Painting Queer at the Hills Esthetic Center – Exhibition Review

Published in Chicago Artist Writers, July 2014. 

The scene is exhausted beach-balls and empty lotion bottles, a painting of a vase and a vase that is painted. Big things, little things, two young men and a book of butter wrappers. There is more: splashes of color in a white room. Miss Kilman and she were terrible together marks the conclusion of Painting Queer – a multilevel undergraduate studio course and its curator Matt Morris’ professorial debut at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibiting artists are, in large part, students gathered from the course, with additional contributions from artists Richard Hawkins, Dana DeGiulio, Eric Ruschman, Amy Sillman and Miller & Shellabarger. Further contributions by Ulrike Müller, Lisa Raskin, David Getsy, Poy Born and Andrew Holmquist are featured in the exhibition’s catalogue.

Miss Kilman and she were terrible together opens in Chicago on the heels of several exhibitions this year examining community and collaboration in queer artistic practice (1). Indeed, the community of the course and its connections to the larger network of queer artists in Chicago and abroad weaves the essence of the “group show” into the content of the exhibition. This coming together of queer personalities, or personalities for whom togetherness evokes something queer, is embedded at every level of the exhibition’s conceptual framework. The exhibition title is taken from the pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. A Florine Stettheimer image was used in the exhibition’s promotional material: a painted scene from one of the Manhattan socialite’s upper-west side get-togethers. These two references introduce an interesting historical frame for the exhibition’s content and motives: a queer locale in the interwar high-society and artistic social circuit, and by no means an insignificant one. Among the giants of American Modernism to attend Stettheimer’s salons were the painters Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley, whose ostensibly innocuous oeuvres are dotted with homoerotic musings: hunky, broad chested men and gaggles of pissing sailors. Stettheimer herself was a lesbian.


Installation view. Center (floor): Alex da Corte “Untitled (De/sublimation)” (2014). Photo courtesy Matt Morris.

The works shown in Miss Kilman cover a range of painterly practices, but it is the emergence of a dominant tendency towards abstraction (and specifically those works which find their formal lineage in geometric abstraction and hard-edge painting), which I find to be the most striking feature of the exhibition. A cluster of such paintings hangs on the east wall. BD Pack’s formidable canvas gradates from black to timber-wolf on a gunmetal ground; Eric Ruschman’s candy colored humps evoke the body’s racy contours, hanging almost like sculpture on the same wall.

David Getsy’s contribution to the catalogue relates to the art historian’s larger research interests, detailed at length in his forthcoming book Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender. In conversation with art historian and queer theorist Jennifer Doyle late last year, Getsy highlights the space for a queer read of austere art objects; ostensibly formalist enterprises, that despite their sparse contours, evoke a bodily referent. The possibilities of a queer stake in the history of Modernism, and in the legacy and trajectory of abstraction are enticing. (2) It can also be said, and is in fact alluded to in the exhibition’s “claims,” that restraint (read formal austerity) itself has inherently queer possibilities, or can be mobilized to potentially queer ends. Modernism has its closets, to be sure. The dance between public exhibition and private infatuation produces a piquant biographic detail of the artist and indispensable conceptual frame when reading the work. It is restraint, perhaps even the embedded institutional oppression of patriarchy, which enables Virginia Woolf’s unique feminist stagings. Under Woolf’s pen – in her highly mannered, carefully measured, almost sparse prose – the possibilities of writing for a subject position for which free representative modes did not exist, or were publicly unacceptable at the time, emerges as bound up in the very implements – the language – of its own erasure. Demuth’s proto-abstract smokestacks – flat , careful planes of simple geometries and color – become rich allusions to the artist’s biography when read together with his explicitly gay watercolors.

While exciting historical threads and queer precedents can be pulled from the exhibition’s conceptual framework, there is no singular queer “legacy” at play. The exhibition’s claims are conflicting, messy, unstable, liminal, provisional. The work resists ready formal and conceptual grouping, and iterates as sumptuous multitude. This of course remains the semantic and political stronghold of queerness, and of painting queer.

(1) This theme was highlighted by a number of writers covering Tony Greene at Iceberg Projects in April (I also wrote a little about this), and was the conceptual backbone for Amy Cancelmo’s traveling curatorial project Strange Bedfellows, which showed in Chicago at Columbia College’s A+D Gallery in January.

(2) Queer Formalisms: Jennifer Doyle and David Getsy in ConversationArtjournal, Issue 72, No. 4 (Winter 2013).