Visual Arts Center, Austin
Through November 5
by S.E. Smith
There’s a lot of underwear in Queer State(s), Noah Simblist and David Willburn’s exhibition of Texas artists engaging queer sexuality, which includes, for example, one entire room of figures in their underwear, each artist using the trope to illuminate some familiar cocktail of solitude, boredom and imagination. Using a private lexicon of meaningful images is, of course, fairly standard practice in contemporary art, but within the context of queerness, we might instead call it mandatory, which perhaps accounts for the degree to which these vocabularies converge.
The dominance of the human figure throughout the show provides another through-line. If figures other than the artist appear in the work, they are either equals—friends, models, surrogates for the artists themselves—or they are remote. Celebrities and Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders have traded vulnerability for their ubiquity, and as such can’t talk back. It is safe to manipulate one’s own image in pursuit of boundary testing, and it’s safe to manipulate the widely circulated images of what asserts itself as normal and desirable. To work between the two is to work with destabilized materials.
Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas’ installation Weeping Rainbow (2011) documents queer culture in the hinterlands, or what we might choose to think of as the hinterlands from our urbane perch, and both the materials and the method of investigation destabilize the viewer. The ethnographic format is paired with an installation, two domestic interiors sandwiched into a neon duplex. One side presents video footage and photographs of Latin American drag culture in a room that is both plastered with photographs from magazines yet curiously unadorned—if it is meant to mimic a living space, that is—thanks to the absence of any furniture other than the table holding the TV. The other half of the structure contains footage of an effeminate Appalachian preteen’s guided tour of his small town, and the space is garnished with the conventional domestic touches that shorthand tacky working class aesthetics. Photo stills from both sides of the installation spill out onto the structure’s walls and the gallery walls, further removing the spaces from feeling lived in.
The ethnographic nature of the videos and stills paired with the half-gestures to domestic life makes for uneasy questions, even beyond those an ethnographic project might present otherwise. I can never shake a hint of voyeurism when viewing images such as these; certainly the subjects are in control of their personal appearances to an extent, but when they don’t control the context in which they appear, it seems we are supposed to find some meaning in them that they cannot access themselves. This is even truer of the Appalachian section of the installation because its subject is a child at the edge of the horrible awkwardness of self-articulation that is, in essence, being a teenager, queer or not.
Ike and Lucas’ installation provides an uncomfortable but useful counterpoint by demonstrating the use of “queer” as a label. What Queer State(s) so deftly illustrates elsewhere is that a self-adopted moniker is broad enough to contain a dizzying array of personal ephemera, and that even so, some facets of these will glimmer and reflect each other. Robert Boland’s Methods for Training #4 (2006), in which a naked male figure doggedly attempts to follow a break-dancing instructional record while slipping around in a white, viscous medium resonates with PJ Raval’s CHRISTEENE: Fix My Dick (2009), thanks to the brilliant visual slapstick of both pieces, for example. In the latter, a shot of CHRISTEENE’s mouth singing the chorus is rotated sideways so it appears at first like a gold-toothed vagina, referencing scores of pop-cultural materials while advancing their rhetoric. Though Boland and Raval’s pieces use visual puns to establish very different tones, the formal echoes suggest a relationship between cultural commentary and playfulness that characterizes works exploring a notion as bedeviled by mutability as queerness.
S. E. Smith is the founding editor of OH NO magazine. Her work has appeared in Fence, jubilat and elsewhere.