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10 LGBTQ+ Artists Who Redefined Contemporary Art
We took a look at 10 major LGBTQ+ artists who have helped define the landscape of contemporary art, whose work engages with themes of identity politics, sexuality, gender and race….
The art market has changed substantially over the past years. From competing with digital art and NFTs to the belated race to build stronger online presences, art market players were forced to reckon with their lack of participation in the progress of the 21st century, especially with the onset of the pandemic. But the changes that artists, collectors, and institutions are faced with took root way before this decade and concern not only art that is being currently created, but also individuals and works that came into being over the past 100 years. The undervaluation of minority groups is one of the strongest factors that has been driving prices – and LGBTQ+ artists certainly belong to that segment. Here are some of the most important figures who have shaped the LGBTQ+ art space over the past decades and today.
David Hockney is one of the most celebrated and established LGBTQ+ artists still working today. A mainstay of the British mainstream, Hockney has long been recognized for his playful, pop-primitivist works, combining cubism with a cartoonish flair to create tender depictions of queer domestic life. With no signs of slowing down, Hockney is undergoing a late-career renaissance, and continues to put out exciting new work year after year.
When Hockney started out as an artist, homosexuality was still illegal in both the United States and his native Britain. Nonetheless, the pioneering artist set about depicting the gentle and intimate sides of gay love, from the very early moments of his long career. We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961, is an abstract and delicate love letter to gay intimacy and queer experience. Since those early days, he has never shied away from depicting the male form, and has watched (and responded) as societal perceptions of homosexuality shift all around him. In his portrait in 16mm film, Portraits (2016), taken by the artist Tacita Dean, the 80 year old artist sits in front of camera and smokes five cigarettes. In the accompanying text he remarks: “It used to be you couldn’t be gay. Now you can be gay but you can’t smoke. There’s always something.”
Mickalene Thomas is a African-American contemporary artist based in New York, who is well known for her complex paintings, made from extravagant combinations of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel. Drawing on Western art history, pop art, and visual culture, Thomas examines and exposes conceptions of femininity, beauty, race, sexuality, and gender. Her work has often been praised for its honest and unique representation of same-sex desires from a female perspective, as well its considered documentation of significant moments in African American history and culture.
One of today’s leading LGBTQ+ artists, Thomas has made waves in the art world in part due to her capacity to possess and re-interpret the legacy of Dadaism as a black lesbian woman. Thomas’ work mixes elements of abstraction and collage alongside a fascination with textiles and texture; opulent fabrics, glitter, diamantes and colorful paint surround and enmesh the subjects of her work. Combining these unlikely elements in excess, Thomas revels in the splendor of profligacy, using her art to suggest that materiality has an irreducible place in the creation and re-configuration of identity.
An exciting young voice in the British scene, Dale Lewis began his career as an assistant to Damien Hirst, and later to Raqib Shaw. For seven years he worked painstakingly under these artists, placing thousands of tiny butterfly wings onto paint for Hirst, and working in microscopic detail on photorealist paintings for Shaw. Having carved out his own niche, the London-based artist has moved away from working in miniature, preferring to paint vast works, often two by four meters wide, which he completes in a single day.
Lewis’ style bears echoes of David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat – his satirical and markedly British paintings are executed in oil, acrylic, and spray paint on canvas, depicting scenes that sit somewhere between the surreal and the mundane. Mostly populated by spindly, white British males, Lewis’ bold paintings show carnivalesque scenes of boys dressed in Adidas trainers basking at the seaside, baroque gay orgies, birthday parties, whacked out funerals, and men engaging in gang violence. Beneath the subversive humour and startling compositional complexity of Lewis’ work lies a deep-rooted search for British identity.
The South African photographer Zanele Muholi is a self described “visual activist,” whose work focuses primarily on the black female body and its historical representation in documentary film. Fighting back against the social inequality in post-Apartheid South Africa, Muholi uses her arresting queer portrait photography to give visibility to the nation’s attacked LGBTQ+ population. She is also the co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organization based in Gauteng and Inkanyisa, a platform for queer and visual activism.
In a country where honor killings and “corrective rapes” against lesbians are a lived threat, Muholi has to deal with the reality that many of the women she’s photographed have been killed. “The risk we take is on a daily basis,” Muholi told The Guardian, “just living, and thinking what might happen, not only to you but also your fellow activists and friends who are living their lives.”
David Wojnarowicz was a painter, photographer, and performance artist who incorporated personal narratives and experiences from his own life (and from those around him) into his work in order to create alternative histories and visions of society. A highly political and deeply personal artist, Wojnarowicz lived through the ‘80s AIDS epidemic, which he responded to often in his work, notably with his video piece “Fire in my Belly.” Wojnarowicz pushed the boundaries of queer aesthetics, combining the sexually explicit with the politically conscious, wielding an incisive comic wit. His work continued to explore his struggle with AIDS until he died from complications of the disease in 1992.
Lola Flash is a celebrated New York-based visual artist who, in her own words, “uses photography to challenge stereotypes and offer new ways of seeing that transcend and interrogate gender, sexual, and racial norms.” Having documented the ever-changing landscapes of queer culture for over 30 years, her portraiture includes photographs of queer avant-garde trailblazers, demure older women, and trans people going about their daily lives. Flash started out in the 1980s, capturing anti-Reagan AIDS protests on film in New York. Always happy to interrogate queer culture itself, Flash’s work probes deeper. Her images of anti-Reagan protests in fact offer a critique of cis white gay men who fail to acknowledge the privilege inherent in both their gender and skin color, and thus prohibit the creation of a truly inclusive LGBTQ+ community. Her acid-like negative photograph “K,” 1989, depicts two muscular white men in tight underwear and Ku Klux Klan masks – a clear indication of her desire to challenge normalized and oppressive conceptions of gender, identity, and race from every angle.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a portrait photographer whose work reveals his subjects in tantalizing fragments: torsos, arms, legs, or feet – never the whole body. Through leaving something out, Sepuya challenges the relationship between photographer and sitter, creating a feeling of longing and wanting more. Often, his photographs are torn apart and rearranged with tape, allowing for a deep immersion into queer culture, as well conceptions of social and sexual exchange.
What makes Sepuya’s work so singular is his careful investigation of gaze and sensuality. Sepuya’s photos often seek to remind us of some important yet uncomfortable truths concerning photography’s historical predilection for mangling (in particular, black) queer bodies. Through ripping his subjects into fragments, and reassembling them himself, Sepuya imbues his portraits with power.
Well known for her work in fashion, K8 Hardy is a diverse multimedia artist – her photographs, performance pieces, and sculptures explore a variety of issues, from class, to race and gender. Hardy often incorporates herself as the subject of her own photographs, subverting the traditional hegemonic practice of male artists objectifying female bodies. In 2007, Hardy collaborated with queer feminist performance artist Wynne Greenwood on a performance piece at Tate Modern. The two artists wore berets and turtlenecks, adopting alternate identities as co-hosts of the fictional news station, WKRH, where they reported on fake news such as bra burning, and interviewed a friend who was suffering from anxiety. The press release for the exhibition, titled New Report, noted: “If the revolution will be televised today it is only by queering TV in order to encounter the desires of the subjects and histories it addresses.”
K8 Hardy is also a founding member of the queer feminist journal and artist collective LTTR, and has directed music videos for bands such as Le Tigre, Lesbians on Ecstasy, and Men. Some of her work is permanently housed at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode was a Nigerian-born photographer, who moved to Britain as a child to escape the Nigerian Civil War, and later studied in the United States. His stylized photographic portraits address themes of colonialism, sexuality, and race; in particular the internal tensions between his own homosexual identity and Yoruba upbringing. Indeed, Fani-Kayode described himself as an outsider three times over: “On matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for.”
Fani-Kayode was also a prominent voice in the artistic discourse around HIV and AIDS throughout the 1980s, until he died in 1989 from a heart attack which he suffered whilst recovering from an AIDS related illness. Not only has the artist been praised for his provoking imagery of Africanness and queerness, he is also revered for his ability to explore racial and sexual politics through the lens of religious eroticism and beauty. Despite the complexity of their themes, his images often evoke a sense of fleeting beauty. In Bronze Head, 1987, Fani-Kayode acts as both artist and sitter – he is the one who both controls and frames this complex representation of his own identity, in an act that can be interpreted as evocatively sexual, or a surreal depiction of male childbirth.
Catherine Opie is an LGBTQ+ artist whose groundbreaking fine-art photography examines American identity through reimagining national/local iconography, and redefining landscapes. Opie has captured members of the American LGBTQ+ community, such as the Los Angeles Leather Dyke community, through her documentary photography projects. Her work often combines esoteric references to art history, with socio-political commentary, drawing inspiration from the transgressive photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin. The subjects of her work range from local football teams, to studies of master-plan communities, to S&M erotica created for lesbian owned sex magazines.
You can find more information, artists, auctions, exhibitions, and current trends at MutualArt.com.
Fake Indigenous art is the tip of the iceberg of cultural appropriation – CBC.ca
If you’ve ever walked around Vancouver’s Gastown area, you’ll have surely seen the many art galleries and souvenir shops scattered about the streets.
Venture inside these trendy tourist locations, and you’ll find beautiful, handmade art pieces — often done in recognizable styles from many Indigenous cultures. According to The Pretendians, a new documentary from The Passionate Eye, over a billion dollars are spent annually on Indigenous art in these shops.
Of course, as consumers, many of us assume that these pieces of art are authentic. That is, we are told and believe that the so-called Indigenous art is made by Indigenous artists.
More and more, however, it is being revealed that a great deal of this so-called authentic Indigenous art isn’t made by Indigenous people at all. Instead, it is made by non-Indigenous individuals and businesses who have taken on Indigenous identities and aesthetics. These people are often called “pretendians” by those immersed in the issue.
Among other harms, pretendians make a profit off of people’s desire for Indigenous culture and items. You might think this is a rare issue, but it actually happens all the time.
An investigation by data journalist Francesca Fionda, one of the experts featured in the film, found that out of 40 shops in Gastown, 75 per cent appeared to be selling inauthentic art.
This case of pretendianism in art raises some important questions: How do we tell what is “real” versus what is “fake”? Can we ensure Indigenous people aren’t being made to compete against non-Indigenous people in a market that should be accessible to them? And how big of an issue is this really?
These are the types of questions that The Pretendians, hosted by Indigenous author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, seeks to explore. And given that the prominence of pretendians seems to be growing, it is important that we take these explorations seriously.
Determining what is real and what (or who) is fake
Outside of the art world, a range of non-Indigenous people are taking on Indigenous identities, too. Perhaps you have seen headlines about it online and in the news: distinguished university professors, filmmakers, authors and others who have made a living off of their alleged “Indigenous perspective.”
There are dozens of respected and often highly decorated individuals who cannot substantiate their claims to specific Indigenous communities, who have outright lied about their family history or who base their claim on a single, extremely distant Indigenous relative.
In The Pretendians, Taylor travels to Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, which describes itself as “an Anishnabek community that is located in the Madawaska, Mississippi and Rideau watersheds.” Ardoch is not a federally recognized First Nation and, more importantly, many Algonquin voices and communities say it’s not Algonquin at all.
There is a lot to discuss about Ardoch — not only that they appear to have very few checks and balances in place to be considered a community member. In the documentary, Anishinaabe professor Veldon Coburn says that, for some time, all you needed to do was complete a self-declaration form on Ardoch’s website.
Many feel that this lack of criteria makes the Ardoch community simply an avenue for pretendians to validate their dubious identity claims. This can become an especially distressing situation when communities like Ardoch involve themselves in important politics and policy-making decisions, like treaty negotiations, as Coburn says they did in the late nineties.
At the same time, it is important to hear the cautions from Indigenous people who are worried that we too easily rely on conditions like government recognition to be considered a “real” Indigenous person or group. These voices remind us that Indigenous citizenship and identity are, so often, complex and don’t fit neatly into checklists we might want to make in an effort to assert who we truly are. We should not take these concerns lightly.
So, as you can see, the issue is complex — and it seems to have reached a boiling point.
Who gets to decide if someone is Indigenous or not?
Many Canadian institutions do not have processes or standards in place to distinguish Indigenous people from pretendians. And in lieu of any formal processes, some people have taken it upon themselves to fill those gaps.
We have seen coverage of a university hiring committee denying an Indigenous job candidate for not producing specific documentation proving his status — despite his very real identity and community relationships. In other cases, social media accounts have been created (often anonymously) to expose people believed to be making false claims to Indigenous identity.
So this brings in the other part of the conversation: How do we deal with the pretendian problem?
Frequently, debates are being had within Indigenous communities about this question. People ask: How do we determine who does or does not belong, and who gets to make that decision? Can there be any standard way to know when our communities and nations are each so distinct? Is social media the appropriate place to have these conversations about identity? If not, where and how should we have them? Who benefits from how we are having these discussions, and who falls through the cracks?
There are no clear answers — but many conversations to be had
When it comes to these questions, there seems to be no consensus — even as the pressure for answers mounts, and more people realize how implicated they are in the pretendian conversation.
But whether you are a consumer having to question the authenticity of your Gastown art, a hiring manager responsible for bringing Indigenous candidates into your place of work, or part of an Indigenous community that is navigating these conversations, Drew Hayden Taylor will hopefully be able to offer you some insights.
Importantly, I say insights, not answers. A single documentary cannot possibly answer all of the monumental questions the pretendian phenomenon has evoked. However, as it appears that pretendians aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, we should assume that neither will the speculation about how to go forward — or the insistence that the topic of Indigenous identity is too important to ignore, even in this complex world. As long as this is the case, we will need to have conversations like those The Pretendians seeks to have.
Watch The Pretendians on The Passionate Eye.
A 1,000-Piece Contemporary Art Collection Is Coming to Auction
(Bloomberg) — Just a months after putting their Westchester sculpture park on the market, top art collectors Sherry and Joel Mallin have announced that they’re selling nearly all of their thousand-plus-piece art collection. “We’re basically selling everything,” says Joel in an interview. “It eliminates, to some extent, worrying: ‘Should we sell this one or that one?’”
The art—by volume, one of the largest collections to go to auction—will be sold at Sotheby’s with an overall estimate exceeding $50 million. The pieces will be spread across multiple auctions in London and New York this year; further sales, including a dedicated auction of monumental sculptures, will take place in 2023 and 2024.
The couple has been a major force in the contemporary art scene for decades, slowly accumulating formidable 20th century and 21st century artworks for display at their estate, Buckhorn Sculpture Park, in Pound Ridge, NY.
In addition to the property’s 70-odd outdoor sculptures, the Mallins exhibited their extensive collection in a 9,200-square-foot museum-quality space they called an “art barn.” The barn was rehung every two years “from top to bottom,” says Sherry. “So we’ve had the experience of things being taken down.”
How to Sell 1,000 Artworks
The decision to sell their collection, Sherry says, is one of practicality. They have donated many works to museums over the years, but don’t like the idea of donating the entire collection to a museum, where “it will go into a basement and no one will see the artists’ work,” Sherry says.
They considered turning their sculpture park into a foundation, but “there were many factors against that,” she says. “One is that you have to endow it extremely heavily for the town to even consider it—but in our case, most of our wealth is in our art.” So, she continues, “in order to endow it, we’d have to sell the art, and then we’d have nothing to endow anymore. So that didn’t seem like a good idea.”
They decided to simply sell it, using former auction house veteran Francis Outred as an adviser. “He approached both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and each made remarkable presentations,” says Sherry. “Each was interesting and very commendable, and I guess we decided on the one who approached it with the most comprehensive business point of view, in terms of taking care of the whole collection from beginning to end over a long period of time.”
It wasn’t that they were concerned about their most expensive lots. “Every auction house knows how to handle the best pieces,” Sherry says. “That’s not hard; the best pieces handle themselves. It’s what do you do with the rest of the collection, which is really nice but not outstanding.”
So what do they think of Sotheby’s valuations?
“All of it was too little,” Sherry says, half-joking. “Every one of my children is perfect, and every one of my art pieces is fantastic.”
Her theory will be tested very soon. The first tranche of works will go on sale during Sotheby’s contemporary art sales in London this month. Thomas Schütte’s Bronzefrau Nr.11 (Bronze Woman No. 11), from 2002, carries an estimate of £2 million to £3 million ($2.3 million to $3.4 million) and will hit the auction block on Oct. 14.
The same day, the couple’s totemic sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, Listening One from 1981, will go to sale with an estimate of £1.3 million to £1.8 million. Other top lots include an Infinity Net painting by Yayoi Kusama from 2010, which carries an estimate of £1.8 million to £2.5 million; Sean Scully’s paintingWall of Light Red, from 1998, estimated from £800,000 to £1.1 million; and a collection of work by the group known as YBAs (Young British Artists), including pieces by Damien Hirst and Ron Mueck.
Next month in the marquee contemporary evening auctions in New York, they’ll sell a work by Robert Gober from 1993-94, which carries an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, and a piece by Robert Irwin from 1965–67, part of his suite of works known as “The Discs,” which carries an estimate of $3 million to $4 million.
Wait and See
Despite these heady prices, Joel has a word of warning for anyone buying art purely for financial gain. “Don’t view art as an investment,” he says. “It’s probably the worst investment you could make.”
Sherry interjects that she would “like to edit that statement.” It’s not the worst investment, she says; it’s just “not a sound investment or a sure investment, ever. Nobody knows, 50 years from now, which artists today are going to bring the most money.”
The art that’s going to the London auctions has already been taken off the walls, but the couple remains relatively sanguine. They plan to attend the New York sales in November. “I think it will be bittersweet,” says Sherry.
Joel, for his part, is withholding judgment. “I don’t think I’m going to know how I feel about it until after the sale,” he says.
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