Art critic Robert Hughes famously described Rauschenberg’s Monogram as “The most powerful image of anal intercourse ever to emerge from the rank psychological depths of modern art.” The art work itself went through several iterations between 1955-1959. During Pride Month, almost 70 years after Rauschenberg’s creation, let’s look at what contemporary artists say about queerness in their art.
Pablo Bronstein: “Queer art is about working through shadows.”
At first glance, Bronstein’s work appears to some mysterious set of rare unearthed architectural drawings that explode in a riot of colours.
In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Bronstein describes what defines queerness in his art, “It’s not holding a placard up and saying ‘gay rights’—I don’t consider that queer art, I find it to be straightforward political art, activism. Queer art for me is always about pretence, and working through shadows and other narratives.”
Kyle Dunn: “I like the titillation maybe more than the dick and ass.”
For me, Dunn’s work is stylised eroticism, appearing to be fleeting private moments from macabre queer films where you’re never sure if the protagonists are in moments of ecstasy or untimely deaths through misfortune. For me, they bring up the unrelenting tragedy of queer characters in films from Ode to Billy Joe, the Talented Mr Ripley and more recently, The Power of the Dog.
In an interview with W Magazine, Dunn said of his work, “Courtship is as erotic as actual sex. For my own work, painting is where you can explore fantasy and desire, and things that aren’t there to look at.”
Salman Toor: “A sense of defiance.”
The Whitney Museum describes Toor’s work as offering intimate views into the imagined lives of young, queer Brown men residing between New York City and South Asia. Lush interior scenes depict friends dancing, playing with puppies, and gazing into their smartphones.
In an interview with Them, Toor describes the queerness in his work: “I grew up an effeminate boy in a macho culture. Shame was used as a sharp weapon and the threat of violence was always just under the surface. So an illustration of the feminine or making dainty-looking work has a sense of defiance — that is important to me.”
Oscar yi Hou: “Giving testament to our lives.”
Oscar yi Hou’s work brings together a melange of Asian and American imagery to explore ideas of migration, identity and belonging. It’s filled with scores of little hidden messages and symbolism to visually explore.
In an interview with Document Journal, yi Hou says, “Being Asian, being a guy, the process of racialization is one of gendering. When you’re racialized as being Yellow, you’re feminized. With women, it’s being docile, submissive. With men, it’s being effeminate, celestial, bottom, gay. Whenever I think about Asian American politics, a lot of it has to do with gender and sexuality. I never look at these two things as separate.”
Adam Pendleton: “They will love us, all of us, queens.”
Pendleton is best known as a painter of abstract canvases in a distinctive black and white style that challenge how we read language. He’s recently shown Who is Queen? at the MoMA in New York.
Here’s an excerpt from a story in The New York Times: Pendleton recalled the incident that inspired “Who is Queen?” It was a fleeting moment in conversation, he said, but it raised “this idea that someone else can name you or claim you, and the vulnerability that comes with that.”
“Who Is Queen?” gathers material that addresses a host of contemporary topics. It is prompted by a challenge to the personal identity of the artist, who is Black and gay — the expression “you’re such a queen,” once tossed at him in a way that got under his skin. But he has broadened the concern to American society as a whole — where it is headed, and whether we must all remain shackled to narrow identity labels.
Where to next for queer art?
In the 70 years since Rauschenberg created Monogram, the landscape for being queer in society has shifted and is ever changing. And with it, the depiction of queerness in art. In some ways, artworks are more explicit depicting rimming for example, while also becoming more nuanced, depicting the interplay of race, sexuality, gender and politics in contemporary works.
While I’m reticent to describe it as the normalisation of queerness, it’s certainly portraying it as a critical element of who we are. Yet, it is not the only thing that defines queer folk. In this way, contemporary queer art continues to reflect the world through the eyes of queer people and the contradictions it entails.