15 Young LGBTQ Artists Driving Contemporary Art Forward

Eli Hill
Jun 7, 2019 5:20PM

Art that is produced by members of the LGBTQ community is too often framed by the artist’s gender or sexuality. Labeling an artwork with its maker’s identity is a painful oversimplification of the artist and their art. And while many LGBTQ artists incorporate their lived experiences into their work, it is important to remember that their output should be treated as separate from their body and identity.

Below, we share interviews with 15 artists on the ideas behind their work, their motivations, and their most recent artistic endeavors. Each artist is included not because of their identity alone––but due to the compelling and incisive work they create. For those looking to celebrate members of the LGBTQ community who are pushing contemporary art forward, read on to learn about the dynamic practices of these innovative artists.


How has flattened space influenced the style and content of your paintings?

My work deals with bodies—more specifically Black, Queer, nonbinary bodies—and space relationships. Collage works by Romare Bearden, Wangechi Mutu, and Troy Michie are some that I admire when thinking about the complexities of space; what’s real and not real; how things like memories, histories, emotions, travel from one origin to another.

Can you speak about how your work responds to, or critiques, ideas of representation?

I am a fat body, I am a soft body, I am a male presenting body, I am a femme representing body. A long length of time and history talks about Black Heteronormative bodies in spaces and history. It is an exciting time to be making work that reclaims, challenges, and brings center focus to bodies and stories of Queer Black people in ways that are less about the constraints, lenses, and expectations. It’s exciting and empowering to see ideas of beauty; our bodies in historical references questioning gender. My work is about Love as well as a human range of emotions, self reflection, and visibility.

You’ve mentioned that your paintings depict experiences of “emotional highs and lows.” Is painting an active way to process emotional experiences?

Everything has emotion whether we like it or not. How can masculine bodies and energies heal, reframe, and teach others how to dismantle emotional colonization and get us back to a relationship between us and/or dreams, and potential to be the best version of our being as possible? Painting is a way to do this, in a specific way. I am forever changing and emotionally processing—aren’t we all?

What drives you to create ambiguous forms in your paintings?

This drive stems from my own experiences of living in a body that is not always legible within the heteronormative, patriarchal, white, Western ideals that structure my daily life, particularly as a fat queer woman born to a white mother and a Black father. My experience of race, which I have always experienced as multiply situated rather than “mixed,” has been especially influential to my understanding of the simultaneous, often contradictory nature of ambiguity and how this excess of information distinguishes ambiguous illegibility from vague illegibility.

One of the things I find most powerful about art is its potential to position people in a conversation they did not know was theirs to explore. I hope to make paintings that are a refuge for those of us who experience ambiguity on a daily basis and as a means to unlock the potential for ambiguity within those who have never had cause to question their own identity position.

How does pattern and flattened space influence the style and content of your paintings?

I am interested in boundary and in edge, in the parameters that define a thing, an idea, a self. Often the boundary is only made clear when contextualized in relation to other boundaries. We know ourselves in relation to others, in our similarities and differences to others. I emphasize the surface of flattened planes in relation to the surface of the body and moments of touch to reiterate the edge of the self and how it is constantly being formed, dismantled, and reformed by our context and our contacts.


Can you talk about your connection with the history of Minimalism, and how you do or do not address it in your practice?

I’ve spent a lot of time reading and looking, and Minimalism isn’t actually a cohesive historical thing. Though there might be formal similarities, the artists are all quite different from each other and had different ways of understanding what they were doing, which are often quite contradictory. My favorite “Minimalists” are the ones who have been less remembered—Anne Truitt, Fred Sandback, Beverly Buchanan, Franz Erhard Walther, Scott Burton, Richard Artschwager, John McCracken. All of them were utterly different from each other.

To whatever degree I make sculpture that is formally restrained, quiet, precise, slow, I think it is for two reasons: I think that these can be used as strategies of refusal of representation and auto-biographical narrative (as many of these artists I just mentioned used them). And second, I yearn for focused spaces of co-presence with objects and bodies in which I am not as overwhelmed as I am in the regular world, so that I can look and feel my way around.

Can you speak about how your work critiques, or responds to representation?

Representation of non-normative bodies and identities within artworks and institutions is incredibly important, but I think that’s just the beginning of what we need to be thinking about. As a transgender artist, I am thinking more about the ways that we can refuse these forms of naming, taxonomizing, and classifying bodies. I look to art—both making it and viewing it—as a method for relearning how to perceive bodies in ways that are more expansive, unstable, and consensual.

I make objects and performances that aim to trouble our desire to name and to know “what” things are. I am especially wary of the ways institutions position artists with “differences” in hyper-visible situations that often involve performing with our bodies, essentially serving as evidence of our inclusion, as a way of making up for all the ways these institutions have and continue to fail to actually support these artists’ careers over the long-term. I do my best not to participate in curatorial contexts that are singularly concerned with representation without engaging the underlying questions about practices of seeing and the politics of support.

Can you tell us about the work you’ve been showing recently?

I contributed two pieces to this current group show, “In My Room,” organized by Alvin Li at Antenna Space, Shanghai. One piece, from my “Diagrams” series (2018), is composed of casts of my body—in this case, my left chest and my shoulder blade—abstracted by the act of laborious sanding. These ambiguous surfaces are connected by vein-like lines, and allude to scientific diagrams that describe the body. The other work, I think about Lam Qua everyday III (2019), references the branch holders for scholar rocks and Chinese antique precious stones. I’m interested in how these fitted bases cue to the audience that this object is meant for holding, a holding that demonstrates an act of care. In this case, the ceramic branch holds a bubble that contains melanin. I’m fascinated by the idea of holding a significant bodily identifier outside of your skin, and examining it like an object.

You extract bodily materials—such as estrogen, melanin, testosterone, fat—and redeposit them into your artworks. Does this process change your relationship to these substances?

It’s still as abstract as it has always been, but through this process, it allowed me to see them as pharmaceutical readymades. They contribute to a larger idea that the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” is rarely as binary as we’d like to think it is.

Do you find empowerment in absurdity?

I think absurdity does something more powerful than empowerment. To me, it seems more generative to think of ways of decentering ourselves from being in power, or of power. Perhaps that’s actually more akin to disempowerment than empowerment.

You founded The Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art (MOTHA). How did it come about?

I started MOTHA in 2013. I originally conceived of it as a poster, Transgender Hiroes (2013), but over the year it took me to assemble it, I began to imagine all the different forms this museum could take without it being an actual physical space. The project continues to be a celebration of trans art and history as well as a critique of the elements at play that have kept trans, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and non-binary identities marginalized.

I was invited to bring an iteration of MOTHA to the New Museum. I began to think what a regional trans history could focus on. When I realized the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots was approaching, I knew it would be a good time to think critically about how this history is remembered. I invited almost a dozen artists to reconceptualize monuments to commemorate this hirstory, knowing full well that monuments themselves are a fraught way to point to history.

Can you tell us about your work in the current exhibition “Queer California: Untold Stories” at the Oakland Museum of California?

I created an installation that highlights the Trans Hirstory of the Bay Area. It includes both artist-made work and archival material. I created a black-and-white line-drawn façade of a classical museum and also created a wallpaper that included even more history not represented as physical objects in the space.

Your work often references music videos, magazine spreads, and advertisements. When and why did you begin working this way?

As early as middle school. My father got me a video camera and I started making videos with friends––with cameos from babysitters, teachers, pets. By the time I was in high school, I was editing commercially, running programming for a public television station. It was far from glamorous, but it was like reaching into the world.

Do you believe your work responds to—or critiques—ideas of representation and legibility?

Of course. I aim to raise questions about inclusivity, appropriation, and consumerism, but that’s not why I make work. I make for myself.

What drives you to take on the roles of both director and model?

Control. Acting as subject and muse, I work to convey my own fluid identity—an identity that bridges the binaries of gender and ethnicity.

Can you tell us a bit about how your publication Indigenous Woman (2018) evolved?

Indigenous Woman began as an imagining––a simple aspiration to be a cover girl. But not just any cover for any magazine, one where I have the autonomy to fulfill my own ideals and honor personal concerns. I wanted a magazine that didn’t exist yet––so I made one.

Do you believe your work responds to, or critiques, ideas of desensitization to violence and trauma?

No, I don’t think it’s about desensitization at all, or rather, that’s not the focus for me. Violence is sport for some people. Violence is built into the fabric of how certain structures that we are entrenched in operate. The violence that I focus on is also not the gratuitous images that flood the mind upon hearing that word. Yes, those are images that at times collectively we become desensitized to, but those are not the images I’m addressing. I’m addressing those images that are hard to see. Those words that actually bear daggers; a cement and grout work that is actually a “Black site.”

When did you first incorporate pop culture references into your work?

I would say probably from the beginning. It’s a rich material; a material that speaks to many audiences and one in which they are receiving information already. Some of those pop cultural references I use are music or music related and that’s always been an art/form/material that is incredibly important to me. I’m also interested in a type of index that explodes intellectual hierarchy.

What drives you to create adobe architecture within white cube institutions and art spaces?

Working with land and shaping it into building blocks has been a practice and process towards building a platform; a space and context for ideas, objects, and bodies that don’t necessarily subscribe to Eurocentric notions of artmaking. It’s a way of pushing away the architecture of white art spaces and looking inward instead towards a collective Brown collaborative experiment led by Brown artists in an earthen space that reflects us, our histories, and made literally out of land that has been the basis for colonization we’ve experienced.

The works on adobe evolved quite slowly from color field studies based on the adobe vernacular of my parents’ hometown in Durango, Mexico, to something suggestive of portraiture, and finally, they’ve arrived at a place that feels very exciting to me.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you created with Beatriz Cortez for Commonwealth & Council at Frieze Los Angeles?

We were inspired by the history of Laika, the dog who was sent to space in the Sputnik 2 in 1957 by the Soviet Union, paving the way for human space travel. We considered the sacrifice of the dog and wanted to pay homage to it by projecting our own dog into space but instead made out of the fertile land—the very foundation for life itself here on Earth. The dog was molded after a Xoloitzcuintli, a Mexican hairless dog. In ancient thought, the dog was mythologized as Xolotl, the god of fire and lightning, the canine twin brother of the powerful plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl. But Xolotl was also the god of monsters, the protector of the sick, the deformed, a protector of those we understand today as outsiders, as undefined, as queer.

Can you tell us about your exhibition, “Come Softly to Me,” at Sikkema Jenkins in New York?

“Come Softly to Me” is a narratively structured exhibition in which I tell myself my own story. I introduce myself through self portraiture and the setting of my story through paintings of New York. It is a series of works depicting the most recent year of my life, and the cast of characters and particular feelings I’ve encountered along the way. My next exhibition will be in Paris at Antoine Levi gallery and will not be paintings. It will be my first sculpture show.

How does the history of modernism influence your paintings?

I paint people I love, and I paint using the vocabulary of paintings I love. So the influence is very straightforward; if I see a painting that sets me on fire, I want to try and make something that feels like that. I make drawings in my sketchbooks, which I use like journals. I also reinterpret paintings directly with my own characters, or work from photographs I have found or taken. The most important and frequent source of inspiration is drawing from memory.

How does memory impact your compositions?

Memory is in a way the actual content of my work. It influences how I stylize the body to emphasize something I may have fixated on. If I fell in love with hair on the back of someone’s neck, or a mole, I will redistribute the shapes of the body to highlight this element, the way a memory does. I think memory is an excellent beautician. So this also plays a role in the way I make work that is both fantastic and autobiographical.

Can you tell us about the work you’re showing at the Venice Biennale, Untitled (Holding Horizon) (2018)? Has the performance changed since its first iteration at Frieze London?

My works are always in process and the choreographies themselves include a level of indeterminacy. Each iteration is different and the works also change and adapt with time, often responding to the specific sites where they are being developed and performed.

I approach queerness as a process, one through which the choreographic framework fluctuates between structure and contingency. In Untitled (Holding Horizon) the sound and lighting are mixed live, as well as the structures that the performers move through. In this process the performers have the agency to use the qualities that we work with to loosen, expand, and contract the structure. This means that both the choreographic vocabularies and the performers’ subjectivity are both very present in the work. This unpredictability allows for intimacy in the way that the work unfolds; their relations and affects leak out into the room and have the potential to become palpable by an audience.

How has LGBTQ nightlife in Warsaw impacted your performances?

I was developing Untitled (Holding Horizon) over the summer in 2018, in the same space that Kem—the queer and feminist collective that I am part of—was throwing a series of parties called “Dragana Bar.” These nights brought together distinct experimental sets of sounds by Warsaw-based DJs, such as Facheroia, Yana, and JŚA. This experience of running the night with the collective had a direct impact on making Untitled (Holding Horizon).

At the time, I was reflecting on the act of moving together, and how sharing pleasure is a mode of queer resistance that can produce a safe space within a hostile environment. It is about queerness as collectivity, togetherness. The dance floor has the potential to be a space where you experience that entanglement of self and other through affect; it is a place where gestures can be charged with queer desire.

Can you tell us about your film One emerging from a point of view (2019)?

One Emerging is a hybrid fictional documentary. It’s a collaborative portrait of two women whose paths crossed in Lesvos a couple years ago. One is a photojournalist who was documenting the refugee crisis on the island and the other is a young transgender refugee from Morocco who was in a camp there. Together we created parallel fantasy worlds that overlap through the narrative and projected image.

You were previously involved in community organizing. How has that affected your artistic process?

When I was young, artmaking totally revolved around my community. Particularly in a place like L.A.—where immigrant and trans communities are particularly affected by violence and policing—being involved with community also means organizing. I used to do a queer nightclub with friends called Wildness, and this inevitably got political. As I began having to travel for work, my politics have shifted into the work itself. In some ways, I miss living in a consistent place, but in other ways I feel excited by the opportunity to exchange with so many different people I come into contact with. Also, getting older means the world is more nuanced, so I am trying to find new languages for issues that remain important to me.

Does your relationship with performance change when you know it is being filmed?

I don’t think films could ever represent us or our experiences, nor would I want to even try. For me, filmmaking is more of a ritual or devotional practice of repeated attempts at capturing and escaping the frame.

You received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2018. Has it affected your practice?

I’m still trying to process what it means. But in the short term, I have noticed it makes me feel a bit bolder and uncompromising, like I can take bigger risks and invest more. It feels like a mandate to keep doing what I have been doing, but to trust more in the process.

Do you believe your work responds to, or critiques, ideas of vocalization?

I think that speech can be objectified in the same way that artworks and images can be objectified. And once objectified, speech or political gesturing can be reproduced, commodified, and rendered politically ineffective—pure spectacle. I hesitate to say what my work does or doesn’t do, but the best I can do as an artist is offer up situations or considerations that can serve as objects for reflection and discussion. Currently, I’m thinking about silence and noise as political mechanisms, and the work I’m making is an invitation to think about these things.

How have the sites of protests—or dissents—influenced the materials you work with?

I believe in the power of materials. I rely on the materials of infrastructure like concrete, steel, wood, fibers like cotton and denim to support me and my activities without much consideration on a day to day basis. All of these materials are accompanied by strategies for how they are produced and implemented, and it is these strategies that I think about when using the materials in sculptural works. In thinking about the street and the music production studio as two sites in which more “popular” manifestations of dissent take place, objects and materials like concrete, music stands, and towels—a DIY, cheap way to create acoustic paneling in a music studio—have become important to my material vocabulary.

Many of the narratives behind your work are very personal. Would you say that making work that is closely tied to your experiences is empowering?

My interest in art has always been the exploration and expression of my own personal identity. I am only interested in art inasmuch as it puts me in the world or puts another person closer to me. Art that doesn’t contain an identity is worthless to me. I look back at my life and the expression of my self has been the only real endeavor for me and I haven’t really done anything else with my life. I guess it’s not a question of why it’s important. It’s the apprehension that I am the center of things, and so the expression of my identity becomes a natural function.

Can you describe the process that goes into your paintings?

I usually start with an idea that tickles me and start thinking about images we can translate onto the canvas. I describe the image and what I’m trying to get at with it to my assistant. Then, he starts sketching. Sometimes we look for references online, sometimes I have to pose myself to get a sketch just right. My assistant then lays out the key points of the sketch on canvas using pins and pipe cleaners, which I feel and adjust if necessary. Then, for the painting, it is a little like painting by numbers, only we follow the shapes and locations the pins mark on the canvas, rather than numbers. They look like relatively simple flat paintings, but the process makes them very complicated to make.

What drives you to document LGBTQ spaces, as you did in your project The UK Gay Bar Directory?

We started filming gay bars with a GoPro camera in 2014, with no particular outcome in mind. Before we knew it Candy Bar, the George and Dragon, and Joiners Arms—all busy, successful, and culturally important gay bars in London—had shut their doors followed by a spate of other closures nationally. Between 2006 and 2017, 58 percent of LGBTQ venues closed down; it was an epidemic.

In response to these closures and the heightened atmosphere of fear and mourning in the community, we dedicated nine months to traveling the U.K., forcing ourselves into male-dominant or male-only spaces, filming gay bars, and creating an archive that would function both as an art work, a public resource, and a call to arms. There was an urgency to the project that drove us to such a gargantuan undertaking. Often, we would arrive in a city and a much-loved gay bar had closed its doors only days before. The feeling of loss permeated the archive, which has a ghostly, elegiac quality.

Do you believe your work responds to––or critiques––hierarchies at play in the LGBTQ community?

We explore how the contemporary gay rights movement has aligned itself with the state, the police, the military, and with property developers at the expense of its own community. But, we are interested in the messy, gray areas, where these alignments blur with sexual fantasy, such as BDSM, or are complicated by personal narratives. Often, it feels that we are handling extremely sensitive rubrics of power. How do we work to historically contextualize a community ravaged by AIDS, neglected by the government, whilst acknowledging the underlying leverage of white supremacy in the distribution of resources allocated to this community?

Drawing has been an important medium to explore how the dynamics of power play out in the social sphere, infusing each scene with social tension that vacillates between love and violence. It’s this point, between love and violence, or critique and celebration, that excites and intrigues us.

Eli Hill

Image credits: Portrait of Jonathan Lyndon Chase courtesy of Kohn Gallery. Portrait of Christina Quarles by Ellen Donnelly; courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Gordon Hall by Lia Clay; courtesy of David Zwirner. Portrait of Jes Fan courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Chris E. Vargas courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Martine Gutierrez courtesy of Ryan Lee Gallery. Portrait of Sable Elyse Smith by Kyle Dorosz; courtesy of the artist and JTT, New York. Portrait of Rafa Esparza by HART+LËSHKINA; courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Louis Fratino by Jason Wyche; courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Portrait of Alex Baczynski-Jenkins by Katarzyna Szugajew. Portrait of Wu Tsang by Tosh Basco; courtesy of Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi. Portrait of Nikita Gale by Kanya Iwanal; courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Manuel Solano by Claudia Lozano; courtesy of the artist and Peres Projects, Berlin. Portrait of Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings by Andrew Woffinden; courtesy of the artists.