Reclaimed Space: Current Queer Art at Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries

by: Kevin Sparrow

The evolving definition of queer and an accompanying comprehensive theory are gaining momentum in the academic world and through social portals such as blogs, Tumblr, and television. A richer view of growing queer visibility seems to be currently represented in the explosion of queer artwork. Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries are currently hosting a dual exhibition of queer work with The Great Refusal: Taking on New Queer Aesthetics and Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story.

The Great Refusal is separated into four thematically distinct sections of “Bad Values,” “Misuse and Dislocation,” “Progressive Rituals,” and “Restraint and Indulgence,” though many of these works bleed into and affect each other spatially and conceptually. David Nasca’s Unlimited Intimacy is likely the piece most regarded as spectacle, a human-sized teddy bear in black and gray with a cavity for its mouth. In fact, sexual spectacle is seen in various pieces: Porn Poetry by Barbara DeGenevieve pairs erotic text and images; Gregg Evans’ photograph Nick and I Playing Our Afternoon at My Parents recontextualizes a sexual encounter.

The Great Refusal takes aim at defining or categorizing what current queer aesthetics look like and the influence they exert in broader culture. These include tackling race, class, sexuality, and intersectionality in qualifying a dynamic portrayal of queer people and their artistic production. Hannah Rodriguez’s Made Men Series examines gender roles by making a collage of images of masculine men of color with flowers or flowing skirts replacing certain features. A performance piece “The Redemption of Ishtar Bukkake” will close the exhibit on November 8, highlighting select themes represented throughout.

The sprawling work of Great Refusal is paired in the gallery with the curated This Boy’s Own Story, a retrospective of Chicago artist Roger Brown’s paintings and sketchbooks. Brown’s work is focused more at the homosexual male and sexual desire stemming from the mass uncloseting directly post-Stonewall. Brown’s work takes on historical significance in its frank sexuality and homoeroticism coming out of this time and extending through the AIDS era of the 1980s and early ‘90s. It underscores the condemnation gay men experienced at the time and attempted to shine a light on how the disease was affecting more populations than the LGBT community at the height of the epidemic. The Plague from 1984 shows prone male-bodied figures lying in the streets of Brown’s standard city streets with other shadowed figures looking on from building windows, while Aha! Heterosexuals Fuck Too, made in 1991, puts the responsibility to straight populations who were experiencing growing HIV rates. Brown uses vivid color and fantastical imagery to combine thoughts on religious persecution, private sexual expressions, and public LGBT identity.

The Great Refusal presents older works to pinpoint where the current conception of queer aesthetics began and bridges Brown’s practice with other artists producing queer work. The Chicago Leather Archives provides a trio of illustrations from the 1960s by artist Etienne that riff on the aesthetic of pulp-novel covers to depict macho bikers and surfers cavorting. Jeanne Dunning’s Puddle photographic series and The Toe-Sucking Video installation may be approaching 20 years, but they reside within the same world of bodily distortion and sexual exploration that the surrounding contemporary work exhibits.

Seen side by side, both exhibitions elevate each other. Brown’s work provides historical heft to the contemporary artists, while The Great Refusal constructs a context for Brown’s paintings to retain their relevance to queer aesthetics. The wealth of work on display and engagement between works creates an atmosphere of exploration and dialogue rather than strict presentation that invites viewers to find their own access points to the work. And that may just be the ultimate goal of modern queer art.

The Sullivan Galleries are located at 33 South State Street (7th Floor) and are open 11am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday. The exhibitions detailed will be on display through November 10.

Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness as both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.

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