¿Y QUÉ? – Queer Art Made in Texas
by Harmony Hammond, Curator
In early 2006 when Tricia Earl, Adjunct instructor in Art, Texas Tech University, invited me to curate an exhibition of work by Texas-based queer artists for Landmark Arts, the School of Art gallery, my answer was a fast “yes.” Frustrated about the lack of queer presence in and around Lubbock, Tricia decided to do something, and began by talking with her colleague Ed Check, Associate Professor of Visual Studies. Together, they approached Joe Arredondo at Landmark Arts who helped them write a proposal to the Exhibitions and Visiting Artists Committee of the School of Art. Once the proposal for the exhibition was approved, Tricia contacted me.
In 1999 I had curated the highly successful exhibition OUT WEST, at PLAN B Evolving Arts in Santa Fe (now the Center for Contemporary Arts), a regional exhibition of work by queer-identified artists from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Ed was one of the artists in that show, along with fellow Texans Phillip Avila, David Zamora Casas, Tom Holmes, Gerard Huber, Scott Liffshutz, James Magee, Jim Quinnan, Chuck Ramirez, and Greg Stadler (while there were many women artists in OUT WEST, none were from Texas). More people turned out for the opening of OUT WEST than any other opening in PLAN B’s history. More importantly, the exhibition provided an opportunity for the artists to meet each other, and rendered queer lives, work and culture visible to the larger Santa Fe community. People still talk about it.
Around the time Tricia called, I was also invited to con-sider curating exhibitions in San Francisco and New York. Three shows at one time is too much, so based on my experience of not living in a large urban environment (Santa Fe, despite its self-promotion as the 2nd or 3rd largest art center in the United States, depending on who’s doing the promoting, remains quite provincial), I decided that Lubbock was most important of the three, and bowed out of San Francisco and New York for the time being.
Tricia and Ed have elaborated on the category “queer” in their foreword, but what constitutes queer art? What does it mean to be a queer artist? To have work in a queer exhibition? Presumably it means that one makes queer art, but what is that? While there is no agreement as to what exactly constitutes queer art, it is generally thought to reflect queer identity and to contribute to the development of that identity. Just as there is no fixed queer identity, there is no single queer aesthetic or sensibility, and we like it that way.
Is the quality “queer” embodied in the art object, the sexuality of the artist or viewer, or the viewing context? This question circulates around all discussions of queer art and refuses easy answers. It can be any or all of the above. Queer art is not a stylistic movement but art that comes out of a consciousness of being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered or two-spirited (LGBTT) in a patriarchal heterosexual culture. This consciousness may be implicitly or explicitly articulated. It may vary in style, imagery, materials used, concept, or content. It may be figurative, abstract, symbolic, conceptual or performative. Is all art made by queers queer art? Or just that which looks queer? Who decides what “looks queer?” What role do stereotypes play as visual signifiers of queerness? Who maintains these? What about coded imagery? How does queerness shape visual images and how do visual images construct gender, sexuality, race, and class? These are the messy questions that will not go away. They are raised over and over again by the artwork itself. Hopefully the art in this exhibition will provide some answers at the same time it asks new questions.
Personally, I am not interested in defining an essential queer identity, sensibility, or aesthetic, but rather interested in looking at art by self-identified queers at different times and locations, to see what forms it currently takes, what issues it addresses and how it relates to larger social, political and cultural concerns of the moment. Given the proliferation of queer shows during the queer renaissance of the 1990’s, one might ask, aren’t we beyond all this? An ongoing discussion in queer art and academic circles in recent years has been: Why queer exhibitions? Aren’t they an idea whose time has come and gone? Don’t they just ghettoize queer art and artists, thereby perpetuating marginalization?
In 2005, the Queer Caucus for Art sponsored a panel on this subject at the College Art Association. Short presentations by panelists led into a lively and instructive audience discussion. Art historian James Saslow reported on this discussion in the May 2005 issue of the Caucus newsletter:
The topic had been framed as an opposition between two models of queer art production; the Stonewall identity-politics idea of group solidarity and community institutions, vs. a “post-queer” position, that such identities are too unstable and irrelevant to constitute a valid category of cultural discourse or exhibition. But what emerged, encouragingly, was the realization that such a dichotomy is false and misleading: we continue to need both sorts of production, but for different purposes and audiences. As a community, we should continue to nurture work that might otherwise not be seen, or properly understood. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the mainstream commercial art world has as Jenni [Sorkin] put it, “gone global:” the decline of interest in queer arts coincided with the widening commercialization and globalization of the 1990s, in the wake of which many mega-media have aimed their sights away from minority “niche markets” and toward a broad, if shallow, common denominator. Attracting the attention of the queer community and the international art world are both valuable goals, but they aren’t the same enterprise.
Despite queer inroads in academia or urban centers, or the inclusiveness of “queer” itself, my experiences in the trenches (I seem to hang out there as much as anywhere) confirm the panel discussion. While it may not be momentarily trendy, commercially viable or considered the cutting edge of radicality on the global biennial trade routes, contrary to the belief that we are ”post-queer” or “post-feminist,” there continues to be a need for and value to identity-based exhibitions (remember, on the simplest level, an exhibition is “a show”!). This is especially true outside of major urban areas with large queer populations, but even there, I would argue, queer based exhibitions, historical or contemporary, give us an opportunity to study certain aspects of our creative work that often get diminished or erased when the work is contextualized within the mainstream. With democratic presidential hopefuls bumbling about gay marriage and partner benefits (“the country just isn’t ready”), the increase in sanctioned gay-bashing and hate crimes, the high suicide rate among queer youth, and continued right-wing organizing against gay rights bills, queer exhibitions in spaces like Landmark Arts, and cities like Lubbock, are more important than ever. Queer cultural expression has the potential not only of empowering LGBTT peoples, but also of playing a major role in the empowering of many marginalized peoples. It is through an understanding of our connectedness to others, a connectedness that can embrace difference and individual expression, that we will be able to withstand the reactionary forces at work today. If we need a term to rally under, then let’s claim “neo-queer” (itself the title of a queer caucus-sponsored exhibition in 2004 at the Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle), or “neo-feminism’ to acknowledge a tradition of creative practice and simultaneously allow for change and fluidity.
¿Y QUÉ?–Queer Art Made in Texas expresses defiance and attitude. ¿Y QUÉ? has a double meaning. On the one hand it implies, “…yeah, I’m queer, so what? What’s it to you?” But it also implies a continuation “…and what else? Okay, so you’re queer but what else are you?” Texan, Chicano/a, African-American, Anglo, Indio, Asian, Urban, Country, Mestizo, Norteño, Barrio East, West Side, Disco, Punk, Hippie, Yuppie, Gen X, Gen Y, Teddy Bear, Radical Faerie, Academic, Bull-dagger, Cowboy, Drag Queen/King, Cross Dresser, Transexual, Bisexual, Sado-masochist, Feminist, Artist, Performer, Top, Bottom, Activist, Law-breaking, Law-abiding, La Buena Amiga, Butch, Femme, Collaborator, Street-smart, Fatty, Skinny, Person Living With HIV/AIDS? “Made in Texas” resonates with Hecho en Mexico, acknowledging ties with our geographic and cultural neighbors south of the border as well as the histories and cultures of many Tejanos.
Certainly the wide open landscapes of Texas provide a space for the sexual outlaw and transgressive creative acts, however, in some places, one can travel a long way before meeting “familia” or stumbling on outposts of queer culture, however they manifest themselves. One gets thirsty. The larger cities and towns however, have sizeable art and queer communities that overlap. This is especially true in Austin and San Antonio where there is a long history of LGBTT art exhibitions, screenings, performances and events centered around or organized by: the University of Texas (their recent Queer Texas Conference is an example); organizations such as ACTUP AIDS; queer film and video festivals; and not-for-profit art spaces such as Blue Star Art Complex, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, ArtPace, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and DiverseWorks (in Houston). The recent Que Queer! San Antonio!, at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio (June, 2007) was an exuberant exhibition and celebration of queer history and heritage of San Anto LGBTT communities through art, artifacts, ephemera, images and mementos. (“¿Y QUÉ?” artist David Zamora Casas “queerated” Equal Rights for Whom?, Esperanza’s first “gay” show back in 1989). Additionally there’s a proliferation of low-budget artist-generated projects, among them: CAMPCAMP!, IDKE and Kings n’ Things in Austin and Arbor Art House, a small house turned showing and performance space by an enterprising and talented group of young artists in San Antonio. ¿Y QUÉ? becomes part of this ongoing history.
The year and a half lead time allowed for extensive outreach. Early on, I lectured on my work at Texas Tech, critiqued student work, saw the Landmark Gallery space, and met with Tricia, Ed and Joe. I was able to meet many wonderful people in the community who were very supportive and excited by the prospects of the exhibition and have since contributed to the project in various ways. The curatorial process included open calls on the Internet as well as fliers, and of course word of mouth, networking. My connection to artists who were in the OUT WEST exhibition proved very helpful. One artist led to another. Shanti Matulewski, David Zamora Casas, and especially Chuck Ramirez, and ¿Y QUÉ? Assistant Curator Angie Piehl were extremely generous, putting me in touch with artists.
Angie is from Texas, had lived in San Antonio, and now lived in Austin (since then she’s taken a teaching position at Oklahoma State). She is a painter and graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona, Tucson where I taught for 17 years, so we go back…. Angie proved to be an invaluable link to younger artists who had heard about the exhibition, but might not have submitted work except that they were personally encouraged by Angie to send me their materials. When I traveled to Austin and San Antonio, she coordinated a marathon schedule of what turned into 22 meetings and studio visits with artists in two and a half days. We are a good curatorial team. Being from Texas she could fill in the cultural context I sometimes needed, outsider that I am. I invited her to curate the film/video work and compile it on a video loop for exhibition viewing. ¿Y QUÉ? is not a video/film festival so these works were selected from the general pool of works that were submitted for consideration.
Unfortunately, a few of the OUT WEST artists had moved, so I lost track of them. Some excellent artists were not making work at the moment, had no work available, or their current work didn’t deal with queer issues in any way whatsoever. I found it very interesting that a number of well known artists, who have been and are out, who participated in queer shows in the 1990s, during the pomo heyday of the queer renaissance when it was cool (and profitable) to be queer, now did not wish to place their work in this context. A sign of the times. So much for politics. It’s business as usual!
I did not have any curatorial agenda at the onset, other than knowing that I wanted to avoid stereotypes of Texas and “the West” unless there was a rigorous examination of those stereotypes as tropes of the cultural landscape. At the same time I desired to acknowledge the speci-ficity of place (which I define as peopled space).
While an exhibition of fewer artists would have allowed artists to show more work, I opted for a more inclusive approach. There are 26 artists in ¿Y QUÉ?, two of whom collaborate. They range in age from mid- twenties to age sixty and seventy-five, with most born in the 1960s and 1970s, that period of social and political unrest and activism that gave birth to the civil rights, gay and women’s liberation movements.
There were some limitations. Obviously there is only so much space in the gallery. Almost all the artists had several bodies of work, forcing me to make some difficult choices (the mixed-media paintings on or framed with indigenous huipils, or paintings depicting Aztec goddesses intertwined in sexual positions, by Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez and the wonderful wacky genderqueer costumes and props by Silky Shoemaker come immediately to mind, but there are other examples as well). The university context and brick buildings on campus restricted placement of work meant to be placed in public spaces outside of the gallery (mural scale wall drawings by Ali Fitzgerald and stenciled lesbian street interventions by Amber Rademacher). We are grateful for university support, and in fact view the exhibition as an incredible pedagogical opportunity to raise public awareness about queer experiences, lifestyles, and culture as well as first amendment rights, so had no desire to intervene with illegal guerilla interventions (as much as we might support them in other contexts!). I see ¿Y QUÉ? as part of an ongoing conversation, an extension and exploration of contemporary queer discourse through the exhibition of visual art (rather than scholarly papers) in an academic setting.
¿Y QUÉ? is an intergenerational assemblage of artworks by well-known Texas artists who have exhibited extensively and others who are just starting to show. The diverse work in the exhibition employs a wide range of visual strategies to address issues such as sexuality, gender, race, and ethnicity. Some of the work deals overtly with queer content. In others, it is more subtle and nuanced, or perhaps engages with other issues, both in and out of the mainstream. One of the main points of the visual diversity is to break down the stereotypes of what looks like or constitutes queer art. At the same time, the art in ¿Y QUÉ? is not intended to separate LGBTT art from the mainstream (we need a queer presence in non-queer spaces), or other identity based art movements. Nor does it mean to elide sexuality with gender, class or race, but rather to acknowledge the existence and range of an extensive body of visual work from diverse queer subject positions within the geographic and cultural landscape of Texas. The range of work disrupts stereotypes and reveals a fluid field in which assumptions about gender, sexuality, race, class and representation are continuously called into question.
Interestingly, I saw very little sexually explicit work. Nor did I find the work falling into one or two overarching categories of subject, concept, or formal concerns. Instead, I discovered a network of reoccurring themes including: empowerment; gender identity crisis; messing with binary sites of gender; the creation or occupation of third or queer spaces; art historical interventions and revisionings; gendered materials and techniques that reference the body; the raced body; absence and loss; longing and belonging; waiting; nostalgia; popular culture (comics & the Internet); performitivity; sketchbooks and notebooks as an art form; subversive uses of “illustration;” embroidery and other kinds of stitching; class and taste; display; timing and pacing as content; site-specific and activist interventions in public spaces.
There’s not space here to go into detail, but each of these themes merits further writing. Hopefully the short catalog essays on each artist’s work give some sense of how these overlapping concerns manifest themselves. The subjects are the same as queer work created elsewhere, but done Texas style. As queer artists living and working in Texas represent, reflect upon and negotiate their specific multiple identities and positionings in the world, they contribute to a national discourse on the visual articulation of queer culture and, indirectly, global “intersections,” making what does or doesn’t happen in Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio and places like Lubbock, San Marcos, and Elgin, Texas, part of the big picture.