Queer Abstraction (Again)

March 23, 2011

I wrote the following for a friend in order to help explain some work I’ve been doing but I thought it was coherent enough to repost here.  It’s in reference to work posted here (not the portrait stuff) in the past few months and is sort of where I’m at right now with the question of what queer means in art as landscape and as abstraction:

The queerness, for me, lies not just in the obvious content (like the photos with text) but in approaching the traditional photographic idea of the landscape in a “queer” way, which is to say by avoiding a sort of rational, Apollonian top-down clarity in favor of many different kinds and types of clutter, murk, flash and distraction.  A lot of the more abstract work comes out of a conversation I had online with Michael Buitron at his blog Leap Into the Void almost two years ago about the idea of queer abstraction–whether there is such a thing and what it might be.
We never came to a conclusion about that, but my thinking is that “gay” queer can and should blur into queer in the sense of strange or “off”.  And there’s the standard interaction with the feminine/genderbending at stake in male artists using materials like floral print fabric or scrapbook paper.  So some of the images heroicize the chintzy, ephemeral, or feminine while others are more pointedly gay in content and still others are abstract enough to be tenuous links–the pastel color bleed images, for example–but part of the project of making something queer is to make unlikely connections, in my mind.
Getting back to the landscape idea, anything that isn’t the clear field or crisp architectural view but is still labeled a landscape feels like a form of queer to me that I’m interested in.  Part of this is borne out of technical limitations–I can afford glitter and scrapbook paper but I can’t afford the system I would need to make a Gursky-style landscape–but most of it is a willingness to try to test the boundaries of the language we use to make and think about art, which itself seems like a queer effort more in a politicized way than in a directly sexual one, even if the results are sometimes abstract and pretty and not very challenging-seeming.  Ultimately I think it’s more about juxtaposition than anything, and if I had things my way any solo show I would have would be very heterogenous, like my shows at CalArts.

A queer kicker (this image is 3.5×5 feet):

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2 Responses to “Queer Abstraction (Again)”


  1. Hi Nicholas,

    First I want to tell you a little work-related, tangential story. A few months ago I started working at the CARE Program, which provides medical and social services for folks with HIV. Part of my job is to find folks who are positive and not receiving services and get them into care. I made a little brochure for local HIV test counselors to hand out to those who test positive, and the managers in the medical clinic wanted to put their two cents in before I printed them out. I had written the text using an everyday, common language, and it turns out some of the (straight) medical providers took issue when I used the terms “gay or straight,” and they wanted the brochure to say, “gay or heterosexual.” Here on the social services side of the program (where the staff is mostly gay) I said, “Good thing I didn’t use the word breeder.”

    The reason I bring up this little story is because I’ve been thinking about how this stuff plays to the breeder community, and if that even matters.

    I was contacted by a woman working on a paper on Dean Sameshima. She found one of my posts on Dean’s work and asked how I knew “In Between Days” was shot in a bathhouse. In a footnote in Susette Min’s “Remains to be Seen: Reading the Works of Dean Sameshima and Khan Vo,” she mentions in a footnote that Dean wants the space to remain unidentified. In the main text Min misidentifies the space as “underground sex clubs.” To see an empty unmade bed (which is such a cliché for loss, it was used as the cover image for the book where Min’s essay appears) and slip into the simplest reading absolutely fails at giving the work the nuanced reading it deserves.

    At the same time, I can understand Dean’s position of not wanting the work to be read first as gay or sexual. For the straight viewer it could stop them from spending time with the work, thinking that the image doesn’t include them in the audience.

    To connect this closer to your posting above, is it possible to read Dean’s or Unknown Pleasures as queer or abstract, by the fact that the works may read as queer to one audience (gay deaf men, guys cruising on line, guys familiar with the hanky code, or those of us who frequent bathhouses) and abstract to others.

    In one reading, I could see that some of the work we’ve done may invert this, where the images read as gay to a straight audience and queerly abstract to a gay viewer.

    I guess my question to you is this: Do you think of yourself as playing to two (or multiple audiences) in real life? I do, constantly, and I’m sure it’s a gay thing, learned from old queens who have come before. For some reason meeting the expectations of straights and slipping in queer coded messages is easy to do in real life, but it doesn’t really challenge people or move them along. In art, it just seems more honest to be in someone’s face, setting out a mound of used condoms and knowing it’s going to shut down some uptight viewers who are immediately turned off by my work. How do you think about this stuff in your work?

    • Nicholas Says:

      I’ll answer this better in a post but I don’t think just two audiences, I think multiple constantly changing audiences, and I decide whether my work/behavior/self-identification is confrontational to a particular audience and whether what I want to do is confront. Increasingly the answer to this is “yes” regardless of audience but that has to do with personal politics, about which more in the next post.


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