Art Libraries Society
The Queer Art World
Ernesto Pujol, Artist,
Maura Reilly, Curator of Feminist Art,
Barbara Ann Levy, Owner/President, The Barbara Ann
Roberto Ferrari introduced the session by presenting art works from the emerging canon of queer artists, yet queried whether we can, based solely on historical evidence of a homosexual lifestyle, assume that they produced queer art. For example, Caravaggio’s depiction of a youthful “Bacchus” whose state of dishabille, suggestive pose, and limpid gaze seems to present an erotic depiction of male homosexuality. Is this, however, an anachronistic reading? Is Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas” a reference to the gender-reflexive nature of the Narcissus myth and thus evidence of queer identification through art? Or does the conventional Realist imagery of Rosa Bonheur’s “The Horse Fair” encode queer thematic material? Even further, could the sinuously organic shape of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Dragonfly Lamp, pay greater homage to the phallus than to the overarching stylistic principles of Art Nouveau design? Such questions highlighted the complexity of interpretation and the need for further inquiry into the role of the LGBT artist in the art cultural milieu.
Ernesto Pujol, Artist,
Pujol premised his talk by positioning conceptual artists as the negotiator between formal art theory circles and the public. In this role, artists provide information that illuminates environmental, cultural and historical issues that shape a community’s socio-cultural character.
To support this claim, Pujol pointed to his 1999 installation “Memory of Surfaces” created as part of an artist residency with Art ConText, a partnership project between the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum and the Providence Public Library. The project, which focused on the public library user community, explored the theme “memories of services,” thus playing on the homophonous link between “surface” and “service.” Pujol used de-accessioned monographs—preserved by librarians who were reluctant to discard them—to create a large 100 ft by 30 ft “carpet” of publications. The earth-toned colors of the historic leather volumes and their varying thicknesses provided a rich, multi-layered surface for a table, centered in the middle of the book mosaic, that displayed ink wells, a book press and date stamps. A clock and sculptures of Abraham Lincoln, a child and a librarian’s hand anchored each of the four corners of the carpet to serve as iconic references to individuals or topics pertinent to the Library. The work was accompanied by an audio recording of children reading. In general, Pujol provides a lyric chronicle of the Library’s services by presenting mnemonics that help narrate the community’s past. The installation also challenged the community of library users to participate more actively in decision processes involving services such as archiving and preservation.
A second installation, “Becoming the Land,” created for the Salina Art Center, Kansas in 2003, served as a “meditation about the Prairie” and featured an array of artworks that chronicle how individuals attempt to manipulate their natural surroundings yet are themselves shaped by their environment. Included in this multi-roomed work was a blank wall sectioned into a grid upon which members of the community were invited to contribute art or text; photographs of people situated in expansive Prairie landscapes; a reconstructed miniature homestead; 19th century oil paintings that portrayed idealized views of the Mid-west; and 12 shelves where Salina residents placed books and objects of personal significance.
Pujol concluded his discussion by presenting his photographic works that explored issues of ageing, male body-image, the homo-erotic gaze, and self-reflection. These works, not created for public art projects, contrast his installations which present images and concepts that are not recognizably “queer.” This makes the installations more subversively revolutionary, in that the communities involved find deep emotional connection to the material despite the fact that were created by an outsider. By listening to and empathizing with the community, the “other” is able to break existential isolation.
Maura Reilly, Curator of Feminist Art,
Reilly introduced her presentation by offering two examples of why queer artistic theories are still necessary for the interpretation of past and present art works. The first was a reproduction of Courbet’s “The Sleepers,” depicting two women engaged in an apparent lesbian sexual liaison which serves as an undeniable testimonial of how the power relationships encoded in the male gaze have not been resolved. Secondly, she described the refusal of an application for an exhibition on queer and African American art to an “unnamed” curator at an “unnamed” gallery.[i] The curator claimed that such exhibitions provide too much of a “limiting judgment” on issues of gender, nationality and ethnicity in our contemporary “post-ethnic” society. The feminist art group The Guerrilla Girls, after hearing of this, responded with a note that claimed that they “couldn’t agree more,” but that the curator didn’t go far enough. In this “post-studio era,” How can one justify limiting art by genres? In fact, since, any “curatorial intervention limits the reading of artists' work, by pushing it into some thesis or other,” they “propose there should be no more exhibitions at all!”
Reilly emphasized that we do not live in a post-queer, post-feminist nor a post-patriarchal society as evidenced by the curatorial verdict outlined above that silences LGBT, Afro-American and other marginalized artists. To combat this mentality, she calls for queer art to transcend its Anglo-centric bias and step outside the self-imposed boundaries of large urban centers. To achieve such goals, the queer art world needs to “curate differently” by challenging artists and audience alike to problematize queer art so that we might explore new imagery, themes, and ideological relationships.
The exhibitions “Citizen Queer” (Shedhalle, Zürich, 2004) and “neoqueer” (Center for Contemporary Art, Seattle, 2004) demonstrate how curators can “complicate gender studies.” The art works displayed compel the viewer to question whether the queer artist, based solely on sexuality, automatically creates queer art or whether queer art must always be political. Overall, the exhibitions allow artists from the “neo-queer” movement to explore new territories of commonality through their diversity. A review for Neo-Queer commented that the art exhibited was a “new cover for an old book,” which offers an ideal metaphor for the aims of new queer artists: the struggle still remains; however, LGBT artists are exploring new ways of creating community and meaning to ultimately generate a just society.
Levy, Owner/President, The Barbara Ann Levy Gallery,
Levy, whose background in art therapy and education helps inform her work, emphasized the importance of finding a continuum with queer sexual identities of the past, but without adopting clichéd clone identities (or as Levy colloquially cited as the “Village People phenomenon” ). She appeals to the LGBT community to explore dialogue with each other to challenge conventional mores (to move from “glamour drag to drag attack”) and find a renewed sense of spirituality.
Levy discussed works by
artists featured in her gallery to explore a wide range of responses to the
above issues. George
Towne and McWillie Chambers lovingly portrait
the queer individual rooted in an active and supportive community. James Teschner,
whose landscapes of
Levy emphasized how queer individuals—as a result of traumatic childhoods, social alienation, etc.—suffer from a form of “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” Art offers LGBT individuals a means to find self-empowerment, leading to self-acceptance. This cathexis, or the ability concentrate emotional energy on a positive goal, will allow the individual to achieve a more “authentic gay identity.”
The question period reinforced many of the concepts presented in the session. Sherman Clarke introduced the discussion by reminding the attendees of how the “power base” of both straight and queer gallery spaces influences the viewers’ contextualization of the art works presented. He also reinforced Reilly’s appeal to curate differently, as contemporary critics comment that queer art is either passé or that it offers more entertainment value than artistic merit.
Further discussion teased out issues concerning the danger of emulating the “fascism of the oppressor,” thereby emphasizing the need to dialogue beyond the boundaries of the LGBT community positioned in largely urban settings. The need to embrace community issues that affect all humans—pollution, economic justice, political and social plurality, etc.—are means that queer artists can communicate with the “straight” community. It is important, however, to always retain a sense of connectedness with one’s queer perspective, however, and to, in Levy’s words, “stay the course, be out and out-loud and proud.”
Daniel B. Payne MLIS, MA (Musicology), BEd
Head, Reference, Information & Access Services
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[i] The letter was sent to Christian Rattemeyer, curator of Artists Space gallery in NY, who denied an exhibition proposal, “Queer Art Now,” by artists Harmony Hammond and Ernesto Pujol.
“The Dish on Discrimination, Spring 2004,” Hot Flashes from the