How Contemporary Artists Are Evolving the Queer Aesthetic

Zachary Small
Jun 15, 2017 4:54PM

Matthew Morrocco, The Village People, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Queer artists are orphans of a different stripe. They have no conventional genealogy or lineage, no family history or record. Instead, queer people write their own history through dreams, desires, and longings; theirs is a history of things, an archaeology that affirms the existence of queerness in the artifacts of centuries past.

Curated by Avram Finkelstein, “FOUND: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction,” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, undertakes the complicated task of excavating queer identity through a shared aesthetic. The show strives to sublimate the essential elements of what constitutes such an identity in the first place. How are artists today engaging with queerness in unexpected ways?

A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, Finkelstein has a long history of transgressive, politicized visions of queerness. Today, he’s preoccupied with legitimizing a strain of queer discourse that uses intersectional and feminist ideas to complicate the conversation. His exhibition surpasses a stereotypical fascination with the male body; further, it seeks to destroy the body politic in favor of an abstractionism that can better speak to the philosophical conundrums of queerness through the simultaneous masking and signaling of difference. “During the height of the McCarthy period, abstractionism helped artists fly under the radar of the Red Scare,” Finkelstein observes. “I wonder if there are elements of that happening now in Trump’s America—if abstraction might become a refuge, a place of experimentation and nestmaking for queer artists.”

Doron Langberg
Drifting Off, 2014
Capsule Shanghai

Lucas Michael, Redress, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth & Council.


Required in Finkelstein’s curatorial conceit is a reshaping of art history into several “queer moments.” Whether or not movements like Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism were queer is immaterial to Finkelstein—what’s important is to show how queer artists used elements of these styles to make something wholly different.

Sometimes it’s a matter of an artist explicitly queering the canon as her own—as with Angela Dufresne, who here upends the masculine pomposity of Gustave Courbet with her massive satirical painting, A Real Allegory of My Artistic and Moral Life (2014). That work put me in mind of photographer Matthew Morrocco—not included in this exhibition—who likewise draws on Courbet’s famous canvas as an inspiration for The Village People (2012). Like Dufresne, Morrocco queers the realist masterpiece by introducing ahistorical and gay references, from IngresGrande Odalisque (1814) to the Village People’s 1979 album, Go West. These incursions allow Morrocco to construct his own alternative art-historical narrative wherein Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the male gaze metastasize within the gay community’s more caustic fetishizing corners.

Still, one doesn’t have to rewrite history in order to convey queerness. Abstraction, for one, can be a subtle mask that gestures to the queer identity hiding beneath it. “Abstraction is a form of drag in which the personal and the contextual, the histrionic, the psycho-sexual, and the socio-historical wear a disguise to pass as Minimalism,” offers artist Lucas Michael. Consider Michael’s Redress (2015), a neon work originally placed next to a gallery door in Los Angeles, mirroring its same dimensions, but offering hypothetical entrance to another world altogether. What appears to be a simple geometry—a glowing, red minimalism—performs a subtle double duty, alluding to gay nightclubs, cruising grounds, and other places where desire is enacted.

Installation view of Omar Mismar, The Man Who Waited for a Kiss, 2014-17. Courtesy of the artist.

Michael’s emphasis on place is telling in that it grounds the abstract within specific sites. At Leslie-Lohman, his neon is situated near Beirut-born artist Omar Mismar’s The Man Who Waited for a Kiss (2014/2017): a stack of newspapers sitting underneath a heat lamp. Viewers are welcome to take a copy and privately flip through its photographic content. The newspaper monumentalizes the San Franciscan sites where Mismar waited on strangers—contacted through Craigslist, Grindr, or Scruff—to kiss him. The photographic documentation becomes disorienting. Train stations, street corners, hotels—these are non-places, anonymous sites that appear in every city.

Through his brief dalliances, Mismar makes something out of nothing; he reshapes the city’s anonymous corners into zones of intimacy. By enshrining his experiment in a newspaper, Mismar transforms risk into plentiful reward. What might be shunned in the artist’s native Lebanon is celebrated on the front page of his fictitious newspaper. The achievement of his romantic dreams allow us to imagine our own more fully. This visual map of queerness is both his own private record and a gift to us: an expression of freedom.

But freedom is complicated, and sometimes it can be derived from choosing to remain unseen. That’s a nuance of queer aesthetics that can be hard to parse: that some queer artists indeed find bliss in self-erasure.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled (Finger), 2009. Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2008-09. Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS.

Doron Langberg, for instance, surrenders his figurative drawings to the textures of his studio floor and walls, gently erasing them by way of friction and scuffing. In Drifting Off (2014), for instance, there is no loud declaration of desire, but a whisper of longing that is quiet, subdued, monochromatic. Formally, it recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s famous palimpsest, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)—another work in which the act of erasing paradoxically marks an act of creation.

Langberg’s piece is also reminiscent of the work of the late queer artist Stephen Irwin, whose “rub-outs” disappear the lurid erotic imagery of vintage pornography. Absence is Irwin’s utopia. He eliminates entire bodies until all that’s left is a gasping mouth or a clenched hand. Both he and Langberg reject the mainstream notion that gay love most be stridently and publicly announced. Theirs is a reclamation of the closet, a reterritorialization of the unseen.

“FOUND” is a fruitful place from which to continue exploring the tactics and techniques for an emerging queer aesthetic, one that is always in a state of flux. If anything, it proves how challenging it can be to define the basic terms. The queer aesthetic is both tangible and intangible, historical and fictitious, public and private; and queer artists continue to develop unexpected ways to depict their desires, presence, and power.

Zachary Small