Selection by Adriana Kuri Alamillo

“The private is the public for those for
whom the personal is the political.”

Michael Warner, Public and Private, 2005 1

Artists have a long history of living and speaking from outside of society’s established norms. Sexual difference, homoerotic imagery and questions of representation have appeared throughout art history; though it is contemporary artists who were among those at the vanguard of queer social movements and who helped place sexual identity at the center of cultural, social and political debates. Debates that informed and were informed by the practices of these artists and that brought about new ways of thinking on how society is structured.

Queer, up until the nineteenth century, was employed as a way of pointing to things or individuals that were considered odd, eccentric, or outside social norms. The word carried a particular kind of judgement and was often offered up as an epithet ascribed to others rather than oneself. However, it wasn’t until 1894 that it was specifically deployed as a homophobic slur by John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensbury, in a letter to his son. 2

Queer has taken on the characteristics of a noun, an adjective and a verb. A person can be queer, but so can a community or an object. It can signify belonging, adherence to a set of cultural or social ideologies, or a position of political activism. It can even be deployed as actionable, through the queering of subjects or material. Queering brought the private into the public, consciously making use of space, institutions and sites in the public sphere to address the countless positions of apartness from which queer is posited. Thus creating a community formed precisely “by [its] conflict with the norms and contexts of [its] cultural environment” 3 and “[working] to elaborate new worlds of culture and social relations in which gender and sexuality can be lived… [by] making possible new forms of gendered or sexual citizenship – meaning active participation in collective world making through publics of sex and gender.” 4

Thus, instead of speaking about the public, we can now speak of a plurality of publics; and as these new voices adopted queer to theorize about different modes of existence within culture and society, they in turn created an ideological movement rooted in queer theory. By appropriating queer and its strategies these publics address the inequity of institutional power, provide an opportunity to destabilize binary genders and heteronormative roles, and call out or target the camouflaged policing of the norm. Contemporary artists have engaged with this expanded notion of queer since the 1960s, participating in a world-making project that aims to support new and different forms of affective, erotic, personal and public living.
Txomin Badiola, Jonathan Horowitz and Silvia Gruner all seek to resignify aspects of what is considered the norm, culturally and socially. Badiola’s Vida Cotidiana (con dos personajes pretendiendo ser humanos) [Everyday Life (with two characters pretending to be human)] engages two characters who reenact moments from their lives in front of the camera. Clad in military boots, boxing shorts and a ski mask, the central character’s apparel brings to mind that of the leather subculture, and could be interpreted as a kind of drag. However, the domestic interior, open pizza box and beer cans ground the moment in the banal. This constellation of objects manages to construct a normality into which these odd half-naked characters are reified. Jonathan Horowitz’s Crucifix for Two subverts religious symbolism by transforming the representation of the singular torment of ‘the saviour’ into a sign of shared suffering. Made up of two identical carved wood, conjoined crosses, the piece critiques the heteronormative conventions that designate homosexuals as unacceptable within the Church. Horowitz subtly reverses pre-established notions and introduces new narratives. Silvia Gruner decontextualizes objects that are symbols of the domestic and female in Lazy Susan. The four-minute video sequence of a rotating tray upon which two glasses seem to dance to the rhythm of classical music resignifies the table, the plates, and the cutlery. Reducing them to absurd little characters in a dance, Gruner strips away their usual connotations and uses, producing a work that can be read as a confrontation with gender and the binaries that structure our understanding of objects, spaces and identities.
Michael Warner writes that “like those of gender, the orientations of public and private are rooted in what anthropologists call habitus: the conventions by which we experience, as though naturally, our own bodies and movement in the space of the world.” 5 The fact that gender, its recognition and ability to impact in the public sphere is dictated by norms that have historically categorized the masculine as public and feminine as private, as well as the idea that these categories are anything but social and cultural constructs is a critical point for contemporary artists. Sherrie Levine’s Buddha deconstructs authorship, authenticity, originality and materiality by appropriating and reproducing the work of male artists who commandeered patriarchal dominance of the art historical canon; suggesting that all of these defining categories have an inherent mutability beyond our preconceived notion that genius is gendered. She points out male public dominance by inserting both her practice and person into the canon and refusing to fade into the private sphere. Similarly, Monica Bonvicini’s work raises issues of gender, power, relationships, politics and representation. The cracking glass, dripping letters and enameled message in No Erection without Castration create a strange mixture of aggressivity and irony that demystifies the role of masculinity in contemporary society. Bonvicini deconstructs the theater of spectacle that surrounds masculinity by intervening materials and presenting messages that allude to specific kinds of activities usually performed by men.
Danny McDonald and John Waters take on two idols of popular culture as a jumping off point from which to deconstruct ideas of femininity and masculinity. Both represent stars from our cultural imaginary in their pieces, questioning they ways in which they’ve been identified and inscribed into culture and pointing to them as existing parts of queer discourse. A simple downward flick of the hand communicates a queer identity in James Dean was Gay. McDonald appropriates a symbol used by the LGBTQIA+ community to indicate sexuality and integrates it into a sculpture of the actor who, despite rumor, always expressed he wasn’t gay and who has gone down in history as an icon of heteronormative masculinity. John Waters on the other hand, deptics only snippets of Elizabeth Taylor’s body, deconstructing the overly feminized bombshell of classical Hollywood cinema. The blank square at the middle of Liz Taylor’s Hair and Feet is surrounded by photographs of Elizabeth Taylor; and asks the viewer to imagine themselves as surrounded by and possessing her hair and feet. This in turn queers her perceived iconic femininity, as parts of her image are mixed, matched and combined with the viewer’s own imagination. McDonald and Waters transform fundamental styles of embodiment, through works that mediate the identities they represent.
Language has the power to both affirm and disrupt the norm. Sarah Lucas, Ugo Rondinone and Glenn Ligon employ it as a vehicle for queering reality. In Love - Sculpture for the Blind Lucas takes on the conventions surrounding sexuality and love, pointing to the idea that people with disabilities are often desexualized in the public mind and challenging the hypocrisy that surrounds these topics through radical presence. Ugo Rondinone’s Love Invents Us quite literally declares support for the liberty to choose who one loves through the incorporation of the rainbow—a symbol that has become synonymous with the queer community—within his sculptural phrase. Meanwhile, Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #28 takes on James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” to refer to being seen and not seen at the same time. The cream colored text becomes almost invisible upon a surface of the same color, alluding to the unseen struggles of being Black and queer in a white-dominated heteronormative society; an experience that both Ligon and Baldwin share.

The artists who engage with queer identity, queering and the strategies of disruption that emerged from queer theory and queer social or political movements all seek to break down the normative, transform modes of embodiment, identity and social relations, and alter the habitus by which people understand themselves and their surroundings. They engage with politics and worlding hoping to “[spur] questions, imperatives, urges and aims that hover around the capacity to make strange, to bracket normalcy, and to demand the ability to reject, to self-determinate and to simply depart from.” 6

Text by Adriana Kuri Alamillo

1 Michael Warner, “Public and Private,” in Publics and Counterpublics (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2014), 33.
2 David J. Getsy, “Introduction // Queer Intolerability and its Attachments,” introduction to Queer: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. David J. Getsy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; Whitechapel Gallery, 2016), 12-13 & Christina B. Hanhardt, “Queer History”, The American Historian, Organization of American Historians, June 15, 2021, /2019/may/queer-history/.
3 Michael Warner, “Public and Private,” in Publics and Counterpublics (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2014), 63.
4 Michael Warner, “Public and Private,” in Publics and Counterpublics (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2014), 56-57.
5 Michael Warner, “Public and Private,” in Publics and Counterpublics (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2014), 23.
6 David J. Getsy, “Introduction // Queer Intolerability and its Attachments,” introduction to Queer: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. David J. Getsy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; Whitechapel Gallery, 2016), 22.
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