While pleasing to the eye, Queer(ing) Pleasure pushes against the psyche in some decidedly challenging ways. The five-artist exhibition, now on view at the District of Columbia Arts Center, seeks to broaden our understanding of pleasure beyond a historical art canon which centers on the experience of the European, cisgender male to the exclusion of other voices. Curator Andy Johnson takes a cue from the title of writer Audre Lorde’s 1978 book Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, conflating eroticism and pleasure into mechanisms that unlock individual potential. The artists involved take this concept one step further, positing that autonomy of one’s very body is a necessary precursor to experiencing pure, unadulterated pleasure in a myriad of forms.
Johnson’s use of the word queer initially focuses the discussion upon those who lead so-called alternative lifestyles—gays, lesbians, bisexuals and others who reflexively pose the question, ‘an alternative to what?’ This makes sense given that sexuality and the experience of pleasure are inextricably linked. Yet considering the word queer only through a rainbow prism of sexuality runs the risk of overlooking the physical marginalization of women and people of color who, even if they self-identify as heterosexual, must often fight like hell for the right to control their physical bodies.
This ongoing battle for physical and emotional autonomy is made crystal clear in Monique ‘Muse’ Dodd’s video Undoing (2018) where we see the protagonist slowly strip hair extensions from her scalp as she speaks frankly to an unknown paramour. At times she faces the camera, while at other moments we glimpse the growing pile of discarded hair filling a small basket. “Through a veil, I became a filter for others’ opinions, hurts and lies,” she proclaims. While physical violence or control is not necessarily alluded to, it is clear from the tone of her voice that her history includes the subjugation of her personal self-determination in the quest to meet the needs of others. The stripping of the extensions can be understood on multiple levels–shedding artifice or imposed standards of beauty among them–but they all lead to the acknowledgement that personal autonomy is a critical component of self-love. Snippets of overlaid text that occasionally frame her face are superfluous; the tone of her voice and the slightly unnerving drone in the background convey the unease of her revelations in a more nuanced manner, ending in her acknowledgement that, “… I trusted myself more.”
Her final gaze transmits a sense of hope—of freedom—in acknowledging her basic, unadulterated physical body. That sense of being at ease with the self comes through in her nearby photo triptych which includes her visage in La Negra de Nadie (2017). Roughly translated as ‘Nobody’s Black Woman’, the image (replete with short hair) suggests a woman more fully inhabiting her own skin. The complementary images Offering for Oshun I and II (both 2017) lend her visage a regal, beatific air.
John Paradiso displays a similar arc of considering personal autonomy in works that span three decades of his artistic career. Three black and white photographs dating from 1988-1991 display the body in stark, almost medicalized terms. Here the (gay) male body is front and center in an ongoing battle for self-determination against political and medical forces that contextualize the body as a vector of disease or societal corruption. On the Edge (1988) displays a series of four images of a body in spectral motion. Harsh light from the left of the frame projects shadows across a torso, cloaking facial expressions and rendering the figure an anonymous everyman. Far from muscularly powerful, the subject here is physically traumatized. The legs are slightly crossed and the arms are contorted behind the body, subjecting the body to pain in a pose reminiscent of the figure in Andrea Mantegna Saint Sebastian (1460). In the context of gay male culture in the 1980s, martyrdom is an apt analogy at a time when gay men were dying in droves from a mysterious disease that culture writ-large ignored. The ways in which gay men’s short-lived sexual freedom was curtailed by the medical establishment is summed up in Sterile Latex (1991), which places literal plastic between the viewer and the body in corpse-like repose. Even the humor espoused by the cheeky Seductive (1991) is tempered by the inclusion of caution tape, rendering the exposed body into a crime scene waiting for forensic analysis. The mood espoused by these images is bleak, showcasing a biological war against the body fueled by political and social animus.
Twenty-five plus years of shifting social and political mores (not to mention medical breakthroughs) bring a new awareness to Paradiso’s art. Has age mellowed his perceptions of the world? Perhaps, but I suggest that more likely those changing attitudes have created possibilities to develop a more nuanced, fluid understanding of the self in relationship to the dominant culture. The artist’s current work in embroidery is a radical shift in technique both in form and production. A Pair of Bottoms (2014) and Bear Fruit (2015) coyly juxtapose their muscular, masculine forms with materials and techniques long thought to be the domain of the ‘fairer sex’. Subtle patterns of flowers and foliage weave their way through the works, often forming the skin of the body. Here he suggests notions of masculine and feminine can be intertwined within the same form; not antithetical to one another but existing in harmony. These ideals undergird our nascent sexual identity and suggest that the way(s) we practice pleasure can be broadened by a more encompassing sense of gender roles and meanings.
Tsedaye Makonnen brings a unique perspective to this intertwining of gender identities, adding in a decidedly non-Western aesthetic that reminds the viewer that identity is influenced by culture just as it is by gender. The Crowning Series: Audre Lorde’s Erotic Edition (2018), conceived for this exhibition but part of an ongoing artistic investigation, is both performative piece and installation. As an installation, the work features three cloaks hanging on a wall, with fishnet material dangling within the top of the garment where the wearer’s neck would be located. On small shelves above the garments are three gold “crowns” which upon closer examination are the bones of the female pelvis. The cloaks are gender non-specific; during performances they are worn by both men and women. The rich visual motifs are decidedly non-Western in character; the spare Christian iconography in the stitched detailing plays only a supporting role in fabric filled with celebratory symbols of Nature. The combination of crown and fabric celebrate the female body in particular, highlighting its fecund connection to earth in a manner largely overlooked in the Christian worldview. Yet Makonnen’s world is not fully a paradise; within the fishnet material are small bottles of whitening creams sold the world over to bleach the user’s skin. These bottles serve as reminders of the intense pressure within non-white communities to conform to a distinctly European worldview. While the United States grows more ethnically diverse, the artist notes the struggle to love one’s body in a world that doesn’t always acknowledge—much less celebrate—this diversity.
Antonius Bui builds upon this duality of gender in their piece Vănguard (2018), a beautifully detailed hand-cut paper work that gently floats upon the gallery wall. Bui, a first-generation, Vietnamese-American artist, identifies as gender non-binary, using they/them as descriptive pronouns. Like Makonnen, they work to establish an identity that flourishes within a dominant culture that historically discounts their lived experience. Vănguard features the silhouette of body whose contours are equally defined by filigree lines and the negative space those lines create. The visage is ethnically ambiguous. So too is the torso, with arms across the chest that obscure the pectoral area. This combination suggests an amalgamation of genders and ethnicities, of a body that exists across a spectrum of truth. This spectrum also includes a healthy dose of pleasure, as identified by the “tattoos” along the arms. Pinups, depictions of sexual dominance and a neck choker are seemingly worn with pride, usurping the way in which mainstream culture often fetishizes non-procreative sexual expression; eroticism, though visually tame, is certainly felt. The patterned motif of the backdrop over the figure’s left shoulder and floral components over the right add a decidedly Asian aesthetic to the work, suggesting an autobiographical component that mirrors Bui’s lived experience. Like Paradiso’s embroidered works, the vegetation continues onto the “skin” of the torso, but where Paradiso suggests a push-and-pull between two gender norms, the interplay of positive and negative space within Bui’s piece lends it an ethereal quality that emulsifies the competing gender traits into a new, individualistic entity.
Jade Yumang is the artistic outlier of the exhibition, presenting works that do not display or suggest a recognizable human body. Of his four works, Torso Floret (2010) is the most immediately accessible, if only for the recognizable snippets of erotically charged body parts that bend and twist with the curves of cut paper. While the male body is on display, it is also deconstructed—dissected if you will—negating its erotic impact in a manner which feels uncomfortably clinical. The dispassion evinced by the cutting resonates with the treatment of the body in Paradiso’s Sterile Latex, even though the linkage here between medicine and the male body more generalized.
The artist’s three assemblages Page 17 (2013), Page 30 and Page 2 (both 2015) build upon this notion of deconstruction. With a certain amount of introspection, the works, which are composed of foam, rib knit and cotton fabric, gradually blossom into biomorphic body parts. It is as if the skin is sliced open and turned inside out, allowing the proverbial guts – the meat of the body – to spill into the open. The intent (and visual effect) is more metaphorical than physically graphic, with its symbolism heightened by the vaguely phallic, dangling forms whose color combinations are achieved courtesy of the same pornographic material seen in Torso Floret. Far from alluring, the fleshy skin-toned tubules suggest a body laid bare, with its concomitant emotional faculties equally on display. Though laid raw, the materials themselves suggest a certain resiliency, underscored by the abundance of ribbed knit in two of the works. It is as if the “body” laid before us will keep itself intact in spite of cultural forces that seek to tear it apart.
As a group, the artists in Queer(ing) Pleasure bring a rich tapestry of experiences to the table, showcasing that notions of what is “queer” exist far beyond physical or sexual desire. While the artists’ vastly different personal histories underscore the disparate art in the exhibition, what makes the show relatively cohesive is the fact that their bodily autonomy is activated through in each work. Yet they do not just demand autonomy from the dominant culture; that would assume the dominant culture has something to give. Rather, what we see is the growth of autonomy from within, bubbling up through their individual psyches in a way that cannot be contained by outside forces. It spills up from the works onto the gallery walls; hopefully we take a bit of it with us as we exit.
Queer(ing) Pleasure runs through October 14, 2018 at the District of Columbia Arts Center. For more information, visit their website here.
Banner image: On the Edge(1988), detail; John Paradiso; Gelatin silver prints from solarized negatives; 24 in x 9 in. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.