Archives for posts with tag: LGBTQ

I was early to meet a friend for this little art trip, so I lurked in the bookshop. I picked up a copy of Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London’. The blurb contained the following line:

He also describes how London shaped the politics of queer life; and how London was in turn shaped by the lives of queer men.

Queer men, everyone. Not queer people, or the queer community, you’ll notice. This level of erasure of queer women (hello) and non-binary folk did not instil me with great hopes for the exhibition. I was livid before I’d even got through the door.

So I went in thinking it’d be a bit shit and fall short of what the British Queer community deserve. Tate seems to be aware of how easy it is to mess up shows like this. The wall text set out a lot of boundaries and caveats – the show looks at the specific time period 1861 – 1967, the dates of the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men respectively. These dates don’t refer to gay women and it was highlighted throughout the show that gay women were largely ignored by the law. This isn’t the Tate’s fault, obviously, but it irks me nonetheless. The text did contain this nice little phrase ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’, which succinctly encapsulates the violence experienced by the queer community throughout history. But they’ve also claimed that there is ‘little surviving material’ for some aspects of queer life, which increased my apprehension about whose perspectives the show would platform.

Simeon Solomon’s ‘The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love’ 1865

Like queer history, the show focuses mostly on gay men. Tate did well to try to show a diverse view of queer identities, including two lovers identifying as one person, and various relationships of three people or more. But it is largely a show about white cis gay men.
Diversity of experience aside, the multiplicity of feeling in queer life is shown well. Aubrey Beardsley’s uproarious, erotic and high lols drawings depicts men with massive cocks literally bigger than them. Homoeroticism, sex and humour are at the forefront of these images. Compare these to Simeon Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, a devastating drawing showing the heartbreak of a homosexual entering into a heterosexual marriage, and leaving behind former lovers. There’s a richness of sexuality and emotion in the works on show.

Aubrey Beardsley ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’ 1896

Rooms 3 & 4 are nicely juxtaposed, showing two opposite sides of queerness living side by side. ‘Theatrical types’ in room 4 showcases the camp and the glam of queerness, our love of feathers and tiaras, how the theatrical arena has long been a safe space for queer people. This room, with its costumes and photographs of Vaudeville cross dressing stars, is the art historical equivalent of Pride and Drag Race.

Leaving behind the glitz and glamour, the next room, ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’, is filled largely with images of domesticity, of afternoon tea and vases of flowers. Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert shows a warm domestic scene with the table laid for tea, and is hardly an explicit or erotic depiction of homosexuality. Here is the deeply mundane, sheer normality of queer life. In the words of comedian Susan Calman, it’s not all sex swings and dildos.

Ethel Sands’ ‘Tea with Sickert’ 1911-12

A blockbuster show of Queer Art in a major institution is quite something. Undoubtedly it demonstrates the relatively new openness that surrounds the LGBT+ community, and is something to be celebrated as a mark of ‘how far we’ve come’. It’s also easy to get wrong. Tate has managed OK, there are numerous portrayals of non gay-cis-white-male aspects of queerness, and Tate has addressed some shortfallings directly, such as pointing out Edward Wolfe’s racist exoticisation of his black male models, but failed entirely to reference any gay women of colour. Filling the last room with Hockney and Bacon underlined the prominence of white cis gay artists on the queer art scene. Perhaps this is why I found the show a bit dull. If the remit of the show extended past 1967 maybe Tate would not be able to hide behind history as a reason for omitting aspects of queer life.

 

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The opening room places beauty and death at the heart of the American Dream. On the left is Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair, 1971, multiple screen prints of an empty electric chair, rendered in Warhol’s famous colourful style. Opposite is Warhol’s Marilyn, 1967, multiple prints of Marilyn Monroe, in similar scale and colours to Electric Chair. Warhol used press images as the basis for both of these series; the photograph of an electric chair standing in an empty room was taken after the last execution in New York, Marilyn’s photo was a press shot for one of her films.

Facing one another we have the face of American beauty and an iconic representative of death in America. And of course Marilyn killed herself, so death feels like the predominant theme here.

Across the back of the room is Rosenquist’s F-111, a print depicting an F-111 fighter jet, with images of mushroom clouds and of girls having their hair blow dried in a beauty salon. Making yourself beautiful seems futile in the face of the slaughter of the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear destruction.

This is a pretty bold statement for the first room. Is this the American Dream – execution, war, suicide, with a thin veneer of beauty? These works are nice examples of Pop Art ridiculing and critiquing that which it impersonates.

I wasn’t that hot on Rauschenberg in his retrospective at the Tate Modern, but I liked the pieces from his Stoned Moon series on show in The American Dream. A bifurcated print shows in the lower left Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the sky reaching out above him, and in the top right an American farmer sits in his field, the ground stretching down below him. The split image emphasises the distance and difference between the space program and life in America, but the farmer seems as heroic as the astronaut, he is even placed higher in the image. This is deliverance of sorts from the bleakness of the first room.

I fell a little bit in love with Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station 1966 and Hollywood 1968. The Hollywood sign disappears in an exaggerated perspective, brownish sky and hills create an empty and vast landscape behind. Similarly, a red, white and blue gas station vanishes swiftly in strong perspective, with an orange sunset sky. The gas station, treated in the same way as the Hollywood sign, becomes as quintessentially American. These two works were for me the perfect illustration of Warhol’s quote at the beginning of the exhibition: ‘Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there…’ Hollywood and Standard Station depict images of my own myth of America (as formulated mostly by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) – all empty golden sky and endless distance as shown through Ruscha’s use of perspective.


I have a bit of a problem with these enormous blockbuster exhibitions. I begin with over two hours until the museum closes and think this is plenty of time, scrutinising each work as I go along, then by the time I get to room 7 of 12 I only have half an hour left and have to whizz round.

So I had to whizz round the three final rooms. They addressed gender, race, and the AIDS crisis. I can see that placing these issues at the end of the show could drag you back from the sober artiness of all the minimalism/photorealism/art chat of the middle rooms (which were nice enough but they didn’t exactly call to me). There are risks though: a) you’ll be too tired/rushed from the previous 9 rooms and b) it can look smooshed onto the end as a kind of whoops we’d better include some women/POC. Both of these happened. I wasn’t impressed by the compression of women, POC and the LGBTQ community into the smallest rooms of the show after rooms and rooms of white men. But this is the BM and white men predominate blockbuster exhibitions anyway so it isn’t a monumental shock.

Anyway. I mostly came to this show for the promise of Kara Walker, having never seen any of her fantastic political historical silhouettes in real life.

Her No World from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010, depicts a black woman’s silhouette beneath the ocean, a slave ship held aloft above the waves by a pair of human hands, with a slave owner and slave girl dancing on land. Walker’s work unapologetically addresses America’s history of slavery and racism. The wealth of a slave ship is saved from destruction by the death of a black woman. Her hands could drag the ship beneath the waves, but only the future slaves will drown with her, and the slave owner would still be dancing safely in his plantation.

This is the first point that slavery is addressed in this show ABOUT AMERICA, and it’s in room 11 of 12. Room 1 was pretty blunt in its discussion of death and suicide and the falsity of the notion of the American Dream, but slavery is still somehow too taboo to address properly because it makes the (mostly white and middle class) audience of these blockbuster exhibitions feel uncomfortable. It’s particularly noteworthy that the British Museum, arguably the epitome of the theft of the British Empire, puts slavery as a footnote to the history of America.

I suppose it’s a step in the right direction that gender, sexuality and race are being discussed in such an old school establishment as the BM but it would be better it if these issues were dealt with as an ongoing and central aspect of life, not separate issues of relevance only to minority groups. It was a bit like ‘here is an exhibition of proper art, and also some black art, some queer art and some women’s art’, because these three ‘types’ of art are a) subplots within art as if e.g. women aren’t half the world’s population and b) these artists aren’t proper artists because they deal with their lived experiences life instead of things like the problem of form.

There was some sick pieces on show – I have now seen Warhol’s iconic Marilyn in the flesh – but the layout of the show emphasises the long way still to go for women, POC and queer folk to be appropriately valued in art.