Art & Queer Culture

Isaac Julien, Still Life Studies Series, No. 1, 2008, color photograph in light box.
Isaac Julien, Still Life Studies Series, No. 1, 2008, color photograph in light box.

IN THIS AMBITIOUS SURVEY, editors Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer tell a story of increasing visibility for every permutation of homosexuality in visual art, making a case for the importance of queer culture in art history. Queerness contains multitudes, of course, and doesn’t describe a single art movement or style. So Lord and Meyer trace “cultural practices that oppose normative heterosexuality” through a diverse roster of artists, exploring how they’ve responded to the strictures of gender and to alternative forms of sexuality over the past 125 years.

Meyer’s opening essay lays out a lucid short course on the early years of “deviant” sexual identity—its criminalization, closets, and codes—culminating with Stonewall and the beginning of gay liberation. Lord’s overview picks up in 1980, deftly covering issues such as the AIDS crisis, identity politics, and genderqueers. She quotes an early academic text that defines “queer” as “less an identity than a critique of identity.” That statement seems close to the curatorial vision here.

The heart of the book is a selection of work by some 250 artists—most but not all of them gay—represented by one image each, beginning with Thomas Eakins, an early master of the homoerotic male nude, and ending with Wu Tsang, highlighting his two-channel video installation Green Room, about a transgender woman who fled persecution in Honduras.

Lord and Meyer include not just fine art but work from the margins, including anonymous photographs, bar signs, and scrapbook pages. All the work seems to share a certain ’tude. I can only call it defiance. The editors write that they selected pieces that “draw out . . . the deviant force of homosexuality,” leading to unexpected but illuminating choices, especially for well-known artists. Filmmaker Isaac Julien is represented by Still Life Studies Series, No. 1 (above), a photograph that is one of the more subtle examples of resistance. This tar-covered cottage once belonged to Derek Jarman, the edgy British filmmaker who died of AIDS in 1994. Set on a windblown patch of gravel near a nuclear power plant, Prospect Cottage became famous—a “pilgrimage site for queers”—because of the garden Jarman planted there.

The book ends with a fascinating collection of writings detailing the history and construction of queer identity. These texts do as much as the visual work to trace the role of queerness in our culture. Given how much the status of queers has changed—from criminals to freaks to marriage material—this book could become the standard text for understanding their impact on art history.