Oliver Cain’s Queer Nudes

English-born, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland-based artist Oliver Cain navigates gendered absurdities through his poppy, clean paintings that provide commentary on his experience of queer culture and the male form.

Date 3 February 2021 Words India Hendrikse imagery SUPPLIED

Oliver Cain, Josh, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 1015 x 765 mm.

Oliver Cain, James, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 1015 x 765 mm.

“It’s celebrating male form,” Oliver Cain says of his newest series of paintings that are currently exhibited at Föenander Galleries as part of Auckland Pride Festival. “The male form was so overly used in the classical era Renaissance period and turned into these ripped, God-like figures, so I wanted something that wasn’t quite that, but something a bit more achievable and something a bit more relatable. Something that played on this idea of male masculinity, but also male femininity.”

Cain’s work in his latest exhibition, It’s A Boy, features nude male figures, depicted with clean lines in block pink and blue. The simple line drawings are made using acrylic paints, but their sleekness could easily be mistaken for digital art. The figures are liberated yet vulnerable in their stance, lacking genitalia and therefore provocation.

Less sexualised, more humanised. It’s a far cry from the promiscuous messaging often attached to gay men in popular culture; instead, male lovers are wrapped in a soft embrace in one painting, while in another, a male figure simply stands, arms by his side, naked, his anatomy more soft and beautiful than hyper-sexualised. 

This comfort with the male form wasn’t always present in Cain’s art. He was raised in a Mormon household, with his family emigrating to Aotearoa/New Zealand when he was a teenager. It was in Aotearoa/New Zealand that he felt comfortable enough to come out. He did his last year of high school in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, and found he was easily accepted for his sexuality.

“New Zealand is crucial in my identity make up,” he says. “I think New Zealand’s a great place to explore one’s identity in terms of everyone being very accepting. My family’s very religious, so I think that had a big toll on me being back in England because everything is very traditional.” 

Religion and homosexuality have had a tense past, so it’s refreshing to hear that while Cain grew up in a conservative household, his family has embraced his queerness and art. “They’re very accepting and supportive. I’ve had all my paintings floating around the house. I’ve got a life-sized painting in the hallway, so when anyone comes around to the house, the first thing they see is a bare-bummed figure.”

This closeness with his family sees Cain share a studio space with his dad, who’s also a creative. They make works in the garage, his dad with woodwork, and Cain on his paintings and ceramics. Sculpture and tactile making have been strong mediums for Cain, who cites his dad as a creative influence. In previous exhibitions, ceramics have been central to Cain’s work, with his last exhibition making an interesting foray into men’s urinals and their cultural significance. The ceramic sculpture he created saw phallic bananas piled into a urinal, reflecting gay cruising and party culture and the societal assumptions around it.

Cain’s commentary on queer culture also alludes to the unrealistic beauty standards directed toward men. Gay men, particularly in porn, are subject to fetishisation and unrealistic beauty standards, not hugely dissimilar to those put on women. I ask him if he feels the male form, in all its imperfections and normality, is underappreciated. “I think the average male form is, yes,” he says. “I think that the male form is almost Photoshopped. It’s very much on a pedestal of ‘this is what you should be’, the same as females. I think humans are so amazing in themselves. The average-looking body type is underappreciated.”

Cain’s current exhibition is personal in other ways, too. He tells me the name of each work, such as ‘Tim’ and ‘Josh’, are an ode to individuals he’s dated. “It’s quite funny because I’ve named all the paintings with boy names. They’re names from people I’ve had relationships with, dated, who I have had some personal connection with. It’s quite interesting to reminisce on all the names I’ve given them,” he says. 

Whether they know it or not, these romantic connections are part of a wider goal to raise funds for an important cause. In line with the ethos of Auckland Pride, It’s A Boy will donate a portion of proceeds to the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Renowned New Zealand artist Billy Apple, whom Cain has long admired, has contributed six works to complement Cain’s, and their collaboration will support the foundation.

Oliver Cain, Ollie, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 2150 x 885 mm.

Oliver Cain, Jason & Matt, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 1015 x 765 mm.

Oliver Cain, Sam, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 510 x 410 mm.

Oliver Cain, Shane, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 1015 x 765 mm.

Oliver Cain, W&F, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 1260 x 1000 mm.

Oliver Cain, Tim, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 410 x 310 mm.

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