Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Queer British Art 1861-1967

The unwieldy title contains a wealth of meaning and significance--a major exhibit at Tate Britain with an LGBT subject? A rainbow flag (RIP Gilbert Baker) flying over the venerable house of art on the banks of the Thames? Gluck gazing out defiantly from the hoardings and pamphlets? Wowzers. There is something already contradictory in this exhibit using the word queer in such an august institution.

For what is "queer art"? Art made by self-identified LGBT people? Art made by people who had same-sex leanings? Art with overtones of same-sex desire? I am really not sure having spent some hours in this exhibit, with wildly varying representations. It proceeds from changes in the law that affected gay men--sodomy being the important definition for the law, if not for the queer population. So, we are already looking at parameters that may or may not be relevant to the artists and the contemporary viewer.

But, the art seems to have been included based on what the curator Clare Barlow decided was relevant. Rarely did I look at a work and think, "That's quite good" or "That's terrible". I was looking at the biographical information in the captions to see who the sitter in the painting was or what the "queer" relevance was. It's a very different way of looking at art from the usual. As it happened, some of the works were quite compelling, though I was rather unimpressed with Duncan Grant's several contributions. Sorry, Bloomsbury crowd.

Actually, the best known artists were the least interesting in this context--we've seen Hockney, Bacon and Cahun many times before. They are acknowledged for both their artistic achievements and queerness. It is the lesser known artists who captured my attention, many of them women: Evelyn De Morgan, the duo known as Michael Field and so forth. I found myself asking a question I have posed many times since I began writing about women and culture decades ago: "Why have I never heard of her?" Well, there are many reasons--being written out of history, working in secret or cloaking gender to avoid condemnation.

But, there were some happy surprises. Who knew Kenneth Halliwell was a talented artist? His library books with Joe Orton occupy a case and draw giggles but Halliwell also has a large collage on a wall and it is very impressive. The caption tells the story--shown in 1957, the exhibition was a failure. The story of his life, sadly.

There is some effort at social context--captions question the power relations between white artists and black sitters and between servants and masters who painted them. 

But, given the historical backdrop of this whole exhibit, one of legal and social repression, the art is surprisingly lively and joyful. It is also quite multifaceted--portraits, jewellery and even some artifacts are shown. Is the door of Oscar Wilde's prison cell really art? Or is it a memorial to martyrdom?

I shall finish with the mysterious Sammy who was part of a group of women who explored drag in the early twentieth century. Her photo hangs on a wall in the exhibit but very little is stated about her or her circle. I want to know more about these women.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Flare: Heartland

Two very different films set in the American southwest show the limits set on queer behaviour.

The very powerful documentaryl Southwest of Salem outlines the appalling treatment of four women in San Antonio, Texas convicted of child rape in the 1990s, in part because of a religious panic and in part because of anti-lesbian sentiment: "They think this is what gay people do," one of them explains. "No, it's not." Over a number of years the women discuss their lives and we get to know them through their testimony and that of family members and supporters. Eventually, their case comes to the attention of an advocacy group and the wheels of justice begin to move ever so slowly. But, one is forced to reckon with the tremendous power of hearsay, bigotry, and misogyny that allowed the case to proceed in the first place. Sobering.

Not so with the drama Heartland, set in Oklahoma, as a local girl returns home after the death of her partner to find her hometown and family unchanged and unmoved. Having an affair with her brother's girlfriend does not exactly endear her to her mother, who refuses to even acknowledge the death of her girlfriend. The set-up is fantastic but the film falls apart in the third act with ridiculous over-acting and melodramatic music underscoring the emotion. Oh, dear. Why not just let it flow? I found myself only really rooting for the unfortunate interloping girlfriend rather than the annoying family. She had a lucky escape.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Flare: Tales of the City

As I have perused the Flare titles available as online screeners, I couldn't help but notice how many originate in San Francisco, a city dear to my heart as I lived there for a significant time in the 1990s. Much of what I knew is gone now, so I have heard, but I always sit up when I see SF locations in a film.

Naturally, I was intrigued to see a documentary on writer Armistead Maupin, he of Tales of the City fame, directed by Jennifer Kroot. The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin is a fine encapsulation of his extraordinary life, from growing up with "good blood" in the south, to serving in Vietnam, meeting Nixon in the White House, and of course his eventual arrival in SF, coming out and becoming a famous writer. Not that it is told in chronological order. Rather, themes emerge, signposted by some nifty animation, and famous talking heads such as Amy Tan, Sir Ian McKellen and Laura Linney chime in with their thoughts. One of my own thoughts was how extraordinarily privileged a life Maupin has led: not everybody gets invited to do half the things he has. But in the end even he is racked with insecurities and a need to find his own "logical family", as opposed to the biological one from which he felt so alienated. The city has certainly given him that, as well as inspiration for his books. It was a pleasure to view.

Not so much with Snapshot, which could have been a very suspenseful queer take-off on Hitchcock, but ended up being more extended sex scenes interrupted by some plot. I was quite creeped out in the first 15 minutes as photographer Charlie stumbles in on a couple having sex before a terrible murder takes place and she realises she has some photographic evidence. But clearly director Shine Louise Houston is more interested in the sexual shenanigans of voyeur Charlie and her new squeeze Danny than actually unravelling the mystery, which kind of evaporates half-way through. What a disappointment. But, even here sun-dappled San Francisco looks lovey. Nice setting, shame about the story.