Queer Identity in Contemporary Art

I say Charles don’t you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?

— The Smiths, “The Queen is Dead”

The queer in the world, once relegated to closets and similarly dark corners of society, now visibly, vocally participates in the public sphere. Much of the cultural recognition and societal acceptance which the queer community enjoys is due to the work of artists whose political frustrations significantly shaped their creative vision. As a result, not only did queers increase their capital and influence in society, but also the whole notion of queerness and its myriad iterations charged parallel social movements — for example, feminism and transgenderism — as it repeatedly turned over its own identity, engaging and enveloping alternate definitions of itself.

When one attempts to visualize a definition for the term “queer,” however, there may arise those stereotypical images that have historically existed as twisted, base representations for those lacking a certain sensibility, caricatures derived in part from the performative realities within a subculture. There is the frenetic drag queen, a furiously sharp assemblage of camp and dedication, decked in dime store dressery and drenched in even cheaper water-of-the-toilet — perhaps a son wearing his mother’s wedding dress. And there is the hot leather dyke, genderfucking archetypes of masculinity on a warm summer’s sidewalk, each clack of her spurs resonating in step and each flap of her chaps firmly buffeting against her naked loins. “Queer” transcends hard stereotypes, too, on its best days, as a possibility closeted youth look toward, striving to restructure their identity from one hidden in a suburban closet to one tentatively proud in public.

Queer is just another ad hoc social construct. Queer is goth. Queer is leather. Queer is lace. Queer is bleached blond. Queer is the baseball pitcher chatting up the boys at the bar while wearing women’s panties underneath his jock strap — for good luck, naturally. Queer is, like a cheap trick, defined loosely.

Directing an analytic gaze upon varied iterations of queerness from the post-DOMA marriage triumphs of late, through the Reagan-induced AIDS crisis years, and toward the revolutionary Stonewall riots, one can knit the genesis for queer identity today. Certainly, the recent wave of gay marriage marks a high point in the history of homosexuality and defines us anew as it simultaneously normalizes gayness for future generations. Yet, in attempting to define gayness or lesbianness or queerness seriously, often with sassy aplomb, contemporary theorists, scholars, and critics have occasionally wrestled with the sensibility’s boundaries and hopes for its future. And the positions they take can be surprising, since some have argued against the equalized position in which we now find ourselves. But, each historical moment demonstrates fundamental elements in queerness that persist in its present definitions — resistance to homogeneity, identification as a threat to the status quo, vulnerability under a ruling class and exclusion from its domain, and a predilection for abstraction inspired by queer’s smoky, nebulous beginnings — and these elements pulsate in contemporary art today, as politically and socially charged as the visual heritage from which they follow.

For instance, José Esteban Muñoz, the radically influential queer theorist and performance studies professor, whose recent unexpected death saddened the worldwide queer community, wrote in his 2007 essay “Queerness as Horizon” about what he saw as a threat to queer identity. Muñoz then saw various facets of LGBT activism, mere months before the controversies of California’s Proposition 8 riled the nation, misunderstand freedom in a typically capitalist, politically imperialist American way. In particular, he saw efforts to legalize gay marriage, often billed as a part of homosexuals’ freedom due, as just funneling queers into “a corrupt and bankrupt social order,” which, along with similar efforts, he considered “assimilationist gay politics.” [1] His position isn’t uncommon, as what queer isn’t is homogenization; queer is typically a standing out, often for politicized reasons, but occasionally just because. Despite arguments crying for equal rights, Muñoz recognized marriage for its unqueer qualities and modes of normalization, and so did Paula Ettlebrick as she worked in 1997 for the Empire State Pride Agenda, an LGBT advocacy organization. She similarly feared assimilation would “undermine the goals of gay liberation,” which she viewed not just as acceptance of “gay identity,” but also recognition of the traditionally non-traditional and widely varied types of queer relationships. [2]

Untitled #1 Catherine Opie, 2009

Untitled #1, 2009
Catherine Opie

Yet queer, in terms of marriage and institution, can even be derived from heterosexuality. In “Belonging(s): Plural Marriage, Gay Marriage and the Subversion of ‘Good Order,'” William Handley analyzes key moments in American discourse in which various popular figures — senators, advice columnists — argued for the use of a particular terminology in codifying the civil right of marriage for homosexual parties, and compares the practice to other, historical instances of non-normative unions. Importantly, using the example of Mormon plural marriage, which was thought to guarantee eternal happiness in the celestial Kingdom of God, he points out how “American anxiety was not over a word,” rather the private activity of citizens intimately uniting as they wished. [3] Polygamy was eventually proscribed in the United States by way of a unanimous Supreme Court decision denying its protection as a civil right under freedom of religion, with justices (and the general consensus of the public) viewing it as dangerous to order in society; yet, even in this exclusively heterosexual marriage duplex, traditionalists versus polygamists, an existence of a queer Other was perceived as threatening. [4] The grand irony, of course, is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a proponent of and one of the largest fundraisers for California’s Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage, which thereby united Mormons to homosexuals eternally, as the rhetoric used during their campaign employed the very same arguments once applied against their own religious community, used, it was claimed, “to save traditional marriage,” but certainly to debase and vilify the homosexual community at-large, too.

Accepting that heterogeneity and perception as a threat are elements of queer, the latter by way of strange bedfellows, one can identify that queer also entails vulnerability. This fact was no better demonstrated than during the Reagan years as HIV and AIDS frightfully kidnapped the minds of our nation and indiscriminately murdered hearts throughout gay communities. The AIDS crisis perhaps also ranks as the greatest queer-specific art period to date — its necessary, propaganda-like presence a key tactic in calling attention to the plight equally facing homosexual women, men, and a mass of heterosexuals in deep denial. “Whether HIV-positive or not, every gay artist has been jarred into an awareness of cruel, early death, as the number of obituary columns grows daily,” wrote John Rechy, a revered gay Chicano author, during the crisis’s infancy. [5] Too many great artists ended up in those columns, and scores more, from the loss of time or a simple overshadowing by more prominent names, perished into oblivion having never latched onto their ultimately deserved recognition. And the shadow of David Wojnarowicz, a great artist wrestling with his own encroaching mortality, will always stand tall in the genealogy of a queer archetype. In a 1991 diary entry, Wojnarowicz scribed:


He was dead less than a year later. [6]

Wojnarowicz’s writings and art work explicitly reflect a vulnerable queer identity of the time. In 1979, before the tide of death hit the shores, and later in 1982 as it was beginning, he was using his Burning House image, a simple red form with flames emanating from its windows, in graffiti throughout New York City. [7][8] “I felt tense and beautiful and vulnerable and sad,” reads his May 31, 1979 journal entry, near the time he began to work with Burning House, written as he prepared to depart from a long stint in Paris and return to New York, leaving behind cherished lovers and friends, and having just given a goodbye letter to a man who deeply, intimately affected him — a genuine intimacy foreign to him thus far. [9] In fact, much of his diaries detail his constant reconciliation with a vulnerable life: first as a coming-of-age tale escaping the emotional confines of an abusive father, exiting into homosexuality completely, and hustling predatory city streets; later as a poignant, upsetting, and infuriating analysis of mortality and the world from which he was slowly exiting a memory at a time. Wojnarowicz’s Burning House not only perfectly summarizes the artist’s history and spirit — a trailer he once lived in was set ablaze by a friend, and he recalls having “barely escaped the flames” — but also the smoldering gay subculture he saw wither “as poverty spread throughout the country under the Reagan administration.” [10] The social structure of the gay underground had been his true home, and the conservatism of the 1980s, along with HIV/AIDS, razed the playgrounds of his adolescence and dark backrooms of his manhood, scorching the walls of his memories. One adolescent recollection, though, held firm. “[F]ell in love with a woman. Had a relationship for half a year. Stopped when I realized I was truly queer,” he says of his final years as a teenager in 1972-1973, right before moving to San Francisco. [11] “Lived openly as a queer and realized how healthy and calm I felt as a result,” he admits, a significant reward for honestly, nakedly thrusting oneself into the world.

Burning House, David Wojnarowicz ca. 1979-1982

Burning House, ca. 1979-1982
David Wojnarowicz
stencil and spray paint

While vulnerability appears in each of our lives at some point, with some intensity, to some effect, the especial danger of one’s marginalized existence heightens its threat and amplifies cries to overcome its state. Accordingly, Wojnarowicz’s being will always reign as a progenitor of queer subjectivity because he revealed the experience of pushing into a resistant, dominating society hellbent on barring a humane embrace of one’s public, yet intimate, non-heteronormative sexuality; moreover, his appropriately threatening art work emulated the decay to which queer artists were vulnerable should that resistance persist, the threat of perishing into a completely marginal world whose scarred landscape, fraught with the emotional terrors of exclusion and oppression and silent death — a diseased world — would burn.

David Wojnarowicz’s queer was vulnerable, but strong, and extinguished in part by his government’s failure to confront the epidemic at hand. His politically motivated body of work reflected this, and in other more explicit ways than just the simple symbolism of a home on fire. Another artist of the time captured the queer element of absence, usually experienced as a result of society’s ostracization or the fear of coming out, but in this case, as a result of loss and confusion. As a self-described “black dyke,” a representative of an oft overlooked part of the queer community, Lola Flash gives through her photography a unique permanence to the void opened up by the AIDS crisis. [12] Her 1989 work For Ray places a lone, empty wheelchair on a sloped, naked landscape, the print chromatically altered to look hallucinatory. The wheelchair faces the viewer, but appears to be rolling backward down a hill, away from us, soon to disappear into oblivion. The composition is tense; as the lightest form in the work, the wheelchair, a stark monochromatic yellow discernible only by its undeniable silhouette, immediately draws one’s eye into its seat. A viewer sits in its precarious position, disabled, helpless, suddenly confronting their own mortality in juxtaposition to that of an absent other. From this barren, inevitable future, the disappeared reappear in our dreams, as well as nightmares like the one painted here with Flash’s lens and darkroom work.

For Ray is significant for its use of negative space to represent once-present being, but as a photographer who often works in conventional portraiture, Flash also examines the visual presence with which one can define herself as queer. When asked whether one can even define queer, and using her practice as a fulcrum for her answer, Flash states:

I shoot people who loom around these blurred boundaries which used to be unthinkable, yet now people who are “straight/gay” or “male/female,” have [a lot] more fun with their identity. Society, especially the gay community, used to be really tough on people that live in the middle, so to speak. In college, the older dykes used to have a real problem with me because, at that time I used to like to wear lipstick. They did not believe that I was gay, and this only drove me to continue such practices, and even throw in wearing a skirt, too. [13]

Interestingly, she alerts us to the absence and exclusion one can feel even from within the queer community, a phenomenon which, though it strangely exists, is antithetical to the queer archetype facet of being non-homogenous. To discover oneself inhabiting a negative space within an already societally negative space is disconcerting, and Flash’s experience of exclusion demonstrates the pervasiveness of such a practice within human behavior. Compounded by the societally imposed liabilities of blackness and womanhood by a white patriarchy, Flash’s presence and work was and remains an important part in identifying and unblurring each queer sister and brother from amongst the artistic community.

Angry Louise, Louise Fishman 1973 (photo: James Wagner)

Angry Louise, 1973
Louise Fishman
acrylic, charcoal and pencil on paper
Photo: James Wagner

The exclusionism of queerness in and outside its own sphere that Flash experienced in her college years was well-known before she even reached her teens. In 1969, when Flash was only ten years-old, LGBT activist Carl Wittman penned “A Gay Manifesto” on the tail of the counterculture Summer of Love and the dawn of the modern gay rights movement just set off by the Stonewall Riots in New York City. [14] Commenting on lesbianism and male chauvinism, in which he points out the latter amongst the gay community, Wittman, using common slurs of the time — “[c]hick equals nigger equals queer” — demonstrates the offensive magnitude which “queer” used to carry on the street. [15] “Queer” was once heavily derogatory, entrapping, a one-word sentence damning its convicts beyond the margins, used with the intent to divide and subjugate; some may even say, as “nigger” certainly still does today, that the term retains its ability to inflict fear and belittlement, especially so in those places where racism, homophobia, and misogyny persist as norms. This off-putting sentiment held for some time, and like the notion of gay marriage, the re-appropriation of “queer” has not been universally embraced. Rechy, in the same article in which he lamented the community’s growing loss during the AIDS crisis, also offered commentary on the term. “Many of you have chosen to call yourselves ‘queers,'” he begins. “I and others of my generation and later will never use the word queer to identify ourselves or each other,” he continues, noting the term’s vicious history and its habitual use by “gay bashers, including cops.” [16] This inciteful facet of its definition will always color the implied dominant authority within its use, and like every aspect of language, especially when deployed in art work, context is the ultimate determiner of its purpose. As such, the term’s multifarious implications of its past checker its fluidity in the present.

Historically, the subjective experience of uncovering one’s queer from the self’s margins, the process of coming out and leaving the closet, can be blindingly abstract: a fluid process in which one’s self-understanding and self-definition depended on access to the still-hidden queer subcultures prior to the coming out revolution of the 1990s, spurred in part by Ellen Degeneres’ own very public reveal. [17] Painter Louise Fishman expresses this sort of historical union between queerness and abstraction in a 1994 Art in America interview with Holland Cotter, who looked back at twelve artists working around the time of the Stonewall Riots. Fishman identifies her marginal origins by remarking that as a youth in the 1950s she was “a tomboy, I was a completely alien creature.” [18] She describes her natural fit into Abstract Expressionism, a style of work that typically champions covered meanings, by saying that “Abstract Expressionist work was an appropriate language for me as a queer,” a language she appropriately describes as “hidden.” [19]

Angry Paintings, Louise Fishman 1973 (photo: James Wagner)

Angry Paintings, 1973
Louise Fishman
installation view, 2008
MoMA PS1, Queens, NY
Photo: James Wagner

Fishman, well-versed in both the early feminist and lesbian movements, uses text within her work, directly implementing language as a primary mode of journaling “longings” and their emotional complements. [20] Her series Angry Paintings (1973), whose textual core is “angry” and responds to the misogynistic subjugation which she and other women had to overcome, is a notable example of such semantic endeavors. [21] She composed the paintings so that words range from blatantly recognizable to wholly abstracted, and the words are paired with names of other women in Fishman’s life. Frenetic scratches mix with wide, confident strikes of the brush. Like the words themselves, colors can appear saturated and distinct, or muddied into hot, vitriolic conflagrations turning toward a smoky grey, wanton chromatic explication of the seething emotion at her surface. Art historian David Deitcher provides an analysis of the series in his essay “Vitruvian Woman,” in which he also chronologizes her varied foci from the Holocaust to Chinese philosophy, calling Angry Paintings “stark and emphatic,” adumbrations of her practice’s future technical and conceptual accomplishments. With an admitted bias, art patron and Fishman’s neighbor James Wagner, on the occasion of the series’ 2008 exhibition at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, described the paintings as “gorgeous, but … also as ‘angry’ as they ever were,” nearly thirty-five years later. Deitcher and Wagner confirm the painter’s ability to translate emotional and semantical meaning into a visual field, as well as imbue a longevity in its vocal cries, echoes that importantly mark a turning point in queer herstories. But, more importantly, she demonstrates how we wrestle with language as both an expositional tool to convey our experience and as categorical labels bestowed upon us, their definitions accreted by society’s discourse-at-large and under which we often do not nicely fit. In this vein, queerness, much like gender, is traditionally applied by society before given the opportunity to self-define, rendering both spectra as a fatalist phenomena in which initially we find ourselves. Rechy, Wittman, Flash, and Wojnarowicz all transit through the same realization in some capacity, too, and as if a counter-heteronormative rite of passage, each has had to come to a decision whether to embrace the sensibility of queer and shift its definition by becoming a part of it, or scorn its use and identify with an alternative or nothing at all.

At this juncture, one should point out how queer has been institutionally decided while pausing to parse these conventional definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines queer in three modes: first, as an informal noun, “[a] homosexual man,” even more proof that Fishman’s anti-patriarchal echoes are as important as ever; second, as an informal verb, to spoil or ruin, certainly a historical derivation of a foolishly perceived malice which imagines the queer domain’s threat to colonize heterosexuality, plainly revealed in our attempts to destroy the Mormon paradigm of righteousness; and third, as an adjective, meaning strange or odd. Case in point, Cherríe Moraga — a lesbian, a Latina, and an artist — notes that in her youth she gravitated to the term “queer” as she associated it with her self-image as being “different, odd.” [22] Oddness as meaning something different that stands out certainly nods to the non-homogenous aspect of queer identity. But, strangeness as meaning something unfamiliar or alien is molting from queerness, particularly since queerness has assimilated with society; gay marriage, transgender beauty queens, out professional athletes, and publicly homosexual members of Congress are all regular parts of daily popular culture. This returns us to the concerns expressed by Muñoz and Ettlebrick: questioning to what extent does assimilation undermine or alter queerness, and perhaps more pressingly, explicating the sensibility of queerness today by analyzing recent work by queer contemporary artists.

To gauge how assimilation has affected queerness, one can turn to its own subcultures that have become somewhat banal or quotidian, in particular the leather and sadomasochistic communities. In his 1997 book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Harris chronicles how “essential elements of gay culture … have changed into their opposites,” and foretells of much of the homogenization and fetishization the queer community has undergone in the seventeen years since. He devotes a chapter to what he calls the “Metamorphosis of the Modern Dungeon,” tracking its arc from a post-war, veiled, misunderstood, underground lifestyle to a post-AIDS, on-the-street, (still) misunderstood fetish activity. He notes how sadomasochist practices, like homosexuality in general, were once considered an illness by the American Psychological Association, but are now instead the subject in a wide array of literature, entertainment, and scholarly investigations. Most interestingly, he argues that the rationalization of homosexuality in concert with the commercialization of sadomasochism’s ritual objects — such as leather, bullwhips, and dildos — an attempt to mold kink into a more politically correct community, and the infusion of spirituality into a once primarily corporeal activity, caused a transition from a notably gay, hierarchical, allegorically rich lifestyle to what he categorizes as bedroom versions of “S/M aestheticism.” And perhaps most damningly, he believes a simple change in language emasculated the community, “the shift from the word leathermen … to the word leatherfolk.”

Bo, Catherine Opie 1991

Bo, 1991
Catherine Opie

This last point is considerable as it reveals two things. First, it once again exemplifies the magnitude in which language affects queer communities, particularly when used as a categorical label, and, in this case, that he believes a slight shift of one word can amazingly take down a whole subculture suggests he would agree. Second, Harris does write his book from the strict perspective of a gay man, and though his concern with emasculation should be expected, his contempt for the terminological shift to a more inclusive categorization hints at a misogynistic selfishness supporting a belief that sadomasochism was a domain by and for men; moreover, that in his arguments he subsequently also hinges this particular fall of gay culture on the influences of feminism supports this character assessment.

Nevertheless, Harris makes some valid observations germane to changes in queerness and ironically we can juxtapose them with the work of a radically sadomasochistic lesbian artist, photographer Catherine Opie. In a 2001 interview with Maura Reilly, Opie explicitly states that her work “is about the whole queer community.” [23] Though she made this statement with respect to multiple series whose subjects were friends in the BDSM and leather dyke communities of which she was an active participant, it is clear that her entire body of work concerns an examination of queerness in general, even when not explicitly so.

Self Portrait/Nursing, Catherine Opie 2004

Self Portrait/Nursing, 2004
Catherine Opie

In two of her earlier series, Being and Having (1991) and Portraits (1993-97), as well as a collection of Self-Portraits, Opie confronted “her feeling of exclusion and invisibility within the lesbian community at large,” documented the kinky subcultures of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and revealed the various personalities and modalities she inhabits as an artist, in drag, enslaved, and as a mother. [24] Her work reveals how the fulcrums of identity and character are important in the practice of sexuality — especially the reassigning of gender as an unlimited tool that allows one to shape their perceived identity, something we can measure in the spectrum of her self-portraiture, first as her buzzcut, butch affect, plaid-donned drag persona Bo (1991), juxtaposed with her naked, evidently scarred, fecund nod to maternal love, Self Portrait/Nursing (2004). In the course of these thirteen years she transitions across the gender binary from a dressed-up dude to a denuded dame breastfeeding her son. Inasmuch as the two photographs examine representations of gender, the pair also questions the roles of parenthood: is she performing as a traditional mother; or, is Opie out of drag but in the persona of Bo, nursing as a father; or, has she united, perchance obliterated, the parental dichotomy altogether and instead embodies an all-encompassing role that speaks to no gendered position? [25] The actual imposition of that answer, however, really emanates within each viewer. Yet, perhaps this is another example of the disunfamiliarization of queerness, the movement of leatherman Bo to leatherfolk Cathy, that Harris laments in his book as an ending of queerness. The connecting of benevolent parenthood to radical pervert defuses the traditional threat associated with sadomasochism and leather cultures, a key element that relegated such participants into the queer pool. Be that as it may, this is an example of growth as a person, the maturation of a queer, and the refinement of one’s sensibilities capped with the experience of childbirth. And, like it or not, that maturation of queer roles in society at-large is unstoppable.

Another self-portrait speaks directly through the sadomasochistic queer, documenting her own maturation-in-progress. In Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), Opie faces away from the camera against a dark-green background faintly hinting of a baroque motif. Her hair is trimmed short and we see multiple piercings in each ear. She is shirtless, her broad shoulders nearly stretching the width of the frame, and as convincingly male with a linebacker physique as presumptively female from her adorned lobes. On her back, a childlike drawing of two skirt-wearing figures underneath a cloud and in front of a rudimentary house has been cut into her flesh; droplets of blood hover on her skin’s surface. [26] Predating her actual motherhood, we are again unsure if this is Bo or Cathy. And, her head, which appears ever-so-tipped to the left as if caught in that moment when one seesaws their noggin to and fro as they ponder an answer, intimates a state of inquiry — both reflective on her own past and deliberative of her possible futures — into a queer’s place in a family. In 2005, twelve years after this portrait and one year after the birth of her son, sociologist Alan Sears observes that the current tides in the LGBT movement emphasize “assimilation into an expanded conception of the family”; we see here that this is something Opie had already successfully pushed toward. [27]

Boy Scout Jamboree, Catherine Opie 2010

Boy Scout Jamboree, 2010
Catherine Opie

Some of Opie’s more recent work has since abandoned the explicitly queer subject matter of fresh-cut blood and genderbending for the broader American milieu of political rallies and communal gatherings. While some may consider her willingness to mingle at and photograph Tea Party rallies as overtly masochistic, her current, almost journalistic style nevertheless assists in an updating of queer by displaying that which “is visible or unseen in our relationships and our society,” allowing us to compare the visibly homosexual in an anti-Proposition 8 rally against the requisitely hidden gay youth embedded amongst the homogeneity of a Boy Scout Jamboree. [28] [29] The same undertaking can be had in her images of women participating at considerably homophobic Tea Party events with the wide array of non-men enjoying themselves at the radically diametric Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. By way of Opie’s lens, we see that queer is now homogenized, partly as the result of political and social progress in the past sixty years, winning acceptance in and support from conventionally non-queer factions of society; but, her lens also reveals a lingering vulnerability that threatens us — discrimination in the youth organization, albeit in a state of erosion, and a fearful hatred, like that against the Mormons in the days of polygamy, rendered by a so-called neo-revolutionary mob. It is also possible that she has touched upon something that the artist Ben Shahn categorized in his book The Shape of Content. He writes, “I have always held a notion of a healthy society as one in which the two opposing elements, the conservative and the creative (or radical, or visionary, or whatever term is best applied to the dissident), exist in a mutual balance.” Whether the current temperature of queerness persists in an equilibrium between the radical and the conservative remains to be seen. Regardless, queerness is changing its makeup inasmuch as it is retaining some of its historical formal elements, and Opie’s work has beautifully bound the queer story up to this point, frame by frame.

While Opie’s work touches upon what is perhaps the next large push of queer re-identification, transgenderism, painter Clarity Haynes provides us with a compassionate, yet meticulous look at the relationship between physical being and subjective experience. Haynes summarizes her work as a fascination with “the ways in which changing conventions reflect ideas about gender.” [30] And her Breast Portrait Project is an especially insightful way to examine those changes. She recruits sitters who are “cisgender women and trans* identified people” to remove their shirts and have their torso drawn or painted in various media. What viewers behold is an incredibly powerful juxtaposition of individuals who have willingly chosen to augment their bodies in order to transition their gender with women whose bodies have been augmented by mastectomies as a result of illnesses such as cancer.

Stephen, Clarity Haynes, 2012

Stephen, 2012
Clarity Haynes
sitter with artwork
Photo: Clarity Haynes

Stephan (2012) portrays an individual who has made the female-to-male transition. In a photograph of Stephan next to his completed portrait, we see him shirtless, stocky and attractive, sitting confidently upright like a bouncer outside a bar, ready to hold his ground. Since Haynes’ headless portrait, however, removes his facial affect, we are forced to concentrate on a part of the body not only coveted by heterosexual males as the sexual organs of a female being, but also coveted by heterosexual males themselves as musculature which represents masculine virility and strength. Knowing that Stephan is transgendered confuses and interrupts these notions of coveting, particularly since we are unaware of his own sexual desires, but Haynes doesn’t necessarily represent the sitter having undergone a transgendering process, either. We are then forced to confront the meanings of gender and sexuality in portions of flesh common to all individuals. Absent the artist’s conceptual groundings, Stephan’s history, and his sexual orientation, and facing an image which represents manliness, unknowing viewers are automatically exposed to their gender biases as they view breasts which were once female as imposed by societal convention and are now male as reorganized to be so. Moreover, the work leaves knowing viewers with the task of deciding whether gender even exists, particularly since many of the conclusions by unknowing viewers would likely contradict their own admitted, so-called true feelings on the matter, and its definition hinged on conventional impressions of flesh seems no more certain or definite than the temporal, decaying bodies we inhabit. In a statement by Stephan that accompanies its display on the website for the project, he says, “I look at Clarity’s image of shirtless me in front of me and see a man I can reckon with. When there were breasts on that torso, I couldn’t see him.” What Stephan confirms, as demonstrated by the artist’s process of revealing this through her work, is the body’s natural ineffectiveness in displaying who we are and its tendency to hide rather than reveal.

If one subscribes to Muñoz’s belief that “[q]ueer aesthetics attempt to call the natural into question,” then Haynes updates queer in an importantly relevant way for our time. [31] Even that old, genderless Grey Lady, The New York Times, is on the transgender beat. Writing on March 12, 2014, in his article “The Growing Transgender Presence in Pop Culture,” Jacob Bernstein points out that Cotter, who recently reviewed the 2014 Whitney Biennial, categorized the photography of Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker, two Los Angeles artists and a transgendered couple, as putting “queer consciousness on the front burner.” Except transgendered queer consciousness has been simmering for sometime, something artist Pilar Gallego brings up in a discussion of her practice that examines immigrant rights. Speaking with Lily Binns, a founder of the Queer/Art/Mentorship program in New York, Gallego describes the plight transgendered individuals face:

ID cards carry a lot of personal information, and this brings about major concerns for transgender and gender-variant people who fuck with the facts presented on identification cards. While making a correlation to the common practice amongst the transgender community to document one’s transition, I was thinking about what ID cards represent — a submission to authority […] .

This sort of vulnerability recalls the dire situation of the gay community under the Reagan regime, who were at the time painfully held in submission through impoverishment and insufficient medical action during the first HIV explosion; now, inaction is a willfully abstracting, lazy ignorance, which fails to recognize not only the need for a state to more appropriately categorize the identities of its peoples, but also the psychological detriment of continuing archaic designations.

Shante, Clarity Haynes 2010

Shante, 2010
Clarity Haynes
sitter with artwork
Photo: Clarity Haynes

In counterpoint to the transgender experience, Haynes’ portraits of women who have undergone medically necessary mastectomies grippingly draws out another queer inherency in the whole practice of gendering. Shante (2010) is such an example. Her right breast removed, we see the lopsided aftereffects of the asymmetrical surgery. Like Stephan, Shante only depicts a headless torso, and so the frame with which we are left, when discounted of its singular nipple and scarring and viewed as an abstraction, acts as a dyad of the formal contours of the cismale and cisfemale structures, fused at the sternum. The painting confronts viewers with a semi-transgendered body possessed by a woman who wishes to maintain her original biological gender orientation. “I’ve been able to access a femininity,” remarks Shante on Haynes’ website, “that has nothing to do with my breasts and everything to do with my comportment.” If we consider her comments, if we hold that bodies and identity are not integrally interconnected, believing that bodies are mediums for identity rather than identities existing for bodies — do gayness and lesbianness, traditionally delineated by the body parts of their possessors, shed relevancy and their relationships to queerness?

This question will be answered in time, certainly so if we believe, as Cotter does, that transgenderism and its new queer consciousness steams for attention. But, the unfurling of both gender and sexuality as we have known it will be gnarly. Queer doyen Gore Vidal once commented on the phenomena of gay and straight in America, noting, “[e]ither you are one or you are the other. But since everyone is a mixture of inclinations, the categories keep breaking you down; and when they break down, the irrational takes over. You have to be one or the other.” [32] As palliative, author Robert Atkins counters that “[q]ueer is the gender-common alternative to the Stonewall-derived activism embodied in the terms gay and lesbian. Although many of us have no trouble being variously queer or gay, some lesbians and gay men do.” [33] While the old terminologies may fall off, and “gay” and “lesbian” lose their primacy in place of something queerer, it is unlikely such a change will obviate the abstractness inherent in identifying or delineating non-heteronormative life.

Haynes and Opie rely on the human figure in their artistic practices, for the most part representing beings as they are. In contrast, much like Fishman, gay painter Matthew Best intentionally draws upon the domain of abstraction to compose his work. Best’s non-objective, geometric structures work with foundational elements of visual composition, specifically line, space, and color. Since his thoroughly abstract process shuns figurative representation, viewers must engage with the work absent the direct symbolism present in much of the aforementioned works. This exists for queer artists working in that style as a challenge, the problem of how one can, beyond strictly conceptual influence, meld queer sensibility to formalist painting.

Company B (diptych), Matthew Best 2013

Company B, 2013
Matthew Best

Best attempts to solve this conundrum with color. In his work Company B (2013), a diptych, blue and red reign as the primary voices of a chromatic debate. These colors have been traditionally associated with gender, baby blues and powder pinks at varying times representing either boys or girls. Here, Best plays off this binary by working with the two primaries. He attenuates his palette with the use of white to create tints which approach the pastel tones of a nursery. Contrastively, he also amplifies the saturation of certain lines by using pure color, straight from the tube. The result is a gradation between boldness and whisper. To this effect, Best admits that he uses “pink as something aggressively ‘feminine.'” [34] Moreover, he acknowledges a transition in his practice from one that acted as a psychological examination of his own queerness to something now significantly influenced by those revelations. In general, though, such queer readings rely on explication by the artist or some external source, and color itself, at best, tenuously suggests queer content.

Beyond the visual elements, Best relies on naming as a bridge to bring queerness to the surface. This, he claims, is often the direct result of gay culture, particularly music which has been prevalent in the gay experience, like new wave or dance music. Company B receives its name from this domain, a flash-in-the-pan mid-80s band who gained fame for a few catchy, new-wavey dance hits. Many viewers would completely miss this reference, but his use of “titles [as] a code” could be recognized by queer individuals. Moraga picks up on this tactic as well, elaborating how artists “create a way of expressing [themselves] with certain codes and with certain languages that you use to communicate and to send the right signals to others like you.” [35] This inverts the tactic on which Wojnarowicz often relied, titling many of his works Untitled, forcing beholders to create meaning from internal rather than external code. Best’s placement of importance on titling speaks to the historical coding used by queers to emerge from their places of exclusion, a method of linguistic abstraction acting as a subcultural vernacular. As Lucy Lippard points out, “[n]aming is the active tense of identity.” [36] Perhaps in the future, queer will be a straining to hide, a reversal of the coming out now common to us, and a coding of ourselves in order to recoup mystique or reestablish a subculture out of the spotlight. Nevertheless, as such, queer remains a name readily accepting of anyone who acknowledges their place in its history.

In conclusion, the task of defining queer will be endless; there is nothing simply black or white about the term, or for these purposes, explicitly not-straight or gay. An anointment of queer, whether self-knighted or socially imposed, is fluid and temporal at best, its definition hinged as much on external circumstance as internal and self-reflexive experience. While queer often unflinchingly intertwines with sexual orientation or gender identity, this distinction fades as its visibility and influence expands. Ultimately, like the terms gayness, lesbianness, man, and woman, it too will eventually die out as new identities of being further pervert the queer we experience today.

And so I checked all the registered historical facts
And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I’m the 18th pale descendent
Of some old queen or other

Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?

Sincere thanks to Lola Flash, Clarity Haynes, Matthew Best, James Wagner, & Paul Von Blum, whose contributions greatly helped in the completion of this work, and to all the queer artists and writers who came before me and made a space for my ass on the dance floor and in the dungeon.

If you enjoyed this article, please visit my online studio to support the independent arts.

[1] José Esteban Muñoz. “Queerness as Horizon.” George E. Haggarty, Molly McGarry. eds. A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. pg. 453.
[2] Quoted in Mary T. Conway. “A Becoming Queer Aesthetic.” Discourse 26.3: (2004), pp 168-169.
[3] William R. Handley. “Belonging(s): Plural Marriage, Gay Marriage and the Subversion of ‘Good Order.'” Discourse 26.3: (2004), pg. 86.
[4] Ibid pp. 87-89.
[5] John Rechy. “The Outlaw Sensibility in the Arts.” Queer Frontiers: Millennial Geographies, Genders, and Generations. Joseph A. Boone, et al. eds. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 2000. pg. 132.
[6] David Wojnarowicz. In the Shadow of the American Dream. Amy Scholder, ed. New York: Grove, 1999. pp. 244, 267.
[7] David Wojnarowicz. David Wojnarowicz: Tongues of Flame. Barry Blinderman, ed. New York: Distributed Art, 1990. pg. 11.
[8] Nan Goldin. “Interview: David Wojnarowicz and Nan Goldin.” David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape. Melissa Harris. ed. New York: Aperture, 1994. pg. 62.
[9] Ibid. pg 110.
[10] Wojnarowicz. Tongues. pp. 116, 118.
[11] Ibid. pg. 117.
[12] Cherry Smyth. Damn Fine Art: By New Lesbian Artists. New York: Cassell, 1996. pp. 68-69.
[13] Lola Flash. “Queerness in 2014.” Message to the author. March 3, 2014. E-mail.
[14] Smyth pg. 68.
[15] Carl Wittman. “A Gay Manifesto.” Come Out Fighting: A Century of Essential Writing on Gay and Lesbian Liberation. Chris Bull. ed. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2001. pg. 70.
[16] Ibid. pg. 160.
[17] Alan Sears. “Queer Anti-Capitalism: What’s Left of Lesbian and Gay Liberation?”
Science & Society, 69:1 (Jan. 2005). pp. 92-93.
[18] Harmony Hammond. Lesbian Art in America. New York: Rizzoli, 2000. pg. 34.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Smyth pg. 5.
[21] Hammond pg. 35.
[22] Cherríe Moraga, Rosemary Weatherston. “An Interview with Cherríe Moraga: Queer Reservations; or, Art, Identity, and Politics in the 1990s.” in Boone, et al. pg. 65.
[23] Maura Reilly. “The Drive to Describe: An Interview with Catherine Opie.” Art Journal 60.2: (Summer, 2001). pg. 85.
[24] Nat Trotman. “Plates: Introductions by Nat Trotman.” Catherine Opie: American Photographer. Catherine Opie, et al. New York: Guggenheim Museum/Distributed Art Publishers, 2008. pp. 42-43, 52-53 72-73.
[25] Ibid. pg. 73.
[26] Helen Molesworth. ed. Catherine Opie: Empty and Full. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2011. pg. 9.
[27] Sears pg. 96.
[28] Jill Medvedow. “Director’s Foreward.” in Molesworth pg. 7.
[29] Anna Stothart. “Boy Scout Jamboree.” in Molesworth pg. 61.
[30] Clarity Haynes. Artist Statement March 6, 2014. Web.
[31] José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009. pg. 138.
[32] Gore Vidal. “Pink Triangle Yellow Star.” in Bull pg. 190.
[33] Robert Atkins. “Goodbye Lesbian/Gay History, Hello Queer Sensibility: Meditating on Curatorial Practice.” Art Journal 55:4 (December 1, 1996). pg. 84.
[34] Matthew Best. “Queerness.” Message to the author. February 23, 2014. E-mail.
[35] Moraga pg. 73.
[36] Lucy Lippard. Mixed Blessings. New York: Random House, 1990. pg. 19.

This essay was selected as a winner of the 2014 UCLA Peter Rotter Essay Prize for Superior Writing in the Humanities.

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