7 Artists on the Resilience of Depicting Queer Intimacy in Public

Osman Can Yerebakan
Jun 13, 2022 9:08PM

In the early 1990s, when waves of change in identity politics swept through the art world, dozens of billboards featuring an unmade bed sprouted up across New York. Though the black-and-white image of an anonymous couple’s love nest may sound demure, the two dented pillows and a freshly folded blanket pierced passersby’s attention. The photo exuded unabashed intimacy, in public, and at a scale exclusively reserved for consumerist promotions.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (billboard of an empty bed) has since stood as a beacon of queer intimacy made public through art. The bed—shared by the Cuban American artist and his long-term lover Ross Laycock until the latter’s passing in 1991—is a silent monument of gay sex and bonding, imprinted with the bodies of two lovers who would eventually both pass due to AIDS-related illnesses. A massive but subtle expression of a kind of love largely deemed unnatural and deadly at the time, given the harsh anti-AIDS research politics of the 1980s, the work was a gentle artistic act of anarchy; it spoke to the gruesome struggles against the stigmatization of a pandemic and the marginalization of individuals for simply being. Against the fleeting moment and the perishing body, the gesture carved out moments of contemplation amidst the city’s urban chaos.

Jonathas de Andrade
Lost and Found, 2020
Nara Roesler

Today, public intimacy for the queer community is a cosmos interwoven with issues around geography, class, race, desirability, and self-fashioning. Undeniable lengths have been taken in queer liberation since Gonzalez-Torres seeded heart-aching reminders of loss and love in attempts of poetic disobedience. The road ahead however is still lengthy, brutally further for some communities, and more complex for others. Artists today tap into the nuances through their deeply personal yet community-driven experiences.

Through painting, artists utilize the physical likeness of the body and dismantle it, conveying ample versions of corporeality, sex, reverie, and devastation. While anchoring their work within the frame of a body, many painters dive beyond the discernible, and they take us with them. For other artists, everyday materials can embody memory, the present, and the future, whether it’s tightened in woven braids or stitched onto surfaces; lush textures and absorbing patterns broadcast narratives of resilience. Still others turn to photography to distort and re-envision reality, whilst reminding us of the medium’s slipperiness in history books or museum walls. Artists reclaim the notion of the archive by peeling back false or biased imagery in order to rebirth history.

The seven contemporary artists below reflect on the emotional, bodily, and political heft of public intimacy today through the intricate frames of their diverse practices. Through figurative painting, found objects, mixed media, and photography, they walk uncharted or blocked paths with determination that salutes their queer ancestors.

On capturing public intimacy both as a political stance and bodily experience:

In our time and social/political climate, the body is rarely seen outside of a political context. For queer people, what is a bodily experience is, inevitably, simultaneously a socially political stance, or act. Queer public intimacy is political. As a lesbian in south Texas, I was taught to fear public displays of affection from day one. Kissing my girlfriend in public in Port Neches, Texas, could double as an act of love and as a political act of changing the culture.

The culture of a landscape has often directed how I felt and moved. In some places, I may feel politicized by my actions, in others, simply by my being. What I’m interested in is how I might pursue an alternative imagination of this sense of space, of what is public and what is private, if there is even the private.


On enlarging figures to a larger-than-life scale:

I’ve always felt humbled with a sense of respect toward large scale paintings and objects. Their impact always felt deliberate and meant to overwhelm you; to dwarf the viewer in comparison. Adding a layer of dimensionality onto something large scale sort of creates an immersive experience—a sense of community and, simultaneously, discomfort. All of this embodies what I would say is the queer experience: this coexisting sense of anxiety and comfort.

The scale and build of this work has been vital in creating a space for viewers to not only see each piece as a complex idea, but exist with it. To be brought into it. There is the reason to create a piece: to intrude on the viewer’s “personal” space, to allow it to physically and conceptually hold its ground; but, there is also the experience and labor I seek out in creating work at this scale and complexity.

“Within a queer context, there is nothing more public than privacy.”

Growing up an athlete, hard work and the hustle really structured my life. It fostered in me an insatiable desire to just work, to see how far I could go, how far my body could go, what I and my body could do. I relish(ed) in the pain that comes with pushing your body beyond its limits, and the ecstasy of making it out on the other side. This ability to push made me feel strong and powerful; it helped me to command a sense of respect in and for myself, and from others who, where I’m from, always placed the hardworking, physically strong boy on the pedestal. I feel this ties intimately into the relationship queer people have with their bodies, and how they are situated in the world.

We are extremely in tune—we notice the way our muscles move or look, how our shoulders line up with our hips (or lack thereof), how much space we take up, how our chests look in our clothes, etc. So, working at this scale is my way of creating an all-encompassing, rigorous experience—an experience relived or new—for myself and the viewer. It is my intention for this work to take up space, for the larger-than-life, almost monstrous figures to have a place where they fit, and for myself and the viewer to feel the mental, emotional, and physical labor that brought them—and these spaces—to life.

On the institution’s role today in representing queer intimacy today:

Within a queer context, there is nothing more public than privacy. When queer intimacy is made public at the institutional level, circulating as part of the public dialogue, it can be celebrated. And, when necessary, revisited. To have access to our own history and to the intimate lives of those who came before us, to be able to look into these histories and find artists, works, and moments that we can identify with, and to expand the range of conversations we have and the breadth of queer ideas explored—queer work and intimacy, in all of its forms, must be represented. Through exhibition and advocacy, I see institutions’ role today as one that is meant to ensure that the contributions of the LGBTQIA+ community are not forgotten.

On juxtaposing intimacies between humans and nature:

I try thinking about how we deal with each other as a collective, about personal and social differences, but also how bodies and people are magnetized by each other. The same body who is engaged politically is also driven by desire. I like the idea that we can share intimacy when moving through delicate issues.

Eroticism can create a sort of temperature that sometimes may bring comfort, but also may be provocative, destabilizing. It creates an environment that challenges our own senses, and tests if we moralize our own gaze, if one may be seduced or not by what we see. I’m interested in dynamics that implicate my own body in the encounters I have through my projects, and I’m happy when the complexity of these relations and atmospheres can be shared with the audience.

On the connection between the fishermen and their catches in the video O Peixe (Fish) (2016):

I invited a group of fishermen to embrace a fish for the first time in their life. They perform not only with the nature around them and the fish, but also with the camera that observes them. As an ethnographic film, the camera also seems to devour them, just like they are doing to the fish.

We, as viewers, can see this cyclical choreography and decide if we feel hypnotized by the fishermen, their bodies, and the romantic tale of a community that honors their catch in a farewell embrace. Or, we may be offended and puzzled by that violence, and how it tests our humanity. There’s something violent about love and eroticism that brings us closer to our deepest nature as human beings. I try not to only use desire as a subject or category, but to understand libido as a broader force to digest and recreate the crucial dilemmas of the present.

“The same body who is engaged politically is also driven by desire. I like the idea that we can share intimacy when moving through delicate issues.”

On the role of institutional support for queer artists:

Art is a powerful tool for education and for expanding the subjective and visual repertoire of a culture, which should include queer images and representation. Museums and galleries play a key role in naturalizing queer intimacy as a basic understanding for a wider audience, which is especially important since in Brazil, and pretty much everywhere in the world, attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community are constant. Art and artists are fundamental in keeping up the resistance and creating progressive and inclusive environments that open new horizons for future generations.

On painting bodily experiences that are both physical and immaterial:

I think at the very heart of my work there is this idea of totally radical vulnerability, where there is a sense of intimacy created between the viewer and my body. I have a sort of morbid fascination with laying it all out on the table. It’s horrifying but it’s also a gesture of love, to render something so private so publicly. I can’t deny that the work takes on a political position because of the nature of the bodies I represent; because of my body, but my objectives are much more of the heart and of the body. I guess the body and the political are inextricably linked, making a socio-political stance a bodily experience in itself.

On painting clinical spaces as sites of in-betweenness for different forms of intimacy:

The boundary between private and public has always been of primary interest to me; the duality in private and public as it pertains to physical spaces, acts, memories. Having spent a lot of time in hospital spaces, I’ve thought a lot about not just how a hospital bed is a public and private space, but also how the body itself becomes public when it lays there. When there are teams of people cutting, stitching, inspecting the body, that body has become the work space of all the people manipulating it. Private acts become public, for instance, when a patient is asked to shit in a bucket with the help of a group of nurses, if the patient can be considered an active participant at all.

Then when all of that is combined in an image, a painting, it takes on yet another public-facing aspect. Do the paintings have autonomy? I think they do; they stare back at me when I paint them. Is a painting a body? They feel like Frankensteinian reflections of my body that I offer to the world.

“Do the paintings have autonomy? I think they do; they stare back at me when I paint them.”

On the institution as a site of alliance:

I don’t know if the institution has any business meddling in queer intimacy. We are living in a time of abhorrent pink washing and rainbow capitalism, which of course does nothing to improve the quality of life of actual queer people or to prevent rampant institutional violence. If we are talking specifically about art institutions, I do believe they have a responsibility to uplift the most marginalized voices in the community. That’s usually where the best art is anyway, so it’s in their best interest even if they have to be dragged kicking and screaming through protests and boycotts.

James Bartolacci
The Spectrum Closing Party, 2021
Taymour Grahne Projects

On painting public intimacy as a form of activism:

When I started this series, I thought of intimacy within queer spaces as a socially political stance, and to some degree it still is. I feel conflicted calling the outcome an outright stance, as imagery and symbols related to queerness within art are so egregiously co-opted and commodified by corporations to show “support,” but are really just benefitting their image and brand. And especially since paintings exist within the art market. So, perhaps it’s evolved to be more about bodily experiences and feelings.

James Bartolacci
Untitled (Touch with Laser Lights), 2020
Taymour Grahne Projects
James Bartolacci
Strobelight Seduction, 2021
Taymour Grahne Projects

On focusing on the subject of nightlife as an intersection of publicness and privacy, as well as community and refuge:

Whenever I’m painting nightclubs, I try to capture the ways that the interiors become spaces for public and private interaction. The architecture, lighting, and music, along with the way people dress up, dance, and hang out with each other provide a space away from the everyday, but in which interactions are very public with the presence of a crowd. My paintings are large, but the nightclubs are visibly crowded and full of people dancing, touching, and kissing.

On the institution’s role as safe spaces for queer art:

Making art about queer intimacy in 2022 is very different from when Felix [Gonzalez-Torres] was working. I’m skeptical of institutions being given the “role” or responsibility of showing queer art, when these same image-conscious institutions are more propped-up by money from weapons sales, fossil fuels, and Big Pharma than ever before. I guess the question depends on which institution specifically, otherwise, it’s up who actively participates in queer nightlife to determine how these themes should be represented. It’s also extremely difficult to show work without these institutions, so herein lies the dilemma.

Installation view, Camilo Godoy, Self-portrait with Brendan, Carlos, and Jorge from AMIGXS, No. 1, 2017, billboard at night at the Southeast corner of Ninth Avenue and 37th Street, Manhattan, New York. Courtesy of the artist.

On rendering the bodily as political through recent queer history:

My work is informed by a legacy of queer aesthetic and activist traditions that engage with the intersection of taking a political stance through a bodily experience. The AIDS crisis is a period in art and activist history that I often revisit for guidance and affirmation. One of the pages of the publication THING, founded in 1989 by Robert T. Ford with Trent Adkins and Lawrence Warren, includes a warning disclaimer for readers that states, “Some material in this section contains graphic depictions of homosexual sexual activity.” The fact that this needs a warning is a manifestation of society’s ability to dictate “arbitrary standards.”

By its very nature, sex is a private thing. But by addressing it publicly, we can challenge the agenda of those who would not have us doing it in private, either. The way that I represent intimacy in public is shaped by my insistence to challenge and transform racial, gender, sexual, and beauty norms to imagine different subversive ways of being.

On photography’s role in subverting the borders between the public and private:

I love this sentence from a text by Brazilian artist Hudinilson Jr., “Eu sempre fui pornográfico. Mas hoje sou muito mais.” (“I was always pornographic. But today I am much more.”)

The photographs that I’ve been making since 2017 for my project AMIGXS are assertive images of my friends and lovers engaged in moments of love and lust. These black and white photographs flirt with intimacy and exposure, private and public. I’ve been developing this project during a period dominated by a rise in white supremacist conservative violence that assaults racial, gender, and sexual differences.

Early this year, I made a series of photographs titled “HIC HABITAT FELICITAS.” I performed a variety of sodomitical lustful acts in front of the camera through a red fabric. The series borrows its title from a relief from Ancient Rome that decorated the outside of a brothel with an etched drawing of an erect penis and the Latin inscription “HIC HABITAT FELICITAS” (“Here dwells happiness”). Together, these photographs represent sexual intimacy to confront and subvert our catastrophic political moment.

“The way that I represent intimacy in public is shaped by my insistence to challenge and transform racial, gender, sexual, and beauty norms to imagine different subversive ways of being.”

On institutions’ responsibility in fostering visibility:

I remember the powerful Brooklyn Liberation marches of 2020 and 2021 outside of the Brooklyn Museum. Although the march was not organized by the museum, the institution’s public façade was the forum where organizers, speakers, and thousands of people, all wearing white, gathered to bring attention to the violence affecting Black trans people. In 2019, I was one of the artists who participated in the group exhibition “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” at the Brooklyn Museum. Curatorial projects such as “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow” as well as “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” in 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery; and “Art After Stonewall, 1969 to 1989” in 2019 are examples and possibilities that affirm gender and sexual differences in art history.

The Brooklyn Museum is an interesting site to think through the representation of queer intimacy in the institution because in 2012 it hosted the controversial “Hide/Seek” exhibition, and it is also the first museum in New York City to have a paid queer youth program called InterseXtions. I’m interested in the ways institutions support queer visibility beyond exhibitions to make public programs, education initiatives, the permanent collection, staff, and the board an inclusive place for queer people to thrive.

On the relationship between the body, public intimacy, and them being politicized:

I never set out to make political work. I am most interested in the body and its relationship to the objects it encounters or employs. Most recently, I’ve been meditating on the intimacy of self-care retrials and the obsession to achieve constant renewal of both the physical and psychological form. By addressing these private acts of self-care in public settings, viewers are invited to slow down and take a moment to look inward, meditate, or grieve.

On attributing personal and collective narratives to materials:

Combining industrial, utilitarian objects with organic materials—such as flowers, essential oils, animal skins, and crystals—my sculptural configurations represent the body, as well as the technologies used to aid and alter the physical form. These pairings are often unexpected and emphasize the fragility of the body in contrast to the machinery and objects it employs.

I am intrigued by the nuance that rests within the human experience and the events that alter or shape one’s interiority. I am interested in our personal relationships to objects and the visceral experience of viewing them in a gallery setting. My installations are sparse and incorporate aromatic compounds that linger on the body long after experiencing them.

Jinbin Chen Tianyi
Friendship as a Way of Life, 2019
Kohn Gallery

On communicating with the public through scenes of intimacy:

For me, rendering a sense of public intimacy means that the work needs to be able to establish a relationship with viewers … through forms, materials, and display. This is usually a bodily experience, which I find very connected to what Deleuze described as “affect” and what Roland Barthes described as “punctum.”

At the same time, it is clearly also a socially political stance, as the sense of public intimacy in my practice is embedded in the discourse of being and becoming. It is very much included in the discussion of identity politics nowadays. I find what Foucault said in his interview Friendship as a Way of Life very inspiring: “homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable. Therefore, we have to work at becoming homosexuals and not be obstinate in recognizing that we are.”

I believe the fluidity of development is the core of queerness. We are not a silhouette in space and time. I work often with paintings, and even paintings have duration when they are being looked at.

On painting surreal narratives in dreamscape settings:

I am not seeking to simplify the relationships by defining them or giving them labels when I am working towards them. For example, in some of my paintings, I draw inspiration from a genre of Chinese (or Central Asian) ancient paintings depicting figures under trees. In some of those paintings, the trees look as if they grew out of the figures’ shoulders. It is hard to figure out the actual meaning of this positioning as it has been lost in time already. I am also not trying to reproduce the same relationship as those historical images. What it offers me is the fragmental, informant elements which allow what I call “literary affect” to occur. It has some descriptive qualities but, at the same time, not to force labels on the relationships. This is crucial for me when I am working with the topic of intimacy as an open field for experimentation.

“I believe the fluidity of development is the core of queerness. We are not a silhouette in space and time.”

On uplifting queer visibility on an institutional level:

I think the role of institutions is to represent the complexity of queer intimacy and insist upon it. To achieve that is to offer queer curators and artists a free space to experiment with their ways of expression of queer intimacy without certain obligations or fixed expectations about how it should look. It is also very important for queer artists and culture workers in more vulnerable situations to be able to have their position in this. They are not behind the rest of the world; they are not following the paths which others have been through. They are figuring out their own ways to the future. It is not only about bleeding or suffering—it is much more than that (experiments, intimacy, and tenderness). They deserve more complete and diverse narratives.

Osman Can Yerebakan

Header image: Installation view, Camilo Godoy, Self-portrait with Brendan, Carlos, and Jorge from AMIGXS, No. 1, 2017, billboard at night at the Southeast corner of Ninth Avenue and 37th Street, Manhattan, New York. Courtesy of the artist.