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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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The purpose of Piper’s work makes viewers aware of their own racism. She constructs relationships with the viewers to highlight their xenophobia. While my work is not as immediate and more specifically addresses ideas surrounding sexuality and sex, our perspective and intent is similar.

While my ideologies and some working methods parallel both Wojnarowicz and Piper, aesthetically there are few similarities. Visually I draw from such artists as Caravaggio and Mapplethorpe, both of whom are used as examples in Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty where he talks about the idea of transgressive beauty and its “subversive potential” (Hickey, 13).

In my work I look to the gestures, tenebrism, and imagery of Caravaggio. Today he is seen as a maker of beautiful paintings. However, Hickey argues that during the time of Caravaggio his works were seen as political due to their subject matter surrounding the religious debate of intercession.

[W]e must ask ourselves if Caravaggio’s ‘realism’ would have been so trenchant of his formal accomplishments so delicately spectacular, had his contemporary political agenda, under the critical pressure of a rival Church, not seemed so urgent? (Hickey, 18)

He argues that Caravaggio used aesthetics to lull his viewers into contending with its subject matter. I draw from this baroque aesthetic in my lighting and color palette. I want my viewers to be visually seduced by the work and therefore made to contend with the more socio-political content of the work.

Robert Mapplethorpe used beauty’s inherent visual draw as a means to communicate ideas of sexuality that run contrary to the mainstream. Hickey argues that the subject matter alone was not what caused conservative activists of the time to react so violently, but that he depicted the acts as beautiful.

It was not that men were making it then, but that Robert [Mapplethorpe] was ‘making it beautiful.’ More precisely, he was appropriating a Baroque vernacular of beauty that predated and, clearly, outperformed the puritanical canon of visual appeal espoused by the therapeutic institution (Hickey, 22).

If one represents marginal experiences or people in an unappealing or ugly way then there is nothing being said that runs contrary to mainstream thought. By using beauty while photographing queer subject matter one subverts the mainstream gaze simply by portraying what is widely seen as negative in a positive light.

Another major aspect to my work is how queerness is manufactured. Michael Warner claims:

The closet is better understood as the culture’s problem, not the individual’s … It is experienced by lesbians and gay men as a private, individual problem of shame and deception. But it is produced by the heteronormative assumptions of everyday talk. It feels private. But, in an important sense it is publicly constructed (Warner, 52).

Warner touches upon several main preoccupations in my work. I aim to explore how queerness is mediated and defined by the heteronormative culture, and to reveal those definitions and rearticulate them from a queer perspective. I see the body as the site of mediation between this heteronormative culture and the internal psyche of the individual. The body, like Warner’s idea of the closet, is experienced as an individual place of shame and deception, but is ultimately publicly constructed.  In my work, I strive to depict the internal experiences of heteronormativity on queer bodies. The depiction of this struggle is an attempt to regain power over the effects of heteronormativity.

Through this discussion I have put myself in dialogue with some of the key artists, cultural critics and art theorists that have informed my art making. From them I have gained a great deal; from Laqueur an understanding of the true nature of gender, from Wojnarowicz an unapologetically personal approach, from Piper an embracement of the perspective and experience of being Other, from Hickey an understanding of the role and power of subversive beauty, from Caravaggio and Mapplethorpe examples of how to create images of polemical beauty, from Warner a critical understanding of heteronormativity. In this sense my work can be considered a branch of the Politics Identity Art Movement. While I draw from these ideologies, I am moving away from an overtly political stance to work with an emphasis on cultural commentary in an attempt to make visible the mechanisms by which people’s experiences are mediated and how they manifest.

Thus far, my work has been engaged with a critical yet celebratory investigation of queerness, with a particular emphasis on gender formation and experience.  For me to achieve this, it is crucial that I begin by working from my own personal experiences in an attempt to transcend the autobiography, without discounting it. To effectively communicate my ideas I strive for visually seductive work that contains cultural commentary.

I am still fascinated by, and will continue to work with, the mechanisms that inform gender.  However, I have been investigating feminine aspects and experiences of queer gender.  While this is an important aspect to my work, I have come to the realization that masculinity has an analogous relationship to the invisible mechanisms that cause systems of oppression.  I plan to use this perspective and to begin investigating masculinity and how it functions in relationship to queerness... (continue to references)

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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