14 Artists on the Importance of Portraying Queer Love
“Artists portraying queer love act in solidarity with all those individuals they are connected or related to,” says artist Zanele Muholi. “Doing so means celebrating and acknowledging the presence and existence of all those who have been denied their right to love.”
Muholi is among many contemporary artists who are creating work that challenges the all-too-narrow, heteronomative, white-dominated depictions of love found across art history. Artists working today, from photographers to figurative painters to sculptors, are shattering the conception that love looks a certain way, and creating greater visibility for the LGBTQ+ community in the process. Their portrayals of love—not just couples, but gatherings of friends and expressions of self-love and desire—are not only historically important, they’re also gestures of support for the many young people who will follow in their footsteps.
In honor of Pride Month this year, we reached out to artists who are part of the LGBTQ+ community and create expressions of LGBTQ+ love. We asked them about the importance of creating such work, their inspirations, and the impressions they hope to leave upon viewers. Below, we share their responses, in addition to their personal reflections on Pride. You can explore more of their work, and other contemporary artists’ expressions of LGTBQ+ love, in the “Portrayals of Queer Love” collection on Artsy.
When you walk into a museum, it’s important to be able to see something other than the usual suspects. It’s something that I didn’t have the opportunity to see when I grew up: instances of LGBTQ+ love. We need to have the opportunity just to see different voices in the world.
My work has always been about curiosity. The characters I portray are typically alone, they’re always on the verge of understanding themselves, so it’s more about self-love. I don’t necessarily think of all my characters as being queer necessarily, but they’re involved in a situation that is queer a lot of the time. So it’s also about sort of celebrating the oddness that exists in the world.
When people walk away from my work, I want them to discover something that they didn’t know before. A lot of the stories that I cover are obscure things that haven’t seen the light of day, or haven’t been portrayed in painting. So I want people to be curious and go home and think about it some more, and discover that there’s more to life than just the typical conditions that you see in museums and galleries. It’s basically always been about storytelling—if you tell a good story, then hopefully people want to keep reading.
I think that it’s important for artists to marinate in what’s going on in the world. I would say around 80% of the people I hang out with are gay, so that, in a very natural way, has become what I work with. It’s my community. It’s the people I love. It’s the questions that are bouncing back at me, the conversations I’m having.
I think it’s important in portraying queerness to broaden the way it’s seen, because it sometimes feels too limited. There’s kind of a set image of what you care about, your political standpoint, dress code, stuff like that, so I think it’s really interesting to work to broaden the spectrum when it comes to being gay.
“Pride is crucial. I think it’s so beautiful when people join together to celebrate something as basic as love.”
When I started with sculpture, I was making scenes where girls experience pleasure together. I realized that sometimes they were seen from a girl-on-girl, pornographic perspective. That was really surprising to me, that my work wasn’t really seen as queer or gay, so I decided to dive deeper into the appearance of my girls. It’s something that I still deal with in my work—what does it need to carry to express queerness to a viewer? And how can you express that without portraying a sex scene? I don’t know if I am always succeeding, but these are the things that keep me in the studio.
Pride is crucial. I think it’s so beautiful when people join together to celebrate something as basic as love; it’s just amazing. Nowadays, it always reminds me of when my wife and I got married, two years ago during Pride. We got married in Sweden and a lot of our American friends came, and it was really amazing to have our people in the city at the same time, as Stockholm was blooming with love. Gay love, just for a day, becomes the norm.
Catherine Opie, Julie & Pigpen, 2012. © Catherine Opie. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.
I have always felt that portraying LGBTQ+ love is incredibly important, because we are also part of the world’s population. It’s about representation and making work that is representative of that part of our culture—it’s culturally significant.
In my work Julie & Pigpen (2012), I wanted to just reflect on their love of each other, as well as our own kind of community. This is something that really celebrated their bond as performers, as well as my relationship to them.
I think that expressing love is also about being out of the closet. It’s the same way that if we’re out in public, we’re holding hands, expressing our love. Expressing love boldly and publicly is exactly what happens in heterosexual society, so why should we be voiceless in that? Love is love.
If we don’t show those acts of expression, how will future kids who want to come out see and have a visual culture of that? I’m proudly a member of the queer community and I am happy to have had that voice on a major public level. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “I saw your Guggenheim show in 2008 when I was 14 and it totally changed my life.” Without visibility, one can’t imagine different ideas about their own thoughts, their own desires.
Pride is super important. It’s not just a celebration of life, but also visibility, and we should be able to take to the streets to celebrate that.
When love’s mysteries are allowed to be naked, and all truths embraced inside a protective sphere of this world, that connective blooming may be the garden of our shared belonging. I believe in art as a democracy of pathways, leading us to and from ourselves.
It is a sadness that the ways of history cut queer love like a weed. Still, I fell in love with painting through those homo electric secrets that dance along our space and time. Gay longing winks to me even from old altarpieces. Such brilliant flowers, hiding under hate, sublimating their genius to the growth of other powers. I am so grateful for all those proud faggots who made their hearts known in unforgiving times. How they fought to stay alive and to keep their dear ones near, so that finally we may be arriving at the promise of our spring: We must trust ourselves to love.
I work directly toward love because I can be in that light. I love this man and these queer companions, and I paint them with that spectrum. Art is my way of devotion to this here and now.
I painted my “Epithalamium” (wedding poem) works 10 years ago, when I was not yet allowed to marry. Love has unfolded across that institution, but there is much more to reveal. I sing for a golden age of all queer art in a dawn of every justice.
“I am so grateful for all those proud faggots who made their hearts known in unforgiving times.”
This June, I escape my Bushwick quarantine for Fire Island, a privilege to feel that homo verdant home. I’m bringing Felix Gonzalez-Torres fortune cookies from the factory across the street. Our first fortune said, “Happiness is not pleasure; it’s victory.” May we keep our gorgeous elders protected and happy.
Sometimes in June, I see Pride just walking through the beach grass, or passing a garden of lusty flowers striving toward the sunshine. I think, “Oh yeah, look at this queerness all around us that we’re finally waking up to.”
For every person, there’s a different experience with love: seeking it, finding it, losing it, having the courage to start the process all over again. I see my work as part of a larger project of creating representations that reflect the broad spectrum and diverse intricacies of human experience.
In the past, I felt like I was making my paintings for young LGBTQ+ people who were isolated from gay communities or had yet to find theirs; people who were in situations similar to mine when I was growing up, who thought there wasn’t space for their love to be seen or celebrated. Once, a fan drove four hours to hear me give a talk in Florida, my work meant so much to her.
Even though there are a few more LGBTQ+ stories (love and otherwise) represented in mainstream media, I’m still left extrapolating from centuries of heteronormative art and history. For the most part, our histories remain hidden. Since getting my MFA, I’ve used my paintings to rewrite history through an LGBTQ+ lens. I’ve done that through my World War II cross sections as well as my Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas series.
In each of my paintings, I set out to convey some of the most exquisite moments in life, including those related to sexuality and desire. Even if I identified as straight, I think I would be making erotic art because it’s an interesting lens through which to view human experience.
Lately, I’m homing in on a specific story that adds race and class to the mix. My present body of work started as a love letter to my wife (who is African American). It’s about the lives of well-off African American siblings negotiating life in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras of America. Those times rhyme with the state of the country today, and the historic setting gives me leeway to get to hard emotional truths through fiction.
“I see my work as part of a larger project of creating representations that reflect the broad spectrum and diverse intricacies of human experience.”
In previous years, I went to the Pride parade in New York City to cheer for the survivors of Stonewall, and the LGBTQ+ first responders, and the dykes on bikes. But now, the most special place in my heart during these celebrations is for gay allies. Where would we be without them?
Last year, I walked alongside Netflix’s Queer Eye “Fab Five” float. Corporate, yes, mainstream, yes, and absolutely beloved by LGBTQ+ and allies alike. I appreciate the show providing a platform for gay men to give back love to a world that doesn’t always love us (no matter how we identify); to teach people to love themselves and to let love in. I hope this is what my paintings do as well.
I think back to when I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, and didn’t see queer images in art or otherwise. A lot has changed since then! But I feel like it is only just starting to enter the mainstream. If you think of LGBTQ+ movies, the vast majority are coming out stories—which of course serve a purpose to help anyone who isn’t there yet. But what happens after coming out? There is a wealth of stories and experiences about gay life and love that haven’t been told.
Each painting I make has a certain internal climate, so I don’t necessarily have one set goal. And it varies with where I am in my life at the time—there’s always an autobiographical element to some extent. Sexuality and desire are complicated and intersect with a lot of other emotions, and I’m trying to tease out the nuances there.
There is a medieval street feeling to Pride in New York City, which can be great. Even as a proud and out adult, I still subconsciously self-censor in public to some degree. We’re raised to walk a certain way, talk a certain way, feel nervous about PDA. On Pride, there is a loosening of all that that feels very affirming.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Figure (0X5A0918), 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
My inspiration for this work, Figure (0X5A0918) (2019), like all of my work, is the entanglement of friendship and desire, and the openness to the complexities of that in queer friendships. And in this work particularly, I am thinking about friendship and love in blackness, and the complications and complexity of navigating that in white-dominated spaces. Those may be institutional or in our own personal histories. This work is about re-affirming that connection.
Jess T. Dugan, Zach and Oskar, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.
I think that representation is incredibly important. When I was coming out as a young queer person at the age of 13, I didn’t see a lot of images of people who looked like me in mainstream media. I first discovered images of queer and gender-non-conforming people in the pages of fine art photography books, and this discovery had a profound influence on me as both an artist and a queer person.
My work comes from my own experience as a queer, non-binary person. I believe that photography is an important vehicle for storytelling and that storytelling leads to empathy, knowledge, and understanding. Through my work, I share truths about my own life and identity as well as the truths of others in my community.
I want viewers of my work to see queer people, and queer love, the way that I do: expansive, beautiful, tender, creative, and authentic. It is important to me that viewers first connect with my photographs on a humanistic level and that any political or social issues surface after. I hope that my work both validates those within queer communities and educates those who are not LGBTQ+ or who may be unfamiliar with LGBTQ+ people.
To me, Pride is really about coming together as a community and celebrating the ability to be fully yourself, whatever that may be. It’s important to remember that Pride is, and has always been, political; we have to keep fighting for the rights of all LGBTQ+ people.
It is very important for artists to portray LGBTQ+ love as there is still so little of it visible, even though it may seem that in some small urban bubbles that everything is “cool.” Everything is not cool, as we are emerging from centuries of being defined as unnatural and unclean and we spent most of the last 150 years fighting repressive anti-sodomy laws. A fight that necessarily drew its inspiration from getting sex itself legalized between consenting adults in private, at, I believe, the expense of a more nuanced focus on some notion of love.
I grew up in India in an era before the internet, when there was no visibility—not just visual, but no one would talk about it. So as a young teen, I had no information and no language to express how I felt or who I was. In the West, I encountered gay liberation and visibility at last, but mainly for a white mainstream. At a British art school, it was virtually impossible to talk about gay subject matter, let alone about people of Asian or African descent. It became my mission to locate our lives in art history.
What I mainly want to communicate with my work is that desire and sexiness is great, but to be in love and sustain relationships, all kinds of things come into play, including chance, trust, economics, class, race, and so on. One has to take a deep breath and then trust in someone else, which is not always the easiest thing to do.
I’ve been participating in Pride since its very early days, first in Montreal in the early 1970s and then in London, and finally I was part of the first organizing group that brought Pride to New Delhi in 2008. To me, it means community action and visibility.
Doron Langberg, Drawing Mike, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Love and sexuality in all its forms have been central themes in art from its earliest days. The way we experience the world is mediated by our desires, so I think that no matter what an artist is portraying, they are always also representing who and what they love. So many masters used their desire to convey ideas far beyond love, but because queer love stands out as the exception, whenever it is present in a piece, it’s assumed to only be able to speak about queerness. For that reason, I feel it’s important to represent how my queerness is embedded in my life as directly and honestly as I can, to celebrate all the ways in which we are different and all the ways in which we are the same, and to give queer desire equal gravity and meaning.
The thing that compels me the most when I see work is feeling a true connection with the subject of a piece, or the artist who made it, bringing to the foreground painting’s ability to forge bonds across different times, cultures, and identities. Creating that sense of empathy with a viewer has forever been my goal as an artist.
I see love and sexuality as part of everyday life. By painting a range of subjects, from more mundane scenes of family and friends to explicit expressions of desire, I want to make queer sex feel less sensational or affronting, and closer to how I experience it.
What I love about Pride most is feeling, for a week or a day, that we are represented and seen. In non-coronavirus times, the city is swarmed with queer people from all over the world coming to fight for our rights, celebrate our achievements, love each other, and have fun—it’s so joyous and liberating. Pride for me really brings to light how much of a burden heteronormativity is the rest of year, and how much we’re expected to conform to social norms that were never meant to include queer experiences.
My work focuses primarily on self-love and healing in BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color) and non-binary communities. As a survivor of sexualized violence and an indigenous Chamoru artist in the diaspora, self-love and healing became key to my own survival and the ability to find compassion, respect, and pride in and for myself after trauma. LGBTQ folx have always been an important part of the larger BIPOC community, although their stories have often been suppressed, particularly though not exclusively in Western society. Their stories of love, desire, and self-love need to be told in their own right, based on their own journeys living and loving at the intersections of race, colonization, and resistance.
My artistic practice always begins by doing interviews with subjects. Although trauma is often part of the stories, it’s the resilience of the people telling the stories that has been the biggest blessing to witness. I not only hear, but literally see and then work to paint the resilience of my peers, my neighbors, and persons I may not have known well before they share their story with me. BIPOC-LGBTQ people who survive violence and discrimination are often forced to grapple with their identity and trauma in silence. Creating a painting captures an enduring moment when they are able to fully claim and celebrate their identities in the world and to be seen as whole, complex beings. While the focus is on individual stories of self-love and resilience, the subject and I are well aware that their journeys are of global significance since homophobia and transphobia continue to exist in every corner of the world.
“Self-love and healing became key to my own survival and the ability to find compassion, respect, and pride in and for myself after trauma.”
I participate in Pride through active, day-in and day-out allyship and through the celebratory nature of my work. By this I mean that I seek to honor my BIWOC-LGBTQ family by creating a place for them to celebrate the fullness of their identity without restriction, with their voices and stories proudly centered, without apology but with joy.
I think queer love is relevant to all people, but I don’t think of it as an explicit subject that I portray in my work. I use queerness as a framework to try and understand the tendernesses of what true love is and what bars us from knowing it. I feel most loved when I am held exactly as I am, without any pressure to change, and I think queerness demands that type of freedom for all people.
Culture that is infused with the personal liberties, hard-won by queer journeys of self-love and acceptance, eventually frees others who might not ever identify as queer or even know that they were being constricted by their non-queerness.
For years I couldn’t square attending an event that was so in bed with capitalism that also claimed to be about liberation. But when I attended London Pride a couple of years back I was blown away by the pure joy of it. I felt like a bit of a cynic for having avoided dancing in the streets for so long. I still hate capitalism.
Artists portraying queer love act in solidarity with all those individuals they are connected or related to within their immediate communities, it could either be family members, friends, or colleagues. Doing so means celebrating and acknowledging the presence and existence of all those who have been denied their right to love.
In my work, I am inspired by so many powerful people whose voices are often silenced due to the lack of platforms of expression or muted by their circumstances which often forces them to conform. I hope to communicate that love is life and life is love, and therefore, let us all just be. It is our right to coexist and document our realities without fearing persecution.
To me, Pride is personal and political, a platform in which LGBTQIA+ members create awareness. It is all about visibility, celebration of life, and commemoration of the fallen and all those who are unable to be themselves due to various reasons.
It’s important for artists to portray LGBTQ+ love—just like it’s important to portray any marginalized love—because it normalizes it, celebrates it, makes it beautiful. It makes other people humanize the people that they may be hating on, because love is a universal feeling and it can be felt in photos.
I really strive for diversity in my art; it’s really important to me to represent lots of different types of folks. I’m trying to allow people to exist without scrutiny and without people hating on them for being them. I think that how that’s going to come about is if we all are exposed to it more and it’s just a normal thing that people are just queer and happy. A lot of times we see sob stories about gay and queer people’s experiences, but there’s so much more than that one story of being oppressed and depressed. That is totally a reality, and a lot of people highlight that in a beautiful way, but I seek out the moments where we are full of joy and happiness, and in love with others.
Pride has been something that I’ve struggled to get involved with in the past. I’ve struggled to support something that seems like it’s being corporately sponsored, not that it came from that route. And I’m realizing in my older age—I’m about to turn 40—that it’s fine to have a critique of Pride. Where it started, with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera throwing bricks at the cops, is important and we need to honor it. I was feeling not really seen, being a fat, trans, queer person, and not a stereotypical lesbian or gay man, and I realized there’s space for me.
I had a really good experience this past year when I went to San Francisco Pride for the first time. I was part of a contingent that was more social justice–based, talking about not just queer issues, but racial and socioeconomic injustice. It felt very empowering and freeing; I felt a part of something. I was able to find my people, in a crowd of thousands.
Explore the “Portrayals of Queer Love” collection on Artsy.
Header image: Zanele Muholi, “BaMu, Brooklyn,” 2019. Courtesy of the artist.