Every year in June, the LGBTQ+ community celebrates Pride. It’s a month-long fiesta to raise political awareness about human gender and sexuality, and the myriad of colorful forms it comes in. Why June? Because it is when the 1969 Stonewall Riots took place.
A community that has faced adversity, brutality, and discrimination has some pretty profound art to offer. Beyond the speculations about the personal lives of Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance artists, the more famous LGBTQ+ artists of the past century like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Tamara de Lempicka have been trailblazers in the art world, who opened up new avenues of creativity and expression in a suppressed community. So, for Pride Month, we’re celebrating the LGBTQ+ artists and art of today and where you can see it.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the ABCs of LGBTQ+ and it’s worth unpacking in order to navigate the complex identities of this disparate group that often gets mislabeled. Pansexual, asexual, gender-fluid, and nonbinary doesn’t even begin to capture the spectrum of human sexuality and gender identity. As we add more and more ancillary terminology in our attempts towards inclusiveness, we’re still aware that there’s no catch-all phrase. For the purpose of this blog post, we shall stick to the widely-popular term: LGBTQ+.
5 LGBTQ+ Artists You Should Know
1. Mickalene Thomas
Texturally rich and characteristically confrontational, Mickalene Thomas’ work is a democratization of the Western, male-dominated gaze of the art industry.
This LGBTQ+ artist deals with the contemporary while being intertextually bound to the canons of the art world. Her vibrant paintings and photographs form a narrative between art history and contemporary culture. In her 2010 photograph titled Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Le Trois Femme Noires (2010), Thomas restages Édouard Manet’s famous painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) – also known as Luncheon on the Grass. The photograph boldly portrays three black women adorned with rich colors, patterned clothing, and luminous Afro-styled hair; it was commissioned by the MoMA.
Thomas’ work is unapologetically post-feminist and post-black: a movement in which many contemporary African-American artists challenge the prevailing notions of black identity politics and reject heteronormative and patriarchal values. Thomas bravely unravels the complexities of African-American gay and lesbian identities, when she’s not busy painting portraits of Michelle Obama.
2. Grant Wood
Grant Wood lived a life of incredible dichotomies. On one hand, you had an overall-clad farm boy who famously painted American Gothic (1930) and poignant scenes of rural, turn-of-the-century America. On the other hand, there was a closeted queer artist whose paintings held elements of homoeroticism and sometimes outright showcased nude men bathing with horses (a little too on-the-nose for the U.S Postal Department back then).
Details of Wood’s sexual identity are often overlooked when we gloss over his extensive body of work in favor of the all-important American Gothic. The clashing of conservative subject matters and confined sexuality are beautifully rendered in Wood’s canvases. It’s a sort of transformative notion of what it meant to be a great American artist and a queer artist.
3. Michael Shaowanasai
A monk in makeup – a simple yet powerful photograph that opens up a cultural dialogue about LGBTQ+ artistis and art in Thailand. Thai-American artist Michael Shaowanasai has been outwardly challenging conservative Asian society’s notion of gender, sexuality, and culture since the ’90s. He works across a broad spectrum of media including performance, photography, video, film, painting, and installations.
Shaowanasai’s immersive exhibitions invite viewers to reflect inwards on their ingrained prejudices and fears about sexuality. In fact, his work isn’t just queer art, it aims to peel back the political and sociological layers of the society Shaowanasai comes from – one that’s often governed by centuries-old conservative social structures. His work strives to confront an emotionally suppressed society that is in desperate need of self-expression.
4. Martine Gutierrez
Martine Gutierrez is a trans, Latinx creator whose art speaks about LGBTQ+ beauty in the Latin community. She is subject, artist, and muse, and her work takes on a high-fashion, editorial look that consequently pays homage to the art of the past.
Gutierrez uses a variety of mixed media that combines dance, photography, video, and set and costume design to create fully autonomous imagined narratives. In her 2018 exhibition catalog Indigenous Woman, she celebrated Maya heritage and showcased the ever-evolving self-image of Indigenous people. By removing the conventional male gaze and colonizer’s gaze, Gutierrez reclaims the space of high fashion and utilizes it for the unrepresented.
Her oeuvre, which features names such as Queer Rag, Masking, and Demons challenges our notions of inclusivity, appropriation, and consumerism. Her art is an exploration of the intersectionality of gender, sexuality, race, and class through stunningly vivid mediums.
5. Claude Cahun
An icon of Surrealism, a pioneer in questioning static gender roles, and a WWII active resistance member – you can’t talk about LGBTQ+ artists without talking about the formidable Claude Cahun.
Born in 1894 as Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, and later adopting the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun, this Jewish French photographer, sculptor, and writer were touting the term ‘gender-neutral’ before it was even a thing. In fact, Cahun is considered one of the first artists who fully embraced their gender fluidity long before it was commonplace. Cahun used female pronouns, but some publications also use ‘they’. In their Surrealist anti-autobiography, Disavowals (1930), Cahun explained:
“Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”Cahun
Cahun’s outspokenness and blatant disregard for the status quo were integral in influencing a generation of LGBTQ+ artists, including the aforementioned Martine Gutierrez. Cahun was active in the French Surrealist scene and moved in the same circles as Man Ray, André Breton, and Georges Bataille. Cahun’s portrait work is a mix of Surrealism and cabaret, in which they drew upon various guises such as aviator, dandy, doll, bodybuilder, vamp, and the much-loved yet problematic Japonism of the time.
Cahun was imprisoned and sentenced to death for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda during the Nazi occupation of France – but thankfully escaped their fate when Jersey was liberated by the Allies in 1945. However, Cahun eventually passed away a few years later due to maltreatment experienced during the time spent in captivity. Their life and work remain an inspiration for exploring new possibilities for gender, sexuality, and personal identity.
Many years later, David Bowie continued to sing Cahun’s praises:
“You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with Surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way… she has not had the kind of recognition that, as a founding follower, friend, and worker of the original Surrealist movement, she surely deserves.”David Bowie, Tonight’s High Line – David Bowie Recommends (p. 200)