Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
Before the AIDS crisis reached critical mass in the 1980s, innovation in Modern art had long been synonymous with youth. It was associated with young mavericks rebelling against an older generation that had inevitably matured into some version of the establishment. With the devastating impact of AIDS—which has killed an estimated 658,500 people in the United States—youth, instead of being associated with a sense of invincibility, became better acquainted with death. Indeed, our lens for viewing innovation in art has changed substantially since then.
I recently looked at a registry of artists who died of AIDS and remembered the shocking realization I felt 25 years ago: hardly a dozen of them have been remembered for their art historical contributions. Most artists who died of AIDS were young, which meant that their work had not yet reached the stage of maturity whereby they might have a sense of who they would become as artists and where their art could go. And so, when I look back on the AIDS crisis and its impact on art, what I see is massive unfulfilled potential. Many of these artists became ill in the early days of the disease, when they were looked upon with scorn, fear and derision. Many artists (like so many other, mostly gay men living with and dying from AIDS) were rejected by their families. Many families of those who died had no idea what to do with the art. Many simply destroyed it.
What I see is massive unfulfilled potential
In looking at the artists who came to greatest prominence in the wake of the AIDS crisis, I think about Robert Gober, Doris Salcedo, Félix González-Torres, Charles Ray, Kiki Smith, Marlene Dumas: all artists whose work took on issues of mortality, the fragility of life, the political in the personal, and who created a far more introspective art, often intentionally flawed, materially, in stark contrast to the unshakeable bravado of the Neo-Expressionist painters who had preceded them.
And at the same time—with the exception of the few artists who died of AIDS who did have the time to make mature and great work—I am certain that most of this work which addressed mortality (prematurely, for contemporary art) has still not been adequately represented. Museums and art history have not found adequate ways to represent those thousands of vital artists who never had the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
It occurred to me that one unexplored way to pointedly and poignantly represent the impact of the AIDS crisis on art would be for museums to each identify a single artist and to represent them—their lives and creativity—by displaying all the work that remains as a mass representation, however fulfilled or fragmentary. These displays might stand as living markers of a brutal, premature mortality on a scale that the world perhaps has not seen since the plagues of the Middle Ages.
In Other Insights
This article first appeared in Cultured Magazine on 20 June 2019.
Today’s queer painters grew up in a very different world from their predecessors. A generation removed from the AIDS crisis, these artists came of age with relative freedom and security. Now, they are embracing the canon, looking far back into the history of figurative painting and making it their own. I visited the studios of seven of these artists, talking with them about what drives their work and their expansive visions for what it can mean for the world.
Fifty years ago, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were hailed as artistic geniuses. They were also classified as sharing the same major mental disorder: homosexuality was regarded as an illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973. The state violently policed homosexual activity by raiding gay bars and monitoring any suspiciously pro-homosexual material sent through the postal system. Today, 50 years after the Stonewall riots, which ignited the international LGBTQ+ Liberation Movement and overthrew the draconian political and medical systems of control, overt expressions of queer identity in art have become commonplace.
A generation of American artists are turning to figurative painting to explore queer intimacy
Given this freedom of expression, a generation of American artists, growing up in the wake of the AIDS epidemic and enjoying more political freedom—relatively speaking—than their predecessors, are turning to the traditional realm of figurative painting to explore queer intimacy. From antiquity through the 19th century, the majority of bodies represented in paintings have been either those of the ruling class or idealized forms representative of those who could afford to commission artworks. Here, we look to seven queer artists who utilize the aesthetic tool box of the European canon—which until recently would have excluded most of them due to their race or sex (closeted white male painters have traditionally enjoyed more artistic visibility)— to depict themselves and their loved ones, asserting the value of their experience through the form of figurative painting.
Just as this is the first generation to choose which aspects of the dominant social order, such as marriage and child-rearing, they want in their lives, so too are they choosing only what suits their needs from the art historical establishment. Unlike the artists active during the AIDS crisis like David Wojnarowicz, Félix González-Torres, Marlene McCarty, and others, who were pushed to the margins of society, this generation of queer artists do not take overt political action or mourn the rampant loss of loved ones in their works.
While all of them incorporate the figure, they do not quote the sculpted white male bodies of Paul Cadmus, Jared French or other painters who focused on idealized male nudes in the decades before Stonewall. Rather, many of the precedents for this generation are male stalwarts of the European canon—Thomas Gainsborough, Diego Velazquez, Édouard Manet, Édouard Vuillard and others.
These artists use a queer lens to deconstruct not only notions of sexuality enshrined in the canon and in today’s society, but also assumptions surrounding gender expression and identity, class and race, all of which are grafted onto the physical body. As certain individuals of the queer community—most notably, white gay men— enjoy greater acceptance in America, many other cohorts of this broad network still face demeaning and dangerous assumptions from the mainstream. Taken together, the works of these artists display a diverse and complex vision of queerness today, advocating for an expanded and inclusive visibility.
Salman Toor (born 1983)
Salman Toor’s The Bar on East 13th (2019) pays homage to Manet’s 1882 A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which depicts a stoic female bartender gazing directly at the viewer, the reflection of an obscured male patron in the mirror behind her the specter of the male gaze. Unlike the barmaid who is resigned to her objectification (some believe her to be a prostitute), the genderqueer bartender in Toor’s painting seems emboldened, demurely eyeing the attractive stranger in the mirror. Directly contrasting the rigid gender and sexual roles presented in Manet’s work, Toor’s painting presents queer people freely engaging in erotic and platonic reverie.
I wanted to find a way to show my personal stories and the stories of my community like that
Born in Pakistan, Toor’s first visit to the National Gallery in London shook open a new world for him. “I was a Muslim outsider, so I had no idea what these Christian stories were, but because they were so gorgeous, I wanted to know everything about them—and I wanted to find a way to show my personal stories and the stories of my community like that.” Toor’s figures often quote the flamboyant dress of these painted figures—mainly brown queer men—in a fusion of contemporary and Orientalist garb, recasting the xenophobic fantasy that European artists applied to depictions of his country and culture.
As with Manet’s painting, Toor’s work foregrounds the view of the bartender through the mirror behind the bar. The perspectives of the subject and the viewer are unified through the mirror’s reflection, foregrounding the artist’s interest in double consciousness, the way in which minorities see themselves reflected through the gaze of dominant society. As a brown man living in a time of heightened xenophobia, the artist notes the suspicion with which some white Americans view him. Conversely, in Pakistan, the topic of the artist’s sexuality is never openly discussed in the art press. However, Toor finds levity in the code switching that is required to negotiate his identity. This quality of play and gliding between cultures animates Toor’s vibrant canvases.
Jenna Gribbon (born 1978)
Jenna Gribbon approaches the canon like a bull in a china shop, with her interest in the painterly and physical architecture of classic Eurocentric aesthetics immediately visible in Pollyanna Wrestlers (2018). In the painting, she places two female wrestlers in an antiquarian room, the traditional domain of women in repose. Painted to recall the 1960 Disney film “Pollyanna“, the room becomes a psychological space in which the artist revisits her own early encounters with cultural signifiers.
Gribbon’s female wrestlers—often based on her girlfriend or close friends—figure prominently in her practice. “These came from thinking about the trope of wrestlers, which are usually men. It seemed interesting to flip it and have them be female. There is also a tongue-in-cheek aspect, since they are playful and not actual wrestlers. It’s also erotic. There’s something funny about it. There’s something playful and maybe violent.” The complexities of Gribbon’s positioning of women is a direct rebuttal to the staid figures crafted for the male gaze by art historical heroes like Gainsborough and Jean-Antoine Watteau. “I was trying to find a new way to love those problematic paintings,” Gribbon says. “There’s the issue of loving paintings of women, but then the problematic history of paintings of women.”
Part of Gribbon’s reclaiming of female beauty comes from her use of camp, an aesthetic strategy with deep roots in queer history. Delineated in Susan Sontag’s notorious 1964 essay Notes on “Camp,” the camp sensibility humorously blends elements of high and low culture to create an open aesthetic of exaggerated performance. Sontag noted that in the pre-Stonewall gay male community, this sensibility was the dominant social currency. Queer artists and performers as diverse as Warhol, John Waters and RuPaul have defined practices around camp. “Camp takes risks and sometimes it falls on its face,” Gribbon says.
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer (born 1979)
The title of Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s It’s a Sports Bar But it Used to be a Gay Bar (2016) instantly identifies the queer figures at the lower edge of the work as the original inhabitants of a place now repurposed for a straight clientele. The gay ghosts and sports fans are thoroughly enjoying themselves in the same space, but in different ways—the former intently locking eyes, the latter cheering at screens.
Dupuy-Spencer’s painting of intimately-engaged queer couples foregrounds the development of empathy that occurs in queer individuals as a result of coming to terms with their inherent difference from established heteronormative narratives. “Confronting shame and trauma, knowing we are never going to fit in, queer people pick up a hypervigilance and awareness about what other people are feeling. That is empathy.” Holding the traumas of her queerness in one hand, Dupuy-Spencer simultaneously considers the privilege of her whiteness. “I keep my finger on the problem of whiteness, but also have a compassion for the people I grew up with. There is a huge fear around facing the history of our whiteness and the position that it gives us now, which is only possible if it holds other people back.”
But rather than focus on the criticisms, Dupuy-Spencer sees painting as a space for potential reconciliation. “There needs to be a way to commune with those that are other than you,” she offers. “Painting is an act of healing. I believe that it’s possible to have done this hard work and the healing that comes to me also comes to the viewer.”
Jonathan Lyndon Chase (born 1989)
In Men on Wet Bed (2018), Jonathan Lyndon Chase completely dissolves the distinction between two lovers’ bodies, depicting the figures as a gyrating vortex of erotic energy, riffing off Futurist and Cubist techniques to show various perspectives of the subject in motion. The field of the bed mirrors the ecstasy of the figures, as the room blooms into fields of fiery color, evoking the ways in which Francis Bacon’s figures morph within abstracted realms. The painting depicts a fulfilling sexual encounter between queer black men, a necessary representation of a marginalized community, which Chase explores in the majority of his oeuvre.
Interested in issues around bodies, pleasure and ideas of masculinity, Chase has developed a specific pictorial device, termed an “eight,” to address the unified male body. “There are infinity circles and loops that focus on pleasure points like the anus. The prostate is an interior world of pleasure that most people are denying themselves.”
In Men on Wet Bed, the eights appear as mouths, nipples and anuses, swirling together in an erotic dance, a direct contrast to the ultimate male symbol of the phallus. While the phallus has become a symbol of differentiation between the sexes through dominance, “eights” seek to unify the sexes and unburden men from their phallocentric ideas of masculinity.
Chase’s works affirm the ability of the viewer to evolve and overcome the limiting structures of society. “I am trying to put out work that can be meditative, reflective and healing in many ways. I’m interested in Buddhism and self-mastery—thinking of how we can get closer to ourselves.”
Anthony Cudahy (born 1989)
Anthony Cudahy sourced the central image for his 2018 painting Everard (stage) from news footage of a 1977 fire that devastated the Everard Baths, a crucial meeting space for the New York queer community for much of the 20th century. “Nine people died in the fire, so in the top row are nine stand-in/spectators/angels. They are meant to point to this event being on a continuum, just as the stage aspect does,” he explains. The bathhouse was “a dangerous place to be in physically, but was a safe space socially. The windows were boarded up to add a layer of privacy and thus safety, so when the fire happened, people couldn’t get out.”
The three men on the stage—the physical embodiment of a support structure—serve as both the fundamental narrative of the painting and a symbol of the importance of queer safety networks, a theme Cudahy relates to sentinel theory, which claims that specific individuals in a species have evolved to remain awake in the evening hours to protect those who are sleeping. “People who are drawn to that act of trying to preserve a history that’s been covered up act like sentinels,” he says. “The past becomes a place that is not closed off.” By re-contextualizing past images to address the present, the artist speaks to the continuum of queer experience across generations. “I really like the word ‘tender’ because it has the romantic side to it and also the pain of something like a bruise,” he says, reflecting on the ways in which establishing intimacy requires the potentially dangerous act of exposing the innermost aspects of identity.
Doron Langberg (born 1985)
The figures in Doron Langberg’s Louis, Tristan and Sarah (2017) are all in unisex clothing, obscuring the gender identity of the two without facial hair. The relationship between the figures is not clear. There is warmth and love, the exact terms of which are not defined. The 2017 painting contains enough details to suggest the figures are at ease in a safe space but remains open enough to allow for multiple readings of their relationships. The structure of the painted space is just as open—the sofa is a cloud bleeding into the figures, made even more opaque in contrast to the carpet, where the empty bowl reads more like an absence than an object with weight.
“Once you try to pinpoint exactly what makes the painting queer, it dissolves,” Langberg explains of his approach. “I love the idea that the form itself, the lens, is queer. It’s not that this brushstroke is gay and this one is not, but that the slippage is echoed in the way the paintings are made.” The very openness and antipathy to fixed narratives displayed in the paintings are also hallmarks of the artist’s life. “What conventions am I questioning and what am I accepting? It’s the same with constructing a painting. These paintings echo the way I see my life right now. Some aspects are finely honed, and the rest is very open.”
Langberg’s subjects span everything from portraits of friends and family to images of sex, though, he notes, many collectors shy away from the erotic paintings. “In art, depictions of straight desire can be about war, peace, God, anything you want,” he says. “But when a gay person does this, the work is immediately reduced to being only about sex.” While straight male desire can be used as a symbolic device, as in Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), or as a formal device for constructing abstract compositions as per Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso, the erotic images constructed from the gay male gaze can only be pornographic to straight eyes—a historical trend Langberg is specifically interested in challenging. “I want my experiences as someone from a more marginalized viewpoint to stand in for more than one thing. I want what I depict to be a nexus for the viewer’s experience as well, regardless of where they are coming from.”
Zoe Walsh (born 1989)
Planes of cyan, magenta and yellow float within an infinite white void, intersecting to create boldly-hued figures, architecture and spaces of pure abstraction. Two embracing figures repeat in different forms, hovering somewhere between reflection, shadow and the material. Zoe Walsh’s 2018 painting loop, pull, bleed reveals no narrative. “It alludes to the painting process, camera movements and Photoshop layering effects,” Walsh explains. “I was thinking about the different forms of movement in each medium.”
“Pleasure is sacred to my work. It started with my interest in film spectatorship and a desire to create a space for a trans identification rooted in visual pleasure,” says Walsh of her interest in creating an aesthetic of trans-subjectivity untethered to the strictures of the gender binary.
Taking cues from the ways in which Warhol used silk screen techniques to deconstruct glamour and celebrity, Walsh turns to highly constructed images of gender and sexuality, namely photographs of actors on the set of the 1984 gay porn film Ramcharger. The erotic depictions of gay cowboys in the desert are processed through SketchUp and Photoshop, eventually appearing as genderless figures in the paintings. “These levels of transformation from the source material help me find ways to talk about a particular subjectivity that is about watching from a distance, imagining something that is not actually there,” says Walsh.
By removing the hyper-masculine signifiers of the photographs, Walsh reverses the societal mechanisms of gendering. While the genderless figures appear to exist outside of societal restraints, the images do not escape the specificity of their source material. There is no amount of reconfiguration that can fully erase the gender structures that serve as the architecture of the painting. “I want to talk about that space that is shifting and expanding, while also having some specificity based in queer source material. The works stop short at articulating a fixed subjectivity.”
In Other Insights
Desire, sexuality, and gender identity have been embraced through the language of abstraction by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer artists since the turn of the 20th-century, yet their specific contributions are only now being recognized by art historians, critics, curators and galleries—who are increasingly referring to the work as “queer abstraction.” It is in abstraction that the complexities of sexuality and gender identity can be visualized (though there is, of course, no single definition of queer abstraction: any attempt to do so would be counterintuitive to its open-ended ethos).
Queer abstraction can be thought of as a strategy deployed by queer artists who refuse to create work that is representational, instead manipulating a style of art that has already been accepted into the canon of art history. Take the vibrant forms created by Carrie Moyer: to me, they are reminiscent of work by Forrest Bess, the Texan artist who was given his first exhibition by legendary New York dealer Betty Parsons in 1949. Bess’s biomorphic pictures were part of his lifelong attempts to merge masculine and feminine energies.
A self-described “peculiar homosexual”, Bess felt like an “oddity” because of his rough nature in comparison to more effeminate gay men he knew. Bess struggled with his identity while living on a remote strip of land in Texas and, in works like The Hermaphrodite (1957), his intimate, dark palette communicates a sense of isolation. It also attempts to visualize a body that defies gender norms through a central organic form.
Slipperiness of gender
In the vein of the biomorphic forms Bess uses in works like The Hermaphrodite to refer to gender fluidity, Moyer’s work has a slipperiness. She riffs off gender norms while suggesting their ambivalence: she has called the tangerine-hued shape towards the lower portion of Jolly Hydra: Unexplainably Juicy (2017) a “funny-looking, flat pair of breasts,” and the forms erupting from them as “rubbery phalluses.” Her bright, matte colors are reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs, or the stains in Helen Frankenthaler’s color field paintings, and her work appears to fluctuate between two-and-three-dimensional space.
Meanwhile, the Californian artist Edie Fake is compelled to use the intricacies of architecture—nooks and crannies, hallways, stairways—as a metaphor for the complexities of bodies that do not neatly fit into the male-female binary. In The Keep (2018), Fake’s zigzags and recurring motifs allude to bodies that cohabit one space. In the foreground a gate guards this space, which is similar to the artist’s earlier works reimagining the façades of gay bars which no longer exist. The artist’s pictorial assertion of a safe environment for queer individuals is important, as dedicated bars—and especially spaces for lesbians, trans, and genderqueer people—are gradually being destroyed as part of gentrification in major metropolitan cities and surrounding suburbs.
The sense of secret codes reminds me of the works of American artist Marsden Hartley who, between 1913 and 1915, when he lived in Berlin, produced a series of dynamic works referred to as the “German Paintings”, illustrating the pageantry and musculature of the German military through icons and symbols. He executed Portrait of a German Officer (1914) for his lover Karl von Freyburg after the soldier’s death in battle at the beginning of the First World War. Hartley depicts von Freyburg’s likeness through a combination of cubist flat planes and German expressionist marks. The work is filled with Hartley’s own visual lexicon in commemoration of von Freyburg: the initials K. v.F. for Freyburg’s name; the number 24 for Freyburg’s age at death; and the epaulet shaped like an E for Marsden Hartley’s given name, “Edmund.” Hartley’s coding in the work masks his desire for the younger soldier: which he was required to hide in fear of criminal sentencing, social isolation or physical harm.
For other artists, generosity becomes the meaningful gesture. The sculptures and installations produced by Félix González-Torres between the late 1980s up until his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1996 are synonymous with Minimalism and Conceptualism. His works of art, however, are imbued with emotional subtexts that address love, loss, and the politics of the queer body.
An openly gay man living during a tumultuous period of right-wing conservatism in the United States and at the height of the AIDS crisis, he strategically found a way to visually express queerness through work that would appear non-threatening to heterosexual audiences at the time. “Untitled” (1995) for example, features two brass rings hanging side-by-side. The rings may allude to wedding bands or, because they slightly touch and form the figure eight, a symbol of eternal love. This motif is found elsewhere in González-Torres’s work, including “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1991) where two clocks hang side-by-side, and “Untitled” (Double Portrait) (1991), a paper stack with two rings printed upon the sheets.
The titles of these objects expand and solidify the ring motif’s importance, making them more synonymous with two bodies or, more importantly, two identical lovers. In many instances, González-Torres’s work allows viewers to take pieces of the art with them. For “Untitled” (Double Portrait), viewers can remove sheets of paper from the sculpture. This act is two-fold: it subverts the longstanding policy that forbids interaction with fine art, but more importantly, as the sculpture slowly disappears it suggests the artist’s experience of witnessing his partner, Ross Laycock, and his community succumb to the ravages of AIDS.
Purity in Geometry
Inspired by the discreet work of Félix González-Torres, London-based Prem Sahib manipulates the quietude of Minimal forms to communicate his own experience as a gay man. In Roots (2018), he embraces the search for purity in the geometry that many of the Minimalists explored in the 1960s. Distinct from those works, however, Sahib’s stealth object is loaded with visceral narrative. The drinking fountain the artist has encased in resin came from the now closed Shoreditch branch of Chariot’s, a gay bathhouse chain in London now reduced to a single site in Vauxhall.
Work by these artists—and 12 others—are included in the exhibition “Queer Abstraction” at the Des Moines Art Center (until 8 September), which I curated. The show marks a major milestone for the museum as the first exhibition in the institution’s history to focus on queer subject matter. The exhibition hopes to expand the capability of abstract art to express queer experience. These artists have intelligently capitalized on abstract art’s limitless possibilities to circumvent structured binaries. During this current unsettling era, where marginalized communities—especially the Transgender community—have increasingly become the subject of attack, abstraction ultimately promises safety for queer expression—just as it has for more than a century and will, hopefully, continue to do so into the future.
“Queer Abstraction” at the Des Moines Art Center was commended by the 2018 Sotheby’s Prize.
In Must See
Linder Stirling, best known as Linder, came of age in the underground punk and post punk scene of late 1970s and early 1980s Manchester, where she shared a flat with Buzzcocks front man Howard Devoto and forged a lifelong friendship with Morrissey of The Smiths. It was at this time that she changed her name and took up the scalpel, finding that making photomontages suited the instantaneous do-it-yourself spirit of the times. “Musically, sartorially and graphically we started to cut things up,” she remembers.
Well versed in feminist literature, Linder critiqued and debunked gender roles by slicing images from men’s, women’s and pornographic magazines and reconfiguring them in provocative combinations. Genitals, body parts and facial features were supplanted by household appliances, plants and confectionary and her now classic cover for the Buzzcocks’ 1977 single Orgasm Addict, featuring a hard-bodied naked female with her head replaced by an iron and two toothy smiles for nipples, was famously banned by the BBC.
In recent years Linder’s enduringly inventive feminist images have received a more sympathetic reception. For her latest photomontages, made especially for the Monteverdi Gallery in Tuscany, she continues to wield her blade to play with and off assumptions around the feminine. The gallery is in a hilltop medieval village overlooking the Val d’Orcia, a region of such outstanding beauty that it is a UNESCO world heritage site. In response to this idyllic, bucolic setting, Linder is presenting a series of nudes in outdoor settings whose bodies are disquietingly fused with plant and animal life.
Her primary source for these bizarre hybrids is She Walks in Beauty, a 1964 book of al fresco female pin-ups by British photographer and film-maker Harrison Marks, the man who coined the term “glamour” photography. Onto his exaggeratedly posed and airbrushed models Linder has added extravagant elements of flora and fauna which both accentuate and obscure the anatomies beneath. She is especially fond of roses, and whether singly or in multiples in more than half the works on show these ubiquitous symbols of love and romance erupt out of torsos and cover faces with such exuberance that they often threaten to take over completely.
As in all Linder’s work, immediately arresting imagery belies more complicated and contradictory readings. The forcefully smothering flowers, the swooping butterfly that blots out a face with a tip of its wing or the conjoined pair of spike-edged shells that seem poised to snap shut and encase the model within, all question just how benign such a close congress with Mother Nature might be. In one particularly disconcerting case a tiny sliver of buttock and a sweep of blonde hair is all that can be seen peeping out from the very edge of a shell that covers the rest of the image in a surface so shiny and pink as to be almost obscenely visceral.
Engulfed by suggestive organic forms and sometimes with various wild creatures in attendance, these sanitized 1960s pinups assume a new sexually potent identity. Each one’s title is a different name for the Hindu deity Lakshmi but here, in the land of the Romans and Etruscans, their soft porn poses also seem to echo those of classical sculpture.
On the walls of Monteverdi Gallery, looking out on to the undulating landscape that rises up around Monte Cetona, which also appears to resemble a gigantic reclining nude, Linder’s profane goddesses have found their natural habitat.
“Linder: Trip the Shutter”, Monteverdi Gallery, Castiglioncello del Trinoro, Sarteano, Italy. Until 25 August
Art Agency, Partners is a bespoke art advisory firm founded in 2014, and built upon decades of combined experience, to provide counsel to many of the world's leading art collectors and institutions on collection assessment and development, estate planning, and innovative approaches to museum giving and growth.