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My Journey as a Queer Artist

Sean Gyshen Fennell

By Sean Gyshen Fennell
Sean Gyshen Fennell is queer artist and activist originally from the Pacific Northwest. He attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon and recently completed his graduate work at Washington University in St. Louis, Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. Fennell is currently living in Denver, Colorado and teaching at the University of Denver, School of Art.
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his essay chronicles my experience as a young queer artist.  The narrative of what follows reflects my creative process; it begins by speaking intellectually about my reasons for making art and begins to become more personal as the work develops.  I conclude by discussing some of the artists and theorists that have guided me through this creative process.  While my works do not always have a common aesthetic, they are interconnected, and the linear form of this essay reveals the connections between the various pieces and the momentum of their progression.

I am fascinated by the actual nature of gender and investigate how it relates to ideas surrounding self-representation. This prompted my, “One-Sex Models.”  In the project I attempted to find and photograph people who I felt were, to varying degrees, existing outside gender norms. I did not want every model to be completely androgynous but to have an element, through either physical structure, gaze or pose, of gender ambiguity; I wanted to blur the categories rather than create a new one. I chose to photograph each individual on a white background with a soft but revealing light to give a stark, yet glamorous aesthetic to the work in order to call attention to and explore the personal androgyny of the models. The title “One-Sex Models” was meant to reference the notion of gender as a continuum rather than a distinct categorization. [1] I found that by questioning the validity of gender I am also, and perhaps more effectively, addressing the validity of sexuality.

While creating “One-Sex Models” I was also working with some of the same images in an aesthetically and conceptually different fashion to create “Transitional-Faces.” This work explores externalized psychological states of how some queer men explore gender. From firsthand experience and observations in the queer community such exploration can take many forms ranging from drag to hyper-masculinity. I chose to investigate the effeminate side of this exploration, which mimics my own experience. I worked with the most “masculine” of the images in order to give the images more gender range and conflict. To achieve this effect I used paint and make-up on the surface of the images to put the faces into tumultuous states of drag. 

Though aesthetically disparate both “One-Sex Models” and “Transitional Faces” were created during the same time and used the same models. These works revealed an interesting dynamic in my art: the psychological state creating self-representation. This realization would not surface again until “Sewing the Façade” and “Veiled,” which will be discussed further in the paper.

After the previous projects I began to investigate the various sources that may inform ideas of self-representation to create “Beauty Monsters.” I became particularly interested in the sources that directly depicted the notions of hyper-beauty and body: fashion, fitness and porn magazines. I began obsessively consuming and cutting up these magazines and would then spend hours piecing together various disembodied parts to create grotesque figures out of idealized gendered forms. I took great care when constructing these images to make them as visually seamless as possible to heighten the work’s plausibility. These figures were then scanned and printed in various scales from life-size to the approximate size they would have originally been in a magazine. In the final presentation, they were pasted to a gallery wall to appear as if an army of Beauty Monsters was about to march into the space of the viewer. Among my constructed figures I included one image that was directly scanned from the magazine. The inclusion of this figure both highlighted the ridiculousness of fashion images and made my constructions more believable. The intent of  “Beauty Monsters,” beyond an investigation of these sources, is to again provide visual depictions of a queer gender continuum. In this way “Beauty Monsters” is conceptually similar to “One-Sex Models.”

While working with ideas surrounding gender, a series I had created previously, titled “Iconoclast” began to receive some controversial press. [2] This was the result of some conservative activists objecting to my work being publicly placed at my undergraduate university. This caused them to photograph my work and appeal to several conservative media personalities. Lars Larson, a conservative radio talk show host, picked up the story. I was notified by some of my friends in Oregon and subsequently called The Lars Larson Show and was interviewed (see Appendix 1, "Interview Transcript"). After this I made my own appeal to the liberal press and was published in The Advocate and picked-up by other small Oregon-based newspapers. Through being in The Advocate, I was contacted by members of the Catholic gay community. This was around the time that Pope John Paul II died and Pope Benedict XVI was appointed. His appointment is the source of turmoil amongst gay Catholics, especially after the Church issued a new document on the church’s view on homosexuality. I could not resist making a documentary about being queer and Catholic in this turbulent time in the Catholic Church. While this seemed a departure from the work I was engaged in I felt compelled to make the documentary “A Place at the Table.”

Despite my connections I began to face a great deal of resistance from both the straight and gay Catholic community. The gay community was afraid they would face discrimination if they were part of the documentary and the straight community did not want the issue talked about. Fortunately, I had become friends with Brother Brian Halderman, a ‘religious’ in The Society of Mary (a sect of the Roman Catholic Church), who was one of the first openly gay people to enter religious life in the Catholic Church. He became the largest supporter of “A Place at the Table.” He put me in contact with many other gay Catholics, over fifty people in all, of which only seven allowed me to interview them. To gain more familiarity I began to be an active member of the gay Catholic community. I volunteered at Catholic booths at queer events, sang in the Catholic choir for the Sounds of Acceptance benefit, and attended Peace and Justice meetings (a gay friendly Catholic organization). By doing these activities I not only was able to meet more gay Catholics but gained firsthand knowledge of the discrimination gay Catholics have to endure, both from the queer community and within the Church. This helped me gain the proper perspective for the work... (continue reading)


[1] Feminist theory specifically on the topic of gender formation is of particular relevance to my work. One of the most influential texts I read was Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur shows that the Pre-Enlightenment concept of gender was more ambiguous. It was believed “that inappropriate behaviors might really cause a change of sex” (Laqueur, 126). The classic story of Marie-Germain serves as a clear example of natural sex change. The story is about a girl named Marie who was soon to be Germain. During puberty Marie jumped across a ditch while chasing a pig, which ruptured the ligaments that held ‘her,’ (now ‘his’) male genitalia inside (Laqueur, 127). Thus Marie became known as a boy by the name of Germain, “ a well-built young man with a thick red beard” (Laqueur, 127).

[2] My first polemically queer series is “Iconoclast.” In these works I photographed homosexual couples/individuals and paired them with patron saints such as Saint Martin de Porre for social justice, Saint Joseph for marriage, Saint Patrick for excluded people, and Saint Anthony of Padua for oppressed people. Text from the recently passed amendments prohibiting gay marriage surrounded the figures and saints. The images were then gold-leafed and made to resemble Byzantine icons. The purpose of the work is not only to draw parallels between religion and legislation but also to highlight inherent hypocrisies.

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Eve said:

I love your art, especially the iconoclast images. Can I find them online elsewhere?
This type of art also highlights the similarities between devotion to religion and devotion to your partner, which I think is closer than a lot of people think.

Posted at: December 10, 2008 8:11 AM

caleb said:

simply stunning...:)

Posted at: January 18, 2009 5:14 PM

RedLime magazine said:

We are running a short feature of your art on until Feb 4th

Your work is beautiful!

Posted at: January 30, 2009 10:28 AM