The sexuality of artistic expression: reading between the lines

The combination of art and text allows all voices to be heard

The question of how much of an artist can be seen in his or her art is a monumental question, both to the artists and their audiences.

“The Sexuality of Words,” a two-sided conference/exhibition in conjunction with an exhibit in UB’s Anderson Gallery entitled “Art=Text=Art: Private Languages/Public Systems,” explored the relationship between artists and their artistic expression. The gallery will be opened until Jan. 11.

The focus of the conference held Saturday was to highlight how specific LGBTQ artists, in the present and past, use language and art to comment on the world they lived in and included presentations and performances from various professors and artists across the country.

Jonathan D. Katz, Director of the Doctoral Program in Visual Studies, curated the pieces that were discussed at the conference.

Katz hoped the conference would help break the silence around queer art.

In the early ’50s, LGBTQ artists had no voice in the art world. Most queer artists were ridiculed and scorned, and so they hid their true sexuality from the world.

Many queer artists of this era gave birth to a new art form, combining and manipulating linguistics and art to talk about various social and political issues – issues that impede their ability to express being queer artists in a world that didn’t support their sexuality.

“The earliest use of words in American art was 100 percent used by gay artists,” Katz said. “That was too much of a circumstance to just be chance. We noticed that it then became an [art movement] that moved from gay people and across the American art [scene] as a whole.”

The advent of adding a language to visual arts became the dominant tool for queer artists to present their message to the world.

Language added an element to the art that gave the artists opportunities to subtlety hide themselves in their work, while simultaneously presenting their work to the world.

“Language offers the opportunity for words [to] multiply meanings,” Katz said. “In other words, there’s one meaning the dominant culture or the public will get, your friends might get and one meaning you will get.”

This interweaving of the artist’s expression in text and visual is highlighted in Anderson Gallery’s exhibit, which opened in September. The “Art=Text=Art: Private Languages/Public Systems” exhibit showcases artists who utilized the combination of text and art alongside the simultaneous emergence of concrete poetry in the early ’50s.

Matias Viegener, an artist, writer and professor of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, performed at the conference. Viegener, who sometimes uses the iPhone’s Siri to create poems, did an improvisational act during his Saturday performance.

Talking about influences of his own work, Viegener acknowledged how the use of language by LGBTQ artists provided subtle clues to their artistic intention.

“LGBTQ people weren’t represented, they were invisible,” Viegener said. “The issue of representation became importation – LGBTQ artists wanted to represent LGBTQ people.”

Viegener, however, recognizes that artistic expression is never a direct link to the artist.

Speaking on his own piece, Viegener was clear to separate himself from his work.

“What I’m doing isn’t ‘gay,’ but I am gay,” Viegener said. “But in my piece, there is no gay content.”

The event and art exhibit fostered a discussion of language’s sexuality and gender among the attendees.

Dan Gomez, a fifth-year Ph.D. English student, acknowledged the gender of language.

“Language is profoundly gendered,” Gomez said. “In history, most texts and styles are given a gender – masculine or feminine prose – and this has created a gender assumption.”

Gomez also said this is the burden that follows LGBTQ artists who avoided using obvious language, to give subtle hints and to bemuse viewers on their lifestyle and identity.

“Even font, color and layout can be associated with gender,” Gomez said. “It’s almost oppression through language.”

Emily Anderson, a fourth-year Ph.D. English student, said that textual and visual elements were striking because it recalled the “materiality of language.”

For Anderson, the relation of text and art is something less gender-oriented and more desire-driven.

“We use language to express our desires,” Anderson said. “The language is often about expressing ourselves and expressing something you can’t have.”

Anderson loved how the exhibit forced a focus on thinking about the impact of language and the sexuality within – one of the original goals for why Katz set up the conference.

“There’s been an aggressive silence conspiracy about sexuality in the art world,” Katz said.

Katz intended for the event to also highlight how we use language on a daily basis and how that is being used in the art world.

“There are all sorts of meaning that surround the word – they can be context-dependent, intonation-dependent and speaker-dependent,” Katz said. “We register those meanings without thinking about them. We think were just paying attention to the definition. I want people to start listening to all the ways we use words.”

Kendall Spaulding contributed to the reporting of this story