Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Mind Body Dichotomy in Gay Male Art

Art critics, theorists, artists, and viewers alike have all been involved in conversations about the separation of the gay male artist’s art from his gayness. Instead, I maintain such a separation is impossible because it would demand the separation of mind and body. Coincidentally I maintain that there can be no mind/body split in gay or straight art, unless the artist be schizophrenic, as perhaps our Western culture is. The following is a short essay based on the artwork of one gay male artist.

Perfect Lovers

I discovered the “Chronology of Felix Gonzalez-Torres Life,” while reading about the artist, whom I greatly admire. The artwork is composed of two parallel lines of black lettering that form a timeline at the intersection of wall and ceiling. The work was installed at the Carnegie International in 1999 as well as other venue since. At that exhibit of Gonzalez-Torres work the viewer had to “walk through (“) Untitled (Water),(“) a beaded curtain that refers to the artist’s deep connection to the sea, stemming from his childhood in Cuba and his life in Miami.” * I immediately felt a deep personal connection because of my own spiritual link with the ocean. Being a gay male artist establishes a second connection. Thirdly, knowing that Felix lost his partner and his own life to AIDS established one more deeply rooted connection because of friends lost to that scourge. Thus, at a personal level, being gay and an artist are thoroughly connected in my mind, and I don’t know how one does not affect the other in the life and work of a gay male artist. In my own work the digital photo montages, seemingly frivolous images of beach and the male physical form are symbolically spattered with red and white to represent male seminal fluid, blood AIDS and death. Of course, the cosmology I have created in those images is much more complex, but I leave it to the viewer to discover and interpret if he / she should be so inclined.

Having established my personal connection to the artist, I am led into the next issue or question raised for me by Gonzalez-Torres artwork. Is there such a thing as gay male art?
Many would debate the possibility of such a thing in their own work and / or as a genuine category of artwork. I have established in the first paragraph above that for me this question is a resounding, YES! However, to proceed with a more thorough answer to the question, I must first wonder whether or not photography, painting, drawing and sculpture of the male nude – despite the cultural hangups, I consider the issue of pornography as not being applicable - is Art. I must bear that issue in mind because so many gay males, artists included, are totally fascinated, and I must assume titillated as am I, by the male physical form and artworks presenting it in part or totality.*2 Indeed, it is difficult to find images by gay male artists that are not about the male physical form. That, however, is because our own culture steps in with one more Western dichotomy, and tells us what is and is not gay. I would maintain, instead, that the gay male’s awareness of his own body as it is viewed both by himself and his culture intrudes its presence upon his art no matter the particular topic of his work. In short, there is a mind / body connection. If, for instance a gay male artist wishes to do art about his life in relation to his race, religion, ethnicity, that work is not thought to be gay art by most viewers if it doesn’t include representation(s) of the male physique. Secondly, if the gay male artist wishes to produce artwork about something other than personal issues involving culture, and or the artwork is to be applied to other artistic endeavors such as the theater, music, literature can it possibly be considered “Gay Art?” I would maintain that each of us whether gay or straight has our own sensibility based on our lives in this particular culture. Secondly, I know that our culture is so thoroughly involved and fascinated by SEX, gender, and sexuality, every manifestation and permutation thereof, that each of us has many ingrained ways of processing information and thought about life in general that are tinged by our sexuality, and we cannot help but bring it to the table with us. So, when Felix Gonzalez-Torres created billboards announcing the absence of his partner due to AIDS (photo of an empty rumpled bed), or installed piles of individually wrapped candies for the viewer to take and eat, he was painfully aware of how that empty bed and diminishing heap related to presence and absence, life and death. I also know from reading about Gonzalez-Torres that he believed in hiding his social/political concerns to the extent that he intended them to be a subversive or subliminal part of the artwork. Thus, it was all about Felix’s sexuality and how that thread was woven and knotted into every aspect of his existence.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres is but one example of a gay male artist whose work is all about his sexuality without being about the gay male physique. However, his artwork certainly is based on his life as a gay man and is due to the strong connection between his mind and body. I’m sure if I do a thorough search, I can find many more such examples, and I shall discuss these from time to time as part of this journal.

* Felix Gonzalez-Tores, “Perfect Lovers,” (1987-1990) at,, viewed 9:50 AM EDT. Tuesday, July 14, 2009.
The single use of a copyrighted image as part a scholarly work is considered to be permissible.

*2 I differentiate here between the male physical form and the “male body” as that term is used in Postmodern discourse.

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