I am an interdisciplinary artist-scholar in gender studies and contemporary art history whose research focuses on how LGBT+ and female-identified artists use their artistic practice as an embodied mode of activism. My dissertation, “Embodiment and Agency within the Artistic Genre of Queer Abstraction,” identifies the key claims within the genre of queer abstraction, provides theoretical and historical contextualization for the claims within feminist and LGBT+ history, and discusses the limitations of the genre, including the complex histories of queer and abstraction. Queer abstraction offers a rich case study of what the concept of queer can do or not do in object form. In my work, I combine contemporary art history and gender studies to argue that art objects serve as object-texts through which concepts like queer theory, performativity, and LGBT+ embodiment can exist in exciting modes outside of identity categorization, representational economies, or surveillance.
My research builds on and challenges current discourse on queer abstraction that positions the genre as wholly positive. My work is unique as it offers an artist-centric approach that argues that the artists’ connections between their queer-identified self and artistic practice is key to this genre and unequivocally links the queer in queer abstraction to LGBT+ bodies and experiences. I take a fully interdisciplinary, multi-method approach that uses formal and contextual analysis along with content analysis, interviews, and participant observation to identify artist claims and to also test the validity of the claims within the museum space. This analysis provides a snapshot of where the genre is now, including its successes and failures. The goal of my work is to offer detailed recommendations to curators, scholars, and institutions working with queer abstraction on how to successfully continue the genre by not only centering sexuality, but also racial, gender, and cultural diversity. Specifically, both the concept of queer and the tradition of abstraction academically are situated in white, male histories. In order to reclaim or resituate these terms, their baggage must be addressed and queer abstraction events such as exhibitions, panels, and papers need to be structured thoughtfully to include a broader range of artistic practices that demonstrate what contemporary approaches can do in relation to identity politics. As part of this research, I toured the Queer Abstraction (2019-20) exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center and interviewed the curator, Jared Ledesma. My exhibition review, “Queer Abstraction,” was published in ARTMargins in 2019.
The new concept of “queering the museum” in museum studies is also key to my research as often museums and institutions push for diversity and equity initiatives but do not implement them thoughtfully or safely. A main aim of my research is to support DEI initiatives in museum spaces through research and data-driven recommendations that support LGBT+ artists, as well as the institutions’ goals. For example, hosting a queer abstraction show provides lip service as the exhibition is labeled queer and all of the artists included are LGBT+, but these types of exhibitions require artists to come out publicly and often do not provide safeguards, such as consent to have one’s name printed in exhibition texts or in publications. Allowing artists to participate as anonymous at different levels—wall texts, the catalog, or press—gives artists power over their visibility. Through grant funding from the Office of Graduate Studies and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Kansas, I partnered with Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, AR and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO to conduct interviews and participant observation around two of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s objects, a lightbulb piece and a candy spill installation. Data collection showed that labeling these pieces was vital to viewers understanding and, without proper context, no LGBT+ or queer content was perceived. Also, because of these works’ subtle nature, positioning in the space was vital to interaction. I presented findings from this study at the 2020 College Art Association Conference and will continue this research at Crystal Bridges in the 2022-23 season.
Beyond writing about queer abstraction, I participate in the genre as an artist. In order to properly support my arguments around the potential of the genre and its limitations, my Down South art series comments on class and regional differences within LGBT+ communities. Queer abstraction is often presented as universal, which overlooks barriers and biases related to class, education, geography, and gender. Inspired by books like The Un-Natural State (2010) and Men Like That (1999), as well as my own upbringing in rural Arkansas, this series utilizes specifically coded materials such as concrete, quilts, cigarette butts, and mesh tank tops to explore queer resistance and ingenuity in rural spaces. Pieces from this series have been featured in Redefining and Reclaiming the Body (2021) at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, KS and Growing Up Queer in the South (2022) at the Greenville Museum of Art in Greenville, NC. I am currently working to expand this series into a complete body of work, ready for exhibition in solo shows.
Looking forward, I plan to begin research for a book project, Gay Stuff. Gay Stuff continues my interest in the ties between identity and materiality through featuring five distinct chapters: Leather, Sequins, Latex, Plaid, and Hair. Each chapter connects the specific material with the LGBT+ community through histories of the material, stories from LGBT+ archives including oral histories, and interviews with contemporary artists working in the material. Unlike my dissertation monograph which focuses on academic communities in gender studies and art history, this book will be geared toward a wider audience.
In total, my research and artistic practice seek to merge queer and feminist theories with contemporary art history. I want to legitimize artworks as rich object-texts to be mined for new theoretical connections. While I offer a critique of a genre and certain organizational approaches, my goal is to support artists and art institutions in continuing to diversify the art canon through thoughtful exhibitions and coordinated programing that highlights not only sexuality, but racial, gender, cultural, and class diversity as well.