31 January 2018 From veterans to up-and-comers, here are the artists who are shaping our queer future.
Last year’s mountain of queer art was a godsend to those of us exasperated by 2017’s perpetual political covfefe. How could we have survived it without the unprecedented buildup of LGBTQ+ culture, without movies like Call Me by Your Name and music like St. Vincent’s Masseduction that either transcended politics or shifted the conversation? The visual arts also had a particularly strong year, showcasing everything from knitted odes to lesbian van communities to trans protest art soaked in urine.
The sheer quantity and quality of queer art on display in 2017 means that 2018 is a decidedly more mum affair. Nevertheless, we can expect a number of artists to have a clamorous new year. This assembly is a mix of faces old and new; people we expect and people to you’d never see coming:
There are few figurative painters today that demand as concentrated a look as Dale Lewis. His massive, rough, often-unfinished canvases draw viewers into a mélange of scenes from daily life. Birthday parties. Family dinners. Gay orgies. It’s all here. What makes Lewis’s work so entrancing is his indulgence in the anxieties of public life. Street scenes become gruesome if also hilarious. You find anthropomorphic animals holding hands with humans. Woman splayed across dinner tables while disgusting men class at her. Another scene: go-go dancers twerking for a crowd. (That one’s called Church.)
Underneath the irreverence and compositional complexity of Lewis’ work is something more complex: a search for British identity. The UK is still searching for itself following its fractious Brexit vote in June 2016. Lewis’s canvases are an exploration into London’s multicultural composition that plays with both the delights and angsts of white British life. And Lewis is starting this year off strong after an extremely busy 2017. January sees the opening of his solo show in London’s Edel Assanti gallery.
If last year’s underdogs are truly this year’s champions, then Paul Mpagi Sepuya is raring to go in the new year. 2017 saw this Los Angeles-based artist make a splash in New York with an impressive solo show at Yancey Richardson in Chelsea, plus inclusions in group exhibitions at Spring/Break art show and the New Museum’s blockbuster Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon exhibition. Sepuya will begin this year by showcasing work in MoMA’s long-celebrated annual exhibition, New Photography. He will also have new work in the ICA Philadelphia’s show about queer digital life, called Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Way Forward, which opens February 2.
What makes this artist’s photography so refreshing is its delicate investigation of gaze and sensuality. Sepuya’s work often circulates around themes of queer community and the camera’s gaze. Historically, he dredges up some uncomfortable truths about how photography has mangled queer bodies — specifically black, queer bodies — through the slicing-and-dicing of editorial techniques. From these fragments, Sepuya imbues his subjects and self-portraits with power. The illusory depth of his photographs conspires with the centrally-placed camera, to make explicit the invisible power dynamics behind every photograph.
Arguably one of today’s leading artists, Mickalene Thomas stands out from the pack because of her ability to own the legacy of Dadaism as a black lesbian woman. She integrates elements of abstraction and collage with an interest in textiles and texture. Opulent fabrics, glitter, rhinestones, and paint typically surround the subjects of her work. Combining such unlikely elements, Thomas revels in the "too much" as she argues that materiality has a place in the creation and fortification of identity.
Although quite established in the art world, this is the year that Mickalene Thomas goes nationwide. At the tail end of 2017, Thomas created a steamy poster in support of ACLU’s civil liberty awareness campaign. This year, Thomas will feature in two large exhibitions across the country. At the Seattle Art Museum, she headlines Figuring History alongside Robert Colescott and Kerry James Marshall. The exhibition centers Black experience and perspective within an art history that so often ignores people of color. Down in Alabama, Thomas’ work appears in Posing Beauty in African American Culture, which runs through March 4.
For decades now, historians have attempted to reckon with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s as a force of both mobilization and decimation within the gay community. With exponentially increasing frequency, they point toward the work of David Wojnarowicz, a fervently political and highly personal artist who lived through the epidemic and died from it in 1992. Although Wojnarowicz has become the obvious inclusion for virtually every exhibition dealing with AIDS, his exact position within the history of queer art remains somewhat more elusive.
Come July 13, the Whitney Museum will open its long-anticipated retrospective of the artist’s work. With skill as a graphic designer and an eye for queer literary references, Wojnarowicz pushes the envelope on queer aesthetics; he mixes the sexually lurid with the political active, the comical with the mordant.
South Africa continues to have widespread civil rights protests amid rising post-Apartheid inequality and social unrest. Driving this resistance is a generation of activists and artists seeking a more equitable country for black and poor people. Zanele Muholi is a major exponent of this movement, casting her poignant queer portrait photography into the fray as a symbol of South Africa’s attacked LGBTQ+ population. (In her spare time, she’s also co-founded the Forum of Empowerment of Women and Inkanyisa, a platform for queer and visual activism.) As a black lesbian woman, Muholi has experienced vicious target attacks against her person and work. In a country where honor killings and “corrective” rapes against lesbians are a true threat, Muholi knows that many of the women she’s photographed have been killed. “The risk we take is on a daily basis,” said Muholi in an interview with The Guardian, “just living, and thinking what might happen, not only to you but also your fellow activists and friends who are living their lives.”
Documenting the shifts in queer culture for over 30 years, the aptly named photographer, Lola Flash, will present a retrospective of her work at Pen + Brush Gallery in Manhattan starting January 25.
Beginning her career in the 1980s, much of Flash’s early photography documents anti-Reagan AIDS protests in New York. Still, her work goes deeper; quickly, these images form a critique against gay white cis-men who fail to grasp the enduring privileges of their skin color. (See the acid trippy negative “K” (1989) featuring two buff white men in skimpy underwear and Ku Klux Klan masks.) Progressing through her oeuvre, Flash focuses on upsetting normalized and oppressive standards of gender, age, and race. Portraiture includes images of queer avant-garde trendsetters, elegant older women, and every day trans folk.
Confronting racism, violence, and exclusion is a dangerous job, but Muholi has no plans of retiring any time soon. Come April 2018, she will publish Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, a book of self-portraits that make the political personal by prioritizing the black face as a site of identification, interrogation, and ultimately, humanity.
Already enshrined in the firmament of modern-day masters, Hockney is experiencing a late-career renaissance with a traveling career retrospective that currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum's vaunted galleries until February 25. Known for his tender depictions of queer domestic life, the octogenarian painter’s exhibition reminds viewers that queerness can be just as gentle as it is radical. History is important, and the earliest of Hockney’s works hail from a time when homosexuality was still criminalized in both the United States and the artist’s native Britain. Regardless, Hockney depicted gay love from the very beginning of his career. See We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961), an abstract, messy love letter to gay touch and queer revelation.
The old is new again. Even with such a stacked portfolio, 2018 may see the artist take his greatest stride. Within his retrospective, Hockney is exhibiting some super-recent work that indicates what the artist has in store for 2018. Most striking is A Bigger Interior With Blue Terrace and Garden. Finished just last year, Hockney has cut two corners from the bottom of his canvas, allowing the illusion of space to warp and wind across the painting, entwining the viewer in its landscape. Such innovation may have its roots in mural paintings from the Italian Renaissance, but Hockney is one of the few contemporary artists reviving this perspectival shift with such aesthetic verve.