Queer Abstraction?

December 6, 2008

So I’m thinking of putting together a group show on the idea of queer abstraction.  This is partly an effort to try to figure out what it is I mean when I say “queer abstraction” and also partly because I like putting together shows.

What I think I mean w/r/t queer abstraction has to do with my work as a photographer.  A photograph, to go back to good old C.S. Pierce on this, is an index of what the photograph signifies.  It points to the existence of the real thing.  This is where things get sticky though because we wade into murky phenomenological waters when we take photographs of things that don’t appear to be “real.”   The color red is real, of course, but a picture of a blank field of red that may not have even been created in the usual picture-taking way begs the question of what is the real referrent we’re looking at when we look at a photograph that is, essentially, blank. 

A photograph is by definition an index, though, so there’s always that “first object” to which the photo acts as a kind of big red arrow.  (And this is an oversimplification but bear with me.)  A photo is also a thing in and of itself, though, a piece of paper (usually) of a certain size that has shapes and colors on it.  So a photo is both itself and a big red arrow point at whatever it was you were pointing the camera lens at when you took the picture. 

This is where abstraction w/r/t photography is a still hard to forumulate situation.  Of course it’s easy to make a photo in which the big red arrow doesn’t seem to be pointing at anything in particular, or the thing it’s pointing at is otherwise unclear in some way, but in any case, the act of pointing doesn’t get elided by pointing at “nothing.”  I think the way to explore this (and I know a lot of great contemporary photographers who are exploring this) is to bend the big red arrow back so it points at the photograph itself.  Self-reflexivity is nothing new under the sun nor nothing to write home about, but it is a tool that we, in 2008, have in our art kit toolbox.  You can even easily make a representational photograph self-reflexive: see, for example, a lot of the work of one of my favorite photographers, Christopher Williams. 

The bigger problem is whether abstraction can ever be queer.  Messing with the big red arrow can be a queer act in that the reflexivity queers the Piercian index process but “queer” as subject matter seems, to me, to almost demand representation.  Queer (vs. gay) art is kind of big sign that says “this is not ‘normal'” and in order to evince that otherness you’re going to need the big red arrow to point at something that can be else/other than what we, as good little heteronormative soldiers, want or expect. 

A lot of gay art incorporates queer practices into it; I’m thinking of Catherine Opie before her quality control went haywire or somebody like Jack Pierson.  Or, even, the queer artist par excellance would probably be Felix Gonzales-Torres, who could (seemingly magically) take things as ordinary as pictures of an unmade bed or of lone birds in the sky and spin them into complex personal and social clusters of meaning by queering the process–putting the unmade bed on a billboard instead of keeping it in the bedroom, for example.)

But I would argue here that though he’s known for exploring and questioning a minimalist aesthetic, FG-T’s work is not really abstract, nor did he seem to be interested (in what I’ve read) in abstraction.  So that leaves us in the position of trying to take what we can learn from the deceptively simple manuevers of FG-T and apply them toward a still kind of monolithic idea of abstraction in art as we know it historically from ab-ex up through neo-geo.

The main person I can think of who’s adept at this is John Tremblay with his orifice/orgy diagrams and ass shelves etc., but I can’t even find enough on John Tremblay to share with you here.  (You would sort of need to visit the CalArts library.)    But an example of what Tremblay has done is this: he took the common fixtures of practical architecture you might see at a gay bar or bathhouse and recast them as white minimal forms, so as with the abovementioned ass-shelf, Tremblay installed a narrow shelf at ass-height that, in a bar, would be a railing or something that one man would lean against while making out with another or just while surveying the scene.  Without that extradiagetic info, though, all you see in the gallery is a narrow white plinth.  This gets at what I’ve been trying to get at: that queer abstraction always points back at a non-abstract real world.

So where does that leave us?  I’m not sure.  I’m going to keep thinking out loud, here, but I dove into my backfile of photos and came up with some examples of what I’m trying to aim toward.  The following pics are extreme close-ups of bdsm gear (straitjackets and sleepsacks) that use the big red arrow of photography not to point at the use value of these objects but to curve and point at their materiality and the presence/absence of the human body there/not there.  Not sure this is what I want to do, though.

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2 Responses to “Queer Abstraction?”


  1. There’s too much to think about here (and too much to write). I’ll post my comments (and my own thoughts) next week on LITV.

  2. Will Says:

    How about doing photos of physical objects that evoke a non-material (fantastical) use/user? For example, a keyring with
    tool-like but unrecognizable objects on it. It would weigh heavily
    on the imagination of the viewer, of course, unless it referred to
    a known non-material world (sci-fi tools or a Dali watch key).
    It could also be done semi-environmentally, using physical objects or
    imagery of context (a door frame, say).

    Just a thought.


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