Form and Function: Art from Another Point of View

by Michael Abernethy

11 Apr 2011

Before and After (partial) (2003) by Deb Clem used with the artist's permission 

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”
—Twyla Tharp

A painting of the Virgin Mary about to lip-lock with the Virgen de Guadalupe. A photograph of two shirtless gay Muslim men sitting on a bed wearing masks of Mohammed and his son-in-law, Ali. A dinner plate with a drawing of a nude muscular man, legs in the air with blue roses blooming out of his butt. A close-up picture of two female mouths, each with perfect, brilliantly white teeth and luscious shades of lipstick, one set of teeth biting the lower lip of the other. A bronze statue of two nude women embracing, while a nude male fondles one of the women from behind.

Mention the term “LGBT art” and for some what comes to mind are images of nude or scantily clad buff men or sleek women engaged in various acts of self or mutual gratification. Ask these same people the name of a contemporary LGBT artist and many will reply with Robert Mapplethorpe, if they can answer at all. They know Mapplethorpe’s name, if not his art, because the late photographer made the news when censorship of his work raised important questions about artistic freedom. For these individuals, “controversial”, “salacious” and “LGBT art” are synonymous.

Those who are more culturally aware recognize that the works produced by LGBT artists are just like those produced by straight artists: some will illicit controversy, some will inspire, some will dazzle, and far too many will waste paint or clay and become dust collectors in the homes of people who look at the paintings in motel rooms and say, “That would look good over the sofa.” Much of what is available at street fairs, swap meets, and flea markets falls into the last category. If you ever feel compelled to decorate your home with labia-inspired ceramic flowers or the latest drawing from the latest guy who thinks he’s the new Tom of Finland, your local gay pride fair will likely meet all your decorating needs.

In short, it doesn’t matter what the artist’s sexuality is; it just matters if the art is good. Yet, that is all subjective. For starters, how do you tell the difference between an artist and someone who is merely a person with issues and a paintbrush? How one defines “artist” will depend on how one defines “art”.  Is the lesbian who has strung colored beads into a rainbow pattern on a cord an artist, jeweler, or craftsperson? Similarly, does taking pictures of your lover reclining nude in bed under mood lighting make you an artistic photographer, a pornographer, or the boyfriend of a Kardashian sister?

We hear people look at paintings hung in Important Galleries and say things such as, “That’s not art. Hell, I could that.” Fortunately, few of us are called out on that claim. Obviously, though, someone saw something in that work of art we didn’t; otherwise, it wouldn’t be in the Important Gallery. It is this inexactitude in defining “art”, let alone “good art”, that leads to controversy, and no demographic group has elicited more protests and controversy than LGBT artists.

In December 2010, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., became the latest museum to succumb to external pressure and remove “objectionable” art from a show, when it removed David Wojnarowicz’s 13-minute film Fire in My Belly from its retrospective of artwork highlighting sexual differences over the last 100 years, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”. House speaker John Boehner and the Catholic League protested; however, their complaints didn’t focus on the homoerotic content of the film. They objected to a seconds-long portion of the film that showed a small wooden cross with what appears to be a ceramic Jesus, laying on the ground and covered with ants.  David Wojnarowicz died in 1992 from AIDS-related illnesses, but his contributions as an influential painter, photographer, and filmmaker during the ‘80s call for his work to be shown alongside Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

Mary Magdalene and Virgen de Guadalupe by Alex Don

Mary Magdalene and Virgen de Guadalupe by Alex Don

Apparently, mixing religion into artwork with homosexual over- (or under-) tones guarantees controversy, as lesbian Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin knows quite well. Her series of photographs “Ecce Homo” has toured the world, but also brought complaints from the Pope and vandalism in the town of Jönköping, which is home to many of Sweden’s evangelical Christians. “Ecce Homo” is a series of 12 photographs, modern framings of Biblical scenes. In one photo, Jesus is on a hilltop surrounded by a group of leather men disciples, while a reworking of da Vinci’s The Last Supper features Jesus dining with 12 drag queens. Gay men and lesbians are featured in many of her works outside of “Ecce Homo”, as is Jesus, including a photo of a beautiful Jesus with a crown of thorns and a nipple ring.

Still, this is not to suggest that all art by LGBT artists is controversial in nature, and not all controversial art is religious in nature. In fact, most art created by LGBT artists deals with the same wide range of life experiences that all artistic genres examine: love, loss, pain, calm, nature, home life, life in the big city, life in the wild, life inside the artist’s head, life and death.  In some cases, LGBT artists explore these themes from a sexual identity perspective; more often, LGBT artists explore them from an artistic perspective, drawing from a variety of personal experiences and observations. 

To suggest that all artworks created by LGBT artists have LGBT themes is analogous to stating that all artwork created by African-American artists are Afro-centric, says Deb Clem, an accomplished artist and Professor of Fine Arts. She’s also a lesbian and has developed her own unique style, which she calls “Lesbaroque”. This series of paintings features contemporary portrayals of women that “reflect her fascination with the effects of light on form, and the ways in which dramatic lighting can impart a heightened sense of realism and solidity to the figure—in a manner reminiscent of Italian baroque painting”.

Her recent paintings often feature images of women juxtaposed with and woven into unusual backgrounds, such as a heart and rib cage or a nature scene. My personal favorite, “Zeon”, highlights a strikingly handsome African-American woman lying on her side; images of a refinery are visible through her transparent body.  “I paint what I’m interested in,” she tells me over lunch, eating two tacos that look infinitely better than my veggie quesadilla.  What interests her is women—not glamour queens or fashion models, but women of character and depth.

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