In honour of LGBT+ history month, our writers spotlighted the queer artists whose stories shaped the past and are illuminating the present, as well as perhaps changing the landscape of the future for artists that exist outside of the binary. Here are the LGBT+ artists you should know in 2019.
Working in New York City, painter Kehinde Wiley, whilst being a recognised name in the American art scene from the early 2000s, gained global acclaim in 2017 when he was commissioned to paint Barack Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s collection of official presidential portraits. Specialising in naturalistic portraits of people of colour, Wiley’s vibrant paintings often reference the works of Old Masters in order to both critique art historical norms whilst simultaneously elevating and empowering his everyday subjects. Whilst tackling issues of race and the status of young African-American men within contemporary society, Wiley also challenges pre-existing notions of masculinity in his work, setting his male subjects against intricately patterned backgrounds and often over-laying them with flowers, a traditional symbol of femininity.
Born and raised in the nearby city of Bradford, David Hockney took inspiration from Yorkshire throughout his life which is very much reflected in his work, for example the ‘A Bigger Picture’ exhibition, which explored the East Yorkshire Landscape through various mediums. More poignantly, however, as a gay man, Hockney endeavoured throughout his career to represent gay relationships and non-traditional gender roles, seen especially in his work completed in Los Angeles. He frequently depicts his partners or other gay friends, normalising their representation in mainstream art and his use of bright colour is seen as subtle defiance towards the macho art scene. His work is undoubtedly unique, and acts as a reminder of the importance and value of LGBTQ artists.
Robert Mapplethorpe, born in 1946, was best known as a photographer and a kingpin in the 1970s art scene in New York City. He worked mainly in large scale black and white photography which incorporated a range of themes but focused especially on homoeroticism; Mapplethorpe didn’t seek to produce overtly political work, merely focusing on what he found beautiful. His most well-known pieces capture the subjects of the BDSM scene in New York in the late 1960s, however the controversial content of this work meant he suffered from censorship throughout his career and rarely gained public funding. He also photographed many of his friends and peers, including singer Patti Smith, who wrote a memoir entitled Just Kids about their relationship. He died at age 46, one of the first high profile victims of AIDS. This, alongside his often censored work, has led to his remembrance as a key figure in the struggle for gay liberation.
American artist Keith Haring came out in the 1980s against a background of political conservatism in which homosexuality was still not fully accepted. Haring’s work is highly recognisable from the playful and colourful graffiti-style visual motifs of crawling babies, dogs, angels and hearts made up of distinct fluid simplistic lines and bright, bold colours. His images are highly accessible, allowing his work to be widely appreciated and enjoyed by a diverse range of people, saying himself that the people viewing his work “were not the people I saw in the museums or galleries but a cross-section of humanity that cut across all boundaries”.
Haring merges the aesthetic appeal of his iconic cartoon-like graffiti imagery with serious political aims, representing the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community and creating work focused upon issues such as homophobia, racism, drug addiction and the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Haring died from AIDS-related complications in 1990, and his artistic and political legacy still lives on today through both his work as well as the Keith Haring Foundation which is committed to education, research and care related to AIDS. Haring’s use of energetic distinct pop-art like imagery combined with his political aims is one of the reasons why
Madeleine Gauci Green
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s whirlwind 15-year career, in which he directed 45 films spanning from 1967 to 1982, established him as a pioneer of the New German Cinema movement. His proudly gay identity meant themes of marginalisation permeated his personal life and manifested within his films, including highlights such as Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, and his idiosyncratic directorial style was integral in creating this isolation of his subjects. This was fully realised in 1975’s Fox and His Friends; revolutionary in showing homosexuality as a normal facet of the characters’ lives instead of their core problem, and unique in its portrayal of class issues as destructive and alienating within gay culture.
In Fassbinder’s final film before his death, Querelle (a rare adaptation of a gay author by a gay filmmaker), he articulates his struggle with ideas of gay masculinity through extravagant and oppressive artificial sets and lighting, and often uncomfortably explicit sexual content. Far too complex to unpack in a paragraph, Fassbinder’s influence on LGBTQ+ art was profound in his examination of how and why gay culture is portrayed through film.
When recounting the most memorable performance artists of the last century, it’s hard to think of anyone more transgressive and riotous than avant-garde provocateur Genesis P-Orridge. Long before Hull was named the nation’s city of culture, P-Orridge and their East Yorkshire art collective COUM Transmissions could be found shocking the conservative society of 70s Britain by exposing its hypocritical morality through a “fab and kinky” body of work. Examples include a string of industrial art rock albums and an erotic photographic exhibition entirely staffed by prostitutes, transvestites and punks which led to Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn labelling them “wreckers of Western civilization”.
W.H. Auden is an important Anglo-American poet of the 20th Century. He was born in York and educated at Oxford University, before spending a year in Berlin. When war broke out Auden emigrated to America, eventually becoming a US citizen. In New
Auden’s passionate expressions of queer lust and love represent a brave contribution to LGBT+ literary history, writing predominately at a time when homosexuality still a criminal offence. Perhaps Auden’s most popular work is ‘Funeral Blues’, which is touchingly read in the film Four Weddings and A Funeral by Matthew in response to the death of his partner, Gareth. If you only read one Auden poem, read this: it is near on impossible to not shed a tear at this iconic portrayal of everlasting love.
Bristol-born Travis Alabanza is a performer, writer and theatre-maker whose 2017 poetry book Before I Step Outside [You Love Me] is composed entirely of works inscribed in the public domain. The experience of publicity is a key theme of Alabanza’s work: ‘Unfortunately, as a trans person, particularly a trans person of colour, we birth skills of survival. We all know the tricks, the areas we can’t walk through at night, we talk to each other about the tactics to use to stay alive,’ Alabanza told a reporter. In ‘Burgerz’, their recent performance piece at London’s Hackney Showroom, Alabanza’s onstage burger cooking theatrically conceptualises the experience of having a burger thrown at them on public transport. Their art is a vehicle for processing the complexities of gendered and racial oppression.
Before I Step Outside [You Love me]’ is Travis Alabanza’s debut chapbook and collection of work, with a mixture of images, poetry, diary entries and essays relating to their experience as a trans person navigating public space, being outside, and on public transport. Every piece within the book is written whilst on a tube, a bus, walking, being harrassed, stared at, looked at and surviving. This collection of work is designed to be taken outside. To be read in public. To be shown in spaces. To be seen.
Juliana Huxtable is an American artist working predominantly in the mediums of photography, music and poetry, often blurring the lines between the three. As a transgender woman, Huxtable tackles issues of art, gender and human rights as well as religion in her work, as she was raised in a conservative Baptist home in Texas. Focusing largely on self-portraiture, a key work by Huxtable is a series of photographs in which she inserted images of herself into desert landscapes inspired by the religious group Nuwaubian Nation.
Huxtable also uses her own personal experience of gender transitioning in a number of her works, such as the series Seven Archetypes, as well addressing more general issues of gender and sexism and the way these intersect with race. Exhibiting and performing in high profile venues such as the Museum of Modern art in New York and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Huxtable continues to thrive as
Gertrude Stein’s art collection remains to be not only a key part of modernist art, but art history as a whole. Her close-knit Paris salon circle was comprised of the likes of Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. Stein’s keen eye for not only exceptional people, but also the art they produced, established her as an iconic figure of the first half of the 20th century. She was a hostess, a collector, and a writer. It is worth mentioning that she achieved all of this as a Jewish orphan, who was in a relationship with a woman (Alice B. Toklas) and later lived in Nazi-occupied France. Bold, charismatic and intimate, the career Stein formed for herself matched the unapologetic nature of her identity, as well as opening the eyes of many to the brilliance of her peers’ works.
Image credit: Elise Rose