The Great Refusal installation shot (Image courtesy Zach Augustine)

CHICAGO — Queer art is difficult to define. It may be overtly sexual in its depiction of the body, or it could be subversively alluding to non-normative genders, sexualities and methods for building community.

Over the past few months, two large-scale exhibitions dealing with changing notions of what “queer art” even is have overflowed into Chicago’s art world. The Great Refusal: Taking on New Queer Aesthetics (Sullivan Galleries at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, September 14–November 10, 2012) and All Good Things Become Wild and Free curated by Danny Orendorff at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin (September 11–November 17, 2012) represent two modes of thinking about how queer no longer just means “gay” or “lesbian,” or even includes overt modes of sexuality (though it can be directly about sex, as much of the work in The Great Refusal’s accompanying video screening demostrates). Today’s new queer aesthetic is one that considers artists working in non-normative modes of creating, explorations of gender, sexuality and sex. It’s not the easiest to quantify exactly what a new queer aesthetic is; both of these shows approach it in different ways.

Oli Rodriguez (Photo courtesy Oli Rodriguez)

“One student of mine who was involved in The Great Refusal said to me ‘I’m not gay,’ and I said well, it’s not about who you sleep with,” says co-curator Oli Rodriguez, who is also a professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I argue that your work is queer in terms of how it challenges -isms. I think about queer as the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, of work that is always questioning and critiquing, and not just being passive. It’s about instilling a new notion of queerness that doesn’t deal with sexuality or sex.”

The Great Refusal was a huge exhibition taking over the expansive SAIC Sullivan Galleries, and includes works by more than 50 contemporary artists ranging from interactive sculptural installations like Jordan Avery’s “Shit List,” a knitted role of “toilet paper” embroidered with name after name of folks who fit that list, to Mark Augustine’s coy “Bless Me Father/Bless Me Daddy” (2012) ink-on-vellum drawings showing spatial and cultural congruencies between a urinal and a confessional booth.

“All Good Things” installation view (Image courtesy Carthage College)

The work in this show creates dialogues between the work of older, more established queer artists — some of whom came of age during the AIDS crisis, or experienced earlier waves of feminism — and younger artists, including undergraduates (teenagers!), graduate students and emerging talent. In All Good Things Become Wild and Free, 19 artists played with notions of non-normative materials, specifically utilizing craft and other “low” culture materials to challenge what the art world considers “high” art. To see the show, one most travel to Kenosha, Wisconsin, which adds an element of being out of one’s comfort zone, especially for those who are used to an urban Chicago environment. Both shows challenge the idea of what it means to make art that is either overtly, subtly, or unconsciously queer in its nature.

Rodriguez is most interested in the dialogue that work creates. One such example is the conversation evoked by arranging Frederic Moffett’s video “The Faithful” (2012), a two-channel video projected onto opposing walls that examines moments between men at a leather bar, as a sort of portal one must walk through in order to encounter Jeanne Dunning’s fetish-feeling video “The Toe Sucking” (1994). Down the hall and around the corner, three acrylic-on-board paintings by Etienne courtesy the Leather Archives Museum, complete the conversations around the leather fetish by depicting a funny story about an innocent, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy being whisked away to leather heaven by a burly daddy-type character.

Danny Orendorff (Image courtesy Danny Orendorff)

In a centrally located part of the gallery, younger emerging artist Steven Frost shows The Balcony (2012), an ornamented paddle attached to two other indiscernible leather objects that merge to form a balcony that surely wouldn’t hold more than an anorexic cat. Frost pulls the leather notion full circle, using paddles as fetish-objects-cum-ornamentation and thus decontextualizing them from leather culture, elevating them to a level of frivolous, dazzling, and utterly useless camp. It’s one of the pieces in this show that could have crossed over into Orendorff’s more object-and-craft-focused presentation.

“For All Good Things, I tried to do an expansive show that showcased ways that alienated or disenfranchised populations are producing work in a type of vernacular that expressed a political situation,” says Orendorff. “It was pleasurable and inviting and a bit more insidious, and becomes very sexual and erotic because of its abundance of color, scale and interactivity.”

In All Good Things, not once does the viewer come across an actual body part. Instead it’s the substances that the body oozes and leaks, suggesting the abject body but not presenting a straightforward visual representation of it. Both curators consider evolving definitions of a new queer aesthetic, but neither purport to claim what it exactly it is.

“My other concern is to not be too limiting around what a queer aesthetic is,” says Orendorff. “In All Good Things, there are so many artists in that show that don’t identify as gay or lesbian, might identify as feminist — I didn’t really ask. Instead I looked for virtues in the practice or the objects themselves, and more about the themes or affects begin communicated.”

Similarly, Rodriguez was careful to talk about the queer aesthetic as an ongoing project.

“I think that The Great Refusal could happen now, but I don’t know if it could happen in five years,” he says. “I don’t think there is a single queer aesthetic, and that’s the large part of the show being such an eclectic mix, smashing together an intergenerational dialogue. Something from the 1980s hangs right next to something made this year, in 2012.”

Elijah Burgher (Image courtesy Elijah Burgher)

Artist Elijah Burgher‘s work, which operates at the intersection of occult and a queer aesthetic, appeared in both The Great Refusal and All Good Things. Burgher utilizes a system created by an early 20th century occultist, making sigils, or drawings used in ritual. The formula is simple: The creator is asked to write out their wish or desire, and then combine those letters into a new symbol for use in the ritual. One must visualize in their mind an experience that they might obtain through meditation, and then look straight into the sigil at the moment of orgasm. For Burgher, this work is a queer avenue into abstraction. He showed five of his colored-pencil sigil drawings in Orendorff’s exhibition; for Great Refusal, Burgher exhibited Space for Undisclosed Ritual Action, a nine-foot by 12-foot hanging, open space made of drop cloths with sigils painted on the outside. Viewers were invited to enter and perform their own rituals, whatever those might be. He offers his thoughts on the two shows.

“Danny’s show was a much more specific curatorial vision that was his,” says Burgher. “Oli’s was his vision but also curated to an extent by a committee of BFAs and MFAs who were doing the selecting, studio visits. It was definitely supposed to be a broad picture of what’s going on with Chicago queer artists right now.”

To this he adds: “Danny selects his set of interests as a critic and art historian, which has to do with radical possibilities within craft.”

There’s one other show that, while not intended as such, set the stage for the giant queer comings-together that occurred this fall. It happened in March 2012, and spoke to the strength, vision and commitment to queer creative community.

“You could say that there’s been three big queer shows,” Burgher says. “The Dragon is the Frame Memorial Show at Gallery 400 for the late young artist Mark Aguhar, in a secondary way ended up being a queer Chicago show — a picture of the community.” Taken together, this trio of exhibitions form a celebration of an alternative side of art making that remains underexposed.

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

3 replies on “Queer Art’s not Just About Gender — A Chicago Survey”

  1. Hi Alicia,

    I have so appreciated your writing on “The Great Refusal,” and its myriad dimensions. However, I do want to advocate for a recontextualizing of this take on queer aesthetics as, “not just being about depictions of dicks and vajayjays.” As an artist and performer in the exhibition whose work is very much centered on the body and sexual imagery, I think it serves the greater vision of the exhibition not to exclude such work from its narrative. What is necessary and radical to me about queerness is the reflexivity of gender and gender-relations within the context of intimacy, and the embodiment of such reflexivity that is, for me, necessarily sexual. I would appreciate a discussion of such works with an equal degree of investment and criticality as others in this review. The idea that the depiction or use of genitalia in queer art is somehow less critical, conceptual, theoretical, contemporary or political betrays the diverse histories within art that have shaped queer art of the present.

    While I also support Oli’s vision for the exhibition, and his take on queerness as,”the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, of work that is always questioning and critiquing, and not just bring passive.” The following quotation, “its about instilling a new notion of queerness that doesn’t deal with sexuality or sex,” seems like a mis-representation of his curatorial goals and motivations, or he wouldn’t have curated work that does deal with sex or sexuality. Reviewing such distinctions in the service of a greater aesthetic narrative would be of great benefit here, and is, to me, at the core of why queer art is queer and is art.

    1. Hi Marissa, thank you for your comment. I agree with what you are saying—at times queer art is necessarily sexual. I’ve updated the post to reflect this, and also added a link to The Great Refusal video screening. I saw more work that was overtly sexual in that screening, including yours. Thanks for saying something my piece.
      My best,
      Alicia Eler

  2. Unfortunately we are seeing the expropriation of “queerness”
    by those who never had the bear the weight of the word in their own lives. But Professor
    I am not queer because I am not a same gender loving person. No worry we are
    all queer. It’s a watering down of our identity as LGBT people by sad sacks
    looking for victim status.

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