7 min

Queer art stock-taking

Knowing where we've been splits the future wide open

ART. How does it define us? Credit: Xtra files

Oh god, somebody please give those straight girls a Valium… or at least another phone call.

Having each used up her one speed-dial to her one lesbian friend for a quick quote in their newspaper columns, Donna/Leah/Lynn are weighing in with the latest word on the current state of lesbian life. And, if theirs is the final word, we girls will be wearing extra baggy panties hiked up high and wagging our fingers at those bad men who still control everything.

Is that really the future of homo representation and art we want to look at?

It seems straight chicks – feminist, post-feminist or whatever – just hate being called girls, and grrrls, just drives them crazier.

Donna Lypchuk’s blast from the inebriated past in a recent Eye magazine diatribe on Game Girls, an exhibition of new media works at Toronto’s InterAccess this fall, is classic: “I guess the curator of Game Girls used ‘girls’ in a hip, slightly pejorative sense that implies that women are immature; after all, who’s going to go see a show that asks, ‘What games do women play?’ Because adult women don’t play games – they’re too busy limping around on toes stubbed bloody from trying to kick the pedestal out from beneath 10,000 years of patriarchal oppression.”

If Lypchuk had written this in 1978 I’d ignore her. Did she drowse through the past two decades of liberation strategies by feminist and gay artists? These strategies included the appropriation of language and image, gender parody and camp, full blown irony (in the case of post-liberationists and post-colonialists) and the burgeoning practice of quotation and sampling in art and popular culture. Did the spin happen too fast for her?

But more to the point, Game Girls was a riff on the electronic game culture of computers and Nintendo GameBoy.

Gay men and lesbians have created a culture full of language, art, film, fashion, music and theatre that simply eludes most straight people. When dykes call themselves and each other girls, it has its own inflected meaning. Just as the words girlfriend, sister and auntie have for fags.

As both liberation and artistic strategies, we developed our own ways of using language, usually in ways that either encode sexuality or flaunt it.

A number of gay and lesbian artists have been making art since the dawn of homo time (that’s the 1970s and ‘ 80s, for you pups). Now approaching their 40s and 50s, they are feeding on nearly 30 years of out queer art. Their current work indicates a future still outrageous enough to be called queer and witty enough to be beyond the pale of our straighter cousins.

Gay and lesbian artists have always drawn – and continue to draw – on the popular culture around them. TV, film, fashion, pornography are rifled as source material for dissection and reinvention. Artists also sample from art history, other artists and other cultures.

While many younger queer artists are cycling through the liberating vagaries of abstract painting and experimental film, others continue to use narrative or documentary structures. Exploring and sampling from old formal structures and concerns are giving rise to new hybrid ones.

There is still the earnest and in-your-face art that surely has a place somewhere. But the really interesting works that get talked about and have lasting power, embody complex, subtle positionings that undermine attempts to square peg them. They draw on words, images, style and narratives that come out of gay lives, but also out of the myriad cultural influences around them.

Whatever our evolving strategies, the goal seems to be an age-old desire to write/right history, to tell our own stories and invent our own images.

Historical revisionism through a gay or lesbian lens continues in many artists’ works. A recent example that got the attention of Toronto audiences was Nina Levitt’s exhibition Gravity/Duet at Gallery TPW.

Over the past 10 years, Levitt has moved from photo-based works to film and video projections that attempt to locate or invent hidden lesbian lives in history.

In her most recent work, archival film images of women dancing together, astronauts and tumbling divers were raided from popular culture sources. And in an audio and projection work, the histories of cross-dressing women – such as Brandon Teena – were recounted.

Like Levitt, Andy Fabo is concerned with how history is made and how it slides in and out of memory. Fabo wa one of our first out artist when he burst onto the scene in the late ’70s. And he’s been making work aobut sexual politics and AIDS ever since.

Recently, his collages of original drawings, images borrowed from art history, porn magazines and personal snapshots – with the help of computer technology – have started feeding on Fabo’s own past works.

This recycling creates a conflation: Several events and periods of time exists in one picture, presenting an opportunity, of sorts, for introspection and review. Fabo’s current integration of cross-word puzzles (known to exercise the brain’s recall ability) signals his insistence that we remember our histories even as we invent new ones.

Colin Campbell is another artist who has been mining his own artistic output. In Deja Vu, a videotape made in 1999, Campbell plays the parts of three sisters, characters drawn from various videos the artist has made over the past 25 years. The Woman from Malibu, Robin, and Colleena are all manifestations of Campbell’s alter-female-ego, re-configured in a non-linear, disorienting fashion. Playfully, the conversations between the three sisters leave us to wonder what was real or imagined, fact or invention.

Deja Vu reveals concerns with time, history and aging in its intertwining of past and present. As with Fabo, Campbell’s re-alignment of the stars, his art stock-taking, maps out where we’ve been and where we’ve arrived… and it points out possibilities for the future.

Invention and play are the strong cards of Margaret Moores, another video artist who has been working for a couple of decades. Teaming up with Almerinda Travassos in 1999 to make Dog Days, she re-visits the pleasures of sex in the outdoors and the gaucheries of lesbian fashion. Inspired by real letters found in a farmhouse under renovation, Moores conjures a story of secret identity, “scandal and suffering at the turn of the [19th] century.” “Some things never change, ” says Spike (played by Dierdre Logue) and who makes magic carpet riding a mouth watering sport.

We will never see these kinds of artworks, videos or films coming out on mainstream culture conveyors.

That’s why seeing gay and lesbian lives portrayed on TV or in Hollywood film – well or poorly -doesn’t bother me. In fact, I mostly think it’s a good thing. The mainstream is just one current in the cultural mayhem and I don’t think it’s eating us up like little Pac-men running amok.

Which brings me back to my opening rant about straight cultural commentary missing the mark.

An interesting example of appropriation and quotation of lesbian culture by the mainstream happened in episode two of this season’s Ally McBeal. Ally and the cunning Ling perform a seductive dance floor number and then, later in the show, a kiss.

From my point of view, the program was about lesbians kissing on television. It was a meta-narrative, self-consciously commenting on, and quoting from, the genre and cliché of lesbians depicted in popular culture – a smirking and calculated Ellenism if you will. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was sassy.

Leah McLaren and Lynn Crosbie, however, in Globe And Mail and Eye magazine columns, respectively, tripped all over themselves in order to let us know what a huge yawn the “lesbian kiss” was. Like Lypchuk, McLaren and Crosbie gave us the same dreary heterocentric point of view. McLaren sonorously snorts: “Far from being a truly courageous moment in TV history, the McKiss was simply a depiction of some balding producer’s air-brushed Penthouse fantasy.”

But, perhaps not quite sure, she called up her “real” lesbian friend Jen who also pronounced the kiss “about as hot as the sight of two geckos kissing could be,” and she found the dance-floor gyrations “irksome.”

The vote from my jaded and oversexed gaggle of been-there-done-that girl-pals was: Forget the kiss, it was the grinding on the dance floor that was hot. Viewers, like the bar patrons, were positioned as voyeurs. What our straight commentators didn’t appear to see were the women around the dance floor, sipping their drinks and ogling the pair, providing characters we lezzy-inclined viewers could identify with.

But I think Crosbie, after complaining that the show didn’t heat her up as much as watching fag hag Pamela Anderson Lee (whom she obviously identifies with) limbo dance in a gay bar, asks the bumpercrop question: “Who watches this show?”

She thinks it’s “hetero men in need of a television equivalent of a panty-raid.” I’d offer that it’s lesbians in need of a good panty-raid, too. Lesbians not only take their pleasure where they can, but where they want. And voyeurism is a handy tool. The idea that straight girls are the first to declare as “so over” lesbians (pretend or real) kissing on TV doesn’t bode well for the future of lesbians kissing on TV.

In what seemed like a synaptic collision of brain neurons – but was really a flash of brilliant light shed on the fact that desire and its artistic expression are complex – I saw Bruce LaBruce’s new film Skin Flick.

When you can see Ally and LaBruce within a week of each other, you know that all is not lost.

As with his Honcho magazine spreads, La Bruce was invited to create an intervention in the mass media industry of gay porn. He quotes from its palate of humiliation, S&M, eroticized fascism, class difference, racism and more. Whether he’s simply replicating it or actually putting a radical spin on it, is up for hot debate, but LaBruce does manage to do some interesting and calculated things.

A cherubic young man reads sincere poems citing shit and piss as his lovers’ gifts. The skinheads are not as romanticized as those Attila Richard Lukacs’ paints, but they’re portrayed in much the same way: existing and doing what they do in real life. Characters that mock middle-class fags as dull and cloned are just as dull and cloned.

Following the notorious rape of a black man at the film’s end, the boyfriend – a white, pale, skinny middle-class fag – ostensibly turns the tables when he grabs the gun. What begins as retaliation turns into a trip fantastic over to the other side. No more vanilla for him, he discovers he likes it rough and raw.

Watching this man’s conversion play, in subtle increments, across his face was truly fascinating. In that single enactment of treachery, his values peel away like layers of superfluous onion skin. Far from being just a cynical exposé on gay-world hypocrisy or desire, Skin Flick is generous (in the way I like my art to be) in its invitation to engage in messy, hard to swallow, insightful, sometimes shallow and occasionally scintillating, ideas.

Finally, LaBruce’s creation of Cameltoe, the film’s female character, has sparked my queer culture wish for the new year. Cameltoe is such a great piece of hard-ass girl, that I wish he’d serialize her and sell it to CTV.

Did someone say the future of gay art is now?