Paris: art & queer culture

“El Caballero Español” by Eduardo Arroyo

“El Caballero Español” by Eduardo Arroyo

While our collaborative engagement with the Argenteuil community has been one aspect of our Queer Urban Geographies project, we have also come here to allow for a diverse set of “queer urban probes”, both in NYC and Paris. Beginning with the one-day Queer Urban Geographies conference in NYC that designed to facilitate a series of questions and perspectives from which to begin a series of discreet projects that can be spatialized. Jane and I have been designing Urban Research Toolkit (URT), an open-source, online, customizable spatial database, specifically to allow for a variety of methodologies that a project such as this one demands. Towards this effect, we are each setting up our own data “layer” within URT to spatialize and cross-reference these layers.

One of the layers I am developing is the “queer image” within artistic practice, how this is articulated, formalized, identified as queer or not. One of the first paintings I came across in Paris is Eduardo Arroyo’s “El Caballero Español”, at the Pompidou Centre. Identifying “queerness” is an emergent and discordant enterprise, defying neat packaging or a tidy historical narrative. Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer have just published Queer Art & Culture, which is “first major historical survey to consider the ways in which the codes and cultures of homosexuality have provided a creative resource for visual artists.” For me, queerness and artistic practice are intrinsically tied, both culturally and pragmatically. Norms must be reconsidered, rules broken, perspectives shifted. I am specifically interested in works that have engaged the city as part of a queer perspective.

Today I visited the retrospective of Keith Haring at Palais de Tokyo. Haring is obviously an artist who worked with the idea of the city–its form, subcultures and population–as part of his practice. It’s always humbling to see the breadth of work by an artist who achieved so much within such a short artistic practice – 10 years, give or take. Because I’ve never been a big fan of his generic human forms (or their commercial reproduction), I was thrilled to come upon an early sketchbook piece at the start of the exhibition which presents a personal geography, urban commentary and private exchange developed at the time he was settled in New York as an openly gay man.

“Manhattan Penis Drawings For Ken Hicks” presents a series of 76 drawings done on a Saturday (November 19th, 1978), with each drawing numbered and geo-referenced as best one could do in the late 1970s: somewhere on the subway, at this intersection, in Central Park. A few are quite specific: “In front of Tiffany’s” and his home address at the time “207 w. 10th St”. The drawings themselves are playful and varied, ranging from personal portraiture, “Erect”, to urban commentary on phallic architecture “World Trade Center”. I re-imagined the route he took in making these, moving through the city, a landscape of penises. A brief foray uptown to critique the systems of power, the landscapes and iconography of romance and cult media, as well as (presumably) the idea of invisibility within this urban matrix before returning to the “gayborhood” of the west Village.

detail penis drawing

detail penis drawing

Manhattan Penis Drawings by Keith Haring

Manhattan Penis Drawings by Keith Haring

The relationship between commercialization / gentrification and gay presence was a reoccurring theme in the Queer Urban Geographies presentations, and could be seen in the traces of “old New York” here as well. Polaroids, graphics and journals, document the last bits of “authentic rebellion” before the culture of the sellout, before you could actually be “off the map”. Following this show I happened to stumble upon some of Dubuffet’s works at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a happy coincidence, considering he was a big influence on Haring. I’ll sign off with a quote by Dubuffet, describing his “l’art brut” (raw art) perspective, which reads as queer to me:

“the female body, of all the objects in the world, is the one that has long been associated (for Occidentals) with a very specious notion of beauty (inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by the magazine covers); now it pleases me to protest against this aesthetics [sic], which I find miserable and most depressing. Surely I aim for a beauty, but not that one … The beauty for which I aim needs little to appear – unbelievably little. Any place – the most destitute – is good enough for it. I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent celebration.

- Jean Dubuffet”

(courtesy: Tree of Fluids via the Tate Modern website)