Credit: EG Schempf

Modern Exhibition ‘queer abstraction’ Challenges Audience

‘queer abstraction’ on view at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. (Courtesey of EG Schempf)

If you were to attend the exhibition queer abstraction currently on view at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, you would first find yourself face to face with a shimmering, light blue beaded curtain hung across the gallery entrance, gently swaying side to side as a consequence of other museum-goers’ passage through its barrier. At once, you realize that if you want to view the rest of the exhibition, you must part the curtain, allow the beads to brush your skin, and insert your body into the gallery space. From the jump, queer abstraction challenges its audience.

The curtain through which one must pass is actually Untitled (Water), an interactive sculpture made in 1995 by process artist Félix González-Torres, just one year before his AIDS-related death. González-Torres’ work was often informed by his identity as an openly gay person, and typically functions as social critique or cultural activism. In this instance, González-Torres questions modes of normativity and raises issues of institutional access by visually and haptically bifurcating the museum’s gallery space. By creating this spatial division, the artist muddles not only the perceived parameters of the museum’s layout, but also reimagines what it means to engage in the viewership of fine art.

González-Torres challenges the decorum of ‘look, don’t touch’ that has been historically prescribed to educational institutions like the Nerman. Though the curtain forms a barrier that may, at first, connote a prohibitive or exclusive function, the concept behind González-Torres’ piece is quite the opposite. Those who have been conditioned to passively experience art objects are forced to literally confront the habits that exclude them from the accessible, participatory experience that González-Torres has created. The artist warmly welcomes his audience to fully engage in the whimsical discovery of what lies beyond the curtain.

The catch is that viewers must first recognize their hesitancy to physically embody this experience, and then push past the initial discomfort of defying normative conventions of viewership. Here, the artist seems to ask, “What does it take to belong inside an art gallery?” and moreover, “Why don’t you come in?” This question posed by González-Torres, as well as the show’s curators, is not rhetorical. Queer abstraction is interested in the reasons why systems of normativity dominate art, and wants its audiences to become aware of any possible answers to this question.

If Untitled (Water) is an aesthetic iteration of the show’s challenge to its audience, the show’s curators made sure to reiterate this challenge in an explicit, textual manner. Once viewers have successfully navigated González-Torres’ blue plastic quandary, they are met with prefatory text displayed on the gallery wall that explains the show’s conceptual goals.

The show’s contributors make their expectations clear, stating “queer abstraction invites all visitors to leave preconceived notions of the body, sex, gender and love behind and discover abstraction’s queer possibilities.” Throughout the rest of the gallery, the exhibition also utilizes quotations from “Ten Queer Theses on Abstraction,” an essay written by art historian David Getsy. Getsy’s quotations help clarify the curators’ definition of queerness, as well as what queerness means in the context of abstraction. 

The show makes no claims about the identities of the artists included, but is instead concerned with how the artists have used the technique of abstraction to express ideas of “sexuality and gender identity.” ‘Queer’ is a polyvalent term, but in this context, queer exists as an attitude of resistance toward what is deemed ‘natural,’ ‘normal,’ or ‘common.’ In Getsy’s words queerness is, “a self-chosen political and personal stance deriving from a critical suspicion of normativity and of assimilations into it.”

Abstraction is a particularly appropriate mode of creation to tackle these complexities because, like queerness, abstraction defies categorization; it doesn’t attempt to explicitly classify or describe bodies or forms. Because taxonomizing art, ideas, or identities is inherently exclusive, and is often limiting or hurtful, both queerness and abstraction exist as helpful critiques of cultural systems of power, such as the hierarchies that exist within educational institutions.

Like queerness, abstraction demands to be understood in all of its particularity and resists constructs of normativity. Again looking to Getsy, queer abstraction is used to “flout proprieties, refuse to aspire to being normal, uphold difference, eroticize capaciously, or disrupt assimilation.”

Like Félix González-Torres, contributing artist Matthew Willie Garcia is especially concerned with the question of who and what belongs in museums.

“I wanted to capture fluidity, I wanted to capture movement. I wanted to capture this overlapping intersectionality that comes with being queer,” Garcia said. “I want to queer the notion of the gallery space. We have been trained as artists and as viewers to ignore the structures that are holding the art up.” 

“I wanted to capture fluidity, I wanted to capture movement. I wanted to capture this overlapping intersectionality that comes with being queer,”

Matthew Willie Garcia

Given his intent, it seems exceptionally appropriate that the Nerman’s curators chose to locate Garcia’s multimedia piece Reorienting Space-Time outside the main floor gallery and instead in its own room on the second floor of the museum. Reorienting Space-Time deals with the concept of access in particular. It challenges its audience to question what it is they’re looking at, exactly.

Viewers enter a darkened space in which slowly moving, brightly colored geometric images are projected onto one of the walls. As these forms constantly change shape, disappear, and reappear in different manifestations, viewers are more and more able to distinguish between forms that initially appear projected, but actually physically exist on the gallery wall. And, the longer one looks, forms that appear static turn out to be nothing but digitized pixels of light and color. This is Garcia’s attempt to lure his audience into an environment that at first, seems visually pleasing, accessible, and easy to understand, but quickly becomes a space where nothing is identifiable because everything is fluid. 

Matthew Willie Garcia, Super Position of Us (framed), 2019. (Molly Hatesol/KJHK)

His technique of abstraction functions as a means of breaking down the classifications that make it easy to exclude people, art, or ideas.

“When we lose this idea of the physical body then there are a little bit more abstract decisions about who gets to belong,” Garcia said. “It’s less about ‘Are you able-bodied?’ ‘Are you straight?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?’ ‘Are you female?’ It’s more about ‘Do you exist in this continuum of humanity and are we all part of this?’”

Through queer abstraction, Garcia attempts to construct a portal to another, more utopic environment where we are allowed to be perceived without being reduced to a single, determinable mode of being.

As you exit the main gallery after surveying the impressive and engaging works of the other eighteen artists included in the show, now slightly more at ease with the feeling of Untitled (Water) coming into contact with your body, you realize the answer to Garcia’s utopic question hinges on your willingness to remain open to that with which you are confronted. Queer abstraction is best experienced not through a passive, visual approach, but through a curious, embodied manner of beholding that illuminates the aspects of queer identities that are often unnoticed or uncelebrated within normative systems.

Queer abstraction is on display at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art until March 8, 2020. Garcia’s thesis show Quantum States and Queer Realities will be on display from Feb. 27 to March 5, 2020, located in the Art & Design Gallery on the 3rd floor of Chalmers Hall at the University of Kansas.