Queer Art: Forgotten Trailblazers
By Isabella Cornell
There are arguably perhaps no better conditions to foster great art-making then political and social dissatisfaction. In the wake of a Trump Presidency’s attacks on LGBT+ rights in America, and the Australian government’s continued inadequacies on LGBT+ issues, there are certainly some adverse conditions (to say the least) which amazing artists in the queer community are reacting against in their practices.
With what could be the conditions for us to see a remarkable queer art renaissance in the coming years, what better time to look back at some of the underrepresented and forgotten queer art pioneers who’s lives and contributions have paved the way for our artistic community.
One of the first female photographers to work outside the studio, American artist Alice Austen is best known for her renowned documentary photographs of Staten Island at the end of the 19th Century, a precursor to the advent of photojournalism.
An often overlooked figure in mainstream and LGBT+ history, Austen’s perhaps most significant contribution to the field of photography was her documentation of her own life and queer group of socialites with whom she associated.
Both before and after Austen met her partner of thirty years in Gertrude Tate, Austen’s photographs depict lesbian relationships and her close friends posing in male garb- embodying a queer visibility within Austen’s private sphere of female friendship and gender masquerade.
Born and raised in the American South, Richmond Barthe moved to Harlem in 1928 to explore the emerging and vibrant artistic, social and sexual worlds offered there. Here, Barthe became a key figure in the Harlem Rennaissance through his audacious and frank eroticisation of the black male nude.
Struggling with mental illness, Barthe considered himself an outsider in many ways. He was not a part of the white art world, and his uncompromising homosexuality kept him distanced somewhat from other artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
Today, his work seems not that confrontational, but in a racist, sexually nervous mid-Century America, his work was groundbreaking, a testament to his talent that the work received the acclaim that it did.
Experimenting with the works of art that would define her career from the early age of two, Lankton had a life long obsession with dolls as an expression of self, alter egos, confidantes and friends. Born in 1958 as Greg Lankton, Greer grew up in suburban Illinois. She began showing in 1981, when she was featured in the now-legendary New York/New Wave group show at PS1 in Long Island, which also featured Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Sarah Charlesworth, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Kiki Smith, among many others.
The pieces in this show explored the raw wounds of childhood leading up to what Lankton referred to as her “sex change” or “the operation.” Masses of dolls inside and outside of cages displayed various stages of her life and feelings of entrapment or eventually the feeling of becoming uncaged.
The namesake for ACON’s women’s health branch ‘I Love Claude,’ this early 1900’s French photographer and writer subverted ideas of the gender binary well before her time. Born Lucy Schwob, Cahun adopted the name Claude due to its gender ambiguity which seemed more fitting with her gender fluid identity. This androgynous artist created photographs which focused on ideas of identity and self portraiture. Despite the contemporary critical acclaim of her work, somehow, her contribution has been for the most part, neglected from the surrealist artistic cannon.
The groundbreaking artist, renowned for her exploration of gender, used the lens and her body as weapons in portraying her ideas about gender – rejecting existing narratives and conventions. Her fluid gender identity and exploration of this through her art, made her a pioneer of the themes explored in contemporary queer art.
Not only did this artist make waves through her revolutionary photographs, but along with her creative and romantic partner Marcel Moore, risked her life by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda to German soldiers. The two were sentenced to death and imprisoned for their resistance activities but were saved by the Allied Liberation of Jersey in 1945, not without having most of their art destroyed prior.