Review

About Face: Stonewall, Revolt, and New Queer Art

Ania Kaczynska 1 April 2024 min Read

About Face: Stonewall, Revolt, and New Queer Art was initially an exhibition that marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Previously on view at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago between May and August 2019, the show acted as a contextual window to both the past and future of queer art. Now, About Face returns as a book harnessing the power of queerness through discursive operations.

In About Face, art historian, educator, and writer Jonathan D. Katz mapped the rallying voices of LGBTQ+ artists across 50 years. The collection proposed a groundbreaking narrative that honored but moved beyond framing the Stonewall Riots as the only starting point or solely about gay rights. Presented instead is a spectrum of queer art in history.

about face: Front cover of About Face: Stonewall, Revolt, and New Queer Art, Phaidon, February 2024. Courtesy of the publisher.

Front cover of About Face: Stonewall, Revolt, and New Queer Art, Phaidon, February 2024. Courtesy of the publisher.

The more than 350 artworks from over 40 LGBTQ+ artists Katz put together offer a global and multigenerational perspective. With a generous catalog of underrepresented artists, the project contributes a more holistic and equitable picture to the ongoing discourse on gender and sexual identity. Also aptly captured by the title, About Face, is a turning point, a shift in focus in understanding the queer experience that brings to light the interconnectedness of art and activism.

Highlights

The diverse selection of artists in About Face speaks to the kaleidoscopic richness of queer art; they compose a tapestry of voices and perspectives within the LGBTQ+ community.

about face: Keith Haring, Untitled, 1989, gouache, ink, and Herb Ritts photograph collage on handmade paper, 24 1/5 x 29 1/10 in. Image courtesy of private collection.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1989, gouache, ink, and Herb Ritts photograph collage on handmade paper, 24 1/5 x 29 1/10 in. Image courtesy of private collection.

Keith Haring, an artist who needs no introduction, embarked on his artistic journey as a graffiti artist within the bustling New York subway system. Rapidly gaining acclaim with his art, Haring wove together signs and symbols. His distinctive iconography and visual intricacy transcended existing narratives. The compositions he created still resist interpretations: Rooted in postmodernism, they act as invitations calling for engagement. It will then be up to the viewers to actively fill the symbolic gaps with their own conceptions. Haring’s work, while expressive and deeply personal, allows the audience to think like an author. From this point on, individualized and associative relationships start to foster.

about face: Del LaGrace Volcano, MOJ OF THE ANTARCTIC, OPEN ARMS, ANTARCTICA, 2005, Giclée print, 44 x 66 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Del LaGrace Volcano, MOJ OF THE ANTARCTIC, OPEN ARMS, ANTARCTICA, 2005, Giclée print, 44 x 66 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Del LaGrace Volcano, a distinctive presence in About Face, emerges as both the creator and embodiment of a compelling artistic narrative. Born intersex, Volcano defies gender binary by embracing a fluid “both/and” identity. This viewpoint empowers them to represent and interrogate experiences of the genderqueer, trans, and intersex.

A standout series within their portfolio, MOJ OF THE ANTARCTIC ingeniously draws from the historical account of Ellen Craft, a Black woman who posed as a White man with a disability to escape slavery. Against the backdrop of an eerily unpopulated Antarctic expanse, Volcano dismantles racial, gender, and physical markers. Here, binary oppositions crumble as every visible identity signifier cancels out the others. MOJ OF THE ANTARCTIC features a Black person in Victorian attire against a glacial landform, with which the acts of masking and unmasking constitute a performative act breaking cultural boundaries, particularly highlighting Volcano’s fascination with the liberating potential of transness—a freedom found in rejecting external limitations such as societal norms.

about face: Leonard Suryajaya, Deafening Silence, 2016, archival inkjet print, 40 x 50 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Leonard Suryajaya, Deafening Silence, 2016, archival inkjet print, 40 x 50 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

Leonard Suryajaya, another highlight in About Face, examines his Indonesian ancestry and his life being a queer immigrant in Chicago. His photography delves into the complexities of contrasting social and sexual realities and how cultures from his home country and the US equally contribute to shaping his identity. Noteworthy is Suryajaya’s participatory approach. He would let his sitters (initially his family members) take control. The use of a large format camera imbues his works with symbolic meanings since the film often takes time to develop, and such a process will magnify the significance of collaborative work. Besides, the right to self-determination and the intricate reconciliation of opposing identities are themes central to Suryajaya’s practice.

AdVertisment

Zanele Muholi stands out in About Face as one of the few Black African artists to achieve genuine global fame. Muholi plays a pivotal role in advocating for queer liberation in their native country, South Africa, despite significant challenges. As a self-described “visual activist,” Muholi’s commitment was met with setbacks from violent threats to stolen equipment. But his work perseveres to become vivid portraitures of Black queer South Africans that promote public understanding of the nation’s complex sociopolitical landscape.

Muholi’s art has evolved alongside the still rampant homophobic violence in South Africa. The result is a progressively intricate cycle of work. Among them are extraordinary self-portraits subverting stereotypes associated with African artists in the Western art world, which simultaneously critique South African homophobia through a nuanced exploration of identity, representation, and activism.

Future of Queer Art

About Face stands not only as a celebration of queer art but as a testament to the transformative power of diverse voices within the LGBTQ+ community. Through exploring the multifaceted history of queer art, the collection makes a powerful statement on the richness and variety inherent in queer artistic expressions. The breadth of artworks and artists featured also reminds us of the importance of having a critical perspective on gender and sexual identity.

As we navigate through the vivid and evocative works of artists like Del LaGrace Volcano, Leonard Suryajaya, Keith Haring, and Zanele Muholi, About Face becomes a point of consensus for acknowledging the stories of intersectionality and resistance within diverse LGBTQ+ experiences. It reflects on the past 50 years of queer art and will propel us towards a more inclusive future.

With critical engagement from both artists and scholars, the book About Face is not just an eye-catching compilation. There is depth and context added to the visuals coupled with an extended exploration of the nuanced, complex, and evolving expressions of queerness in art. In a world where mainstream representations often fall short, this book becomes a beacon, illuminating the diversity, resilience, and creativity inherent in the LGBTQ+ experience.

Get your copy of About Face on the publisher’s website.

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