Painting Queer is one of only a handful of art courses being taught in Chicago’s colleges today that focuses on queer art. The undergraduate course was fashioned by instructor Matt Morris for the current semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Morris is an interdisciplinary artist and occasional contributor to this publication’s art section.
Where are we at with queer studies in contemporary art?
We’re at a turning point in academia where queer may be old-fashioned. This is an important time to circle the wagons and assess queer theory. The class is meant to address concerns larger than sexuality, such as race, class and other socially regulated categories.
Why is painting a good medium to address queer theory?
The seed for the class came from an essay Jonathan D. Katz wrote about Agnes Martin. I felt so validated by how he connects Martin’s abstract paintings to sexuality and gender. At the heart of the class is something about formalism and abstraction. Johns, Hartley, O’Keeffe, Martin and Kelly are starting points, but the aim is to put pressure on both categories: painting and queer. How far can you expand the categories before they fall apart?
What are the qualities of a queer painting?
Queer formalism privileges the painting’s backside; it troubles how the margins relate to the center; it can have a panoply of strange symbols; there can be wonderful things from uninformed encounters. Ask half a dozen queer theorists to define queer, and they will all disagree. Queer always fragments. It doesn’t hold together. That’s what’s amazing and beautiful. It’s not monolithic. It asks us to restructure our value systems.
Must students identify as queer to take the course?
The class is not just for people who identify as queer. Eve Sedgwick is a very important theorist to me. Technically, she was taken to be a hetero white woman. The homosexual political subject is relevant and important to anyone living within the culture.
How do you teach queer painting?
Sometimes queer theory can float away in the clouds, so we’re starting with the body, and grounding it in the lives of the students. The first project is a body painting assignment that uses drag as a model. Drag queens say they’re “painted for filth,” which means an illusion of another identity painted on top of their bodies. Later, students will craft a lineage for themselves—their chosen families. As artists we are often mapping our influences, just as there’s another way that people build familial bonds outside of biological imperatives, which parallels queer communities. Above all, painting queer is tactical and smart. It’s so important for young artists to make the habit to take a position, and to amend that position when it becomes necessary. I want students to take a risk, to be controversial, to make a claim and put it in the front of the rest of us. Painting queer can occupy sensitive, self-conscious hyphenated cultural positions. (Jason Foumberg)