I recently submitted a painting of my partner, Kelly, to the BP Portrait Award competition. Accompanying it was this statement:
I painted Kelly in my apartment. The painting was inspired by the way in which, both consciously and subconsciously, all mannerisms and personal atheistic decisions are gendered and expected to adhere to a standard of normalcy. In the duration of my relationship with Kelly I’ve watched the ways in which her dress and posture incite aggressive and confrontational incidents with absolute strangers. Kelly’s confidence and lack of uncertainty in her gender presentation are a provocation to those around her, and as her lover I wanted to paint her assuredness in a world that perceives her as a threat. When a person presents themselves to the public in a way that contradicts the assumptions that have been affirmed to be “normal,” people often confuse what they are accustomed to with what is right. What does it mean for a person’s natural expression of self to be a challenge to the world around them?
When my painting was accepted into the contest, I experienced approximately twenty minutes of complete joy, about the time it took to call my boss, my mom, and my partner to inform them of the spectacular news: that I was going to London because my portrait was good, that I had made something good enough to be in a museum. But exposure is an alluring yet terrifying siren whose promises made quick work of the swell of pride that I felt after I read the contest’s acceptance email. With the prospect of tremendous impending publicity, the questions posed in the submitted painting and statement suddenly felt exploitative, and my identity as a queer female artist grew into a cartoonish, garish puppet. I felt that my painting had been accepted for its unusual subject and not for the quality of the painting itself—that its queerness seemed approachable enough to feel edgy to a heteronormative audience. I was plagued by the sense of being an imposter, long after the contest exhibition’s opening some months later.
While issues about class and sex certainly contributed to my feeling of being an outsider, there was also a mysterious factor of escaped sincerity. I wondered: is the value of art activism conditional to the audience to which it’s presented? Making art about or depicting a marginalized community, for that community, is an act of solidarity. If the same piece is presented for the objective gaze of an audience with no ties or associations to the subject matter, its otherness becomes a commodity, and its value is articulated in a completely different currency. How does an artist address the complications of broader exposure and viewership, and is it even possible? To prevent the commodification of activism in art, must we make it inaccessible to a culturally objective viewership?
There are no clear answers to maintaining the integrity of an idea through a visual medium. About the same time I submitted my work to the BP contest, I was painting a mural in homage to trans women activists in San Francisco. The mural needed to be finished in three days, so I asked friends to help me. I used house paint donated by the furniture warehouse next to my old apartment. The project felt like a community effort, and the final image was of a church window, with all the women depicted as political saints. Though I was briefly proud of the acceptance of my work by the BP contest, I am more proud of that mural, which lives at the end of an alley, accessible to anybody, celebrating the accomplishments of a few radical activists.