approach here is different. He uses a particular text to get at a widely experienced sensation: longing.

By Francis McWhannell
Francis McWhannell Writer and exhibition-maker


Francis McWhannell (b. 1985, Aotearoa New Zealand) is a writer and exhibition-maker based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He is Curatorial Adviser for the dealer gallery Visions, and Curator of the Fletcher Trust Collection, a major private collection of Aotearoa art founded in 1962.