Michael Langan talks to Simon Foxall about Queer Art, and how so many images in the pop-culture landscape operate as fantasies that obscure uncomfortable truths.
It’s not often that you see an exhibition of decidedly queer art in Mayfair, but Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place at the Simon Oldfield Gallery is a refreshingly subversive group presentation. The show is not specifically about gay or queer art, but aims to focus on artists who are pushing boundaries. The title references that moment in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth is galvanizing her husband to hold his nerve and there’s something correspondingly resolute about much of the work here and the gallery’s commitment to these artists, many of whom would otherwise find their work pushed to the margins, exploring non-mainstream, counter-cultural visions as they do. The work of these artists seems intrinsically informed by their sexuality.
The show was co-curated with Julia Fodor, aka Princess Julia, and intends to “rupture boundaries and challenge opinion.” According to the gallery, the artists, including Matthew Stone, Judy Blame, Bruce Ingram, Paul Kindersley, Jonny Briggs, David Holah and Matthew La Croix, “are pivotal in influencing and examining cultural movements, by pursuing an alternative perspective with fearless clarity.” Angel Rose and Josh Quinton’s film was a particular favourite of mine, blending and affectionately parodying popular culture references, from ’90s MTV to ’80s fashion (so current right now) and the ’70s-psychedelic version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
There’s a whole range of media and forms involved in the exhibition, which makes for a very diverse show and Judy Blame’s collage and Johnny Briggs’s tapestries are very arresting, as is so much of the work, for not having that glossy, immediately commercial sheen to them associated with Mayfair galleries. There’s much more of an edge here and Simon Oldfield should be commended for taking what is still, unfortunately, considered a risk by presenting a show comprised of queer artists.
One of those artists is Simon Foxall, who I spoke to about his work in the gallery itself.
You utilize the original staircase for your piece, ‘Buenos Aries,’ an installation of various works in different forms. It references Evita (and Eva Peron herself), Fassbinder’s film Querelle, as well as the Argentinian capital. What was your thinking behind the work?
It started from a photograph I took of the staircase at the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. The staircase at Simon Oldfield Gallery is such a physical and psychological presence that I wanted to refer to it directly. It seemed to present all kinds of narrative thoughts, the way that grand staircases in films sometimes become characters in their own right. ‘Buenos Aires’ doesn’t refer to a geographical location so much as a location for exotic fantasy.
And what was it about this location and those movies, specifically, that you wanted to bring together?
I have always been fascinated by the line between authenticity and truth and the use of fact as a playful tool for invention. South America has always interested me as a Hollywood product, one that has been used as an escapist tool. I think Evita interests me in that way too – do we think of Madonna and the music, or of the glamorous supporter of European fascism? Well, Madonna – obviously. Fassbinder’s film was adapted from Genet’s novel Querelle of Brest and I wanted re-draw stills from it and link them with the Casa Rosada alongside the totemic symbol of a fallen palm tree to suggest a new location, with new characters, inspired by existing ones.
You’re undertaking a whole series of pen drawings based on Querelle – what is it about that film that has inspired you to work with it in this particular way?
Fassbinder is one of my favourite directors and Genet one of my favourite writers. Querelle was Fassbinder’s last film – like it’s his swan song to the world – and I think he captures Genet’s spirit perfectly. Genet’s writing is so metaphoric and metaphysical that to make that into a successful film must have been a hell of a task. Fassbinder and Genet have equally strong sensibilities regarding both the menace and the playfulness of artifice and the potential for that artifice to be deeply authentic. My drawings are a kind of clawing adoration in some way. I always feel that the drawing process brings out my inner teenage fan, especially as I use marker pens and Biros – not typical “fine art” materials, but I feel they bring an immediacy and frankness to the work. I’m trying to balance the implied narrative that weighs heavy in any film still, with a quite lustful love for the characters. There’s an element of trying to capture the perfection and escapism of the movies, but in the most lo-fi way – a way that I can own and that becomes less passive as a result.
The Hero series of paintings reference classically queer imagery, from Physique Pictorial, Tom of Finland, and other sources such as advertising, but you’ve abstracted the images to create a different version of that material. It strikes me they could be on the front of sci-fi books, or ’70s album covers, given the rather psychedelic palette and particular use of paint.
Sci-fi and the ’70s! I love that. Sci-fi fascinates me, but more to think about than to watch. I love sci-fi imagery and the relationship between that and fantasy art, and the way that both sci-fi and fantasy art always reveal something very real-world about the people who make it and the time things are being made. It’s as if, by being fantasy, they can be more honest. I think Genet’s writing works in this way. I wanted to take images that I was drawn to despite their already clichéd cultural currency and work them into something else, something created from the material, not just from the image, and see where that ended up. The ’70s flavour is interesting too – I have been told that there is something Disco about my work, which was a great compliment! There is something inherently subversive about Disco and sci-fi, just as there is with Tom of Finland and Physique Pictorial, so I guess it makes sense to smash them together.
I enjoy the possibilities opened up by abstracting the images – it changes them into totems or emblems and I liken that relationship to an architecture of the persuasive. Heroic masculinity or hero-worship is something very familiar from sci-fi, from movies, from literature and myth, but it’s also historically been (and continues to be) a rich area of queer expression, a way for queer self-identification to be communicated through straight channels. It interests me how that lands in an art context.
There’s a particular version of queer sexuality, of masculinity, that is common to many of the things that have inspired your work in the show. Querelle, Tom of Finland and Physique Pictorial work with a very coded form of sexual exploration, I think, that is about maleness almost as a form of drag; it’s hyper-masculine, aggressive at times, trying very hard not to be ‘sissy’ or effeminate and therefore not ‘weak’.
Some would say all gender is a form of drag and I suppose I agree, although I don’t think that’s always a bad thing, but the rules of masculinity are still so tight and fraught. I love reading bodybuilding forums. They’re remarkably similar to Real Jock [an online gay fitness forum], except they’re dripping with insecurity and ‘no homo’ overstatement – talking about and appreciating other men’s bodies is par for the course, but there’s grave discomfort about it.
Tom of Finland was so important because he provided the first representation of male homosexuality that wasn’t the comedic sissies seen in Hollywood. I don’t know if that is why his men are so obscenely masculine, or whether it’s just because that is what he found sexy (I think the latter) but his vision of masculinity went on to inspire decades of homosexual visibility. Now the hyper-masculine body is not just a gay thing – all the lads in Geordie Shore are straight, as are the vast majority of muscle mountains at my gym – it’s become camp and performative and much maligned by both gay and straight men alike, but it’s a guilty pleasure of mine so I go with it. I like that flirtation with the cliché; it’s a spirit that runs through all of my work, identifying the cliché and embracing it.
‘Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place’ runs until February 28, 2013, at the Simon Oldfield Gallery, 6 Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1K 3AP.