THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
The evolution of how gay cultural politics has affected gay artists’ subject matter over the last 40 years was an issue that dramatically manifested itself through two simultaneous exhibitions this Spring in Chicago.
In April-May, Julius Caesar gallery exhibited works by Kyle Vu-Dunn, a young East Coast artist from Baltimore. In May, Iceberg Project showed a selection of works by John Schacht, a Midwest artist whose career spanned from the 1970s until his death in 2009.
Titled “In a house, Tinted and Patterned,” the Schacht exhibition was curated by C.C. McKee. The pieces were drawn from Jane Wenger’s archive collection of Schacht’s work, most of them created in the 1970s and 80s. McKee mainly focused on the segment of Schacht’s oeuvre that showed how he dealt with homosexual content in his art. This segment consisted mostly of small black and white drawings that were never shown in public. In addition, there were a handful of brightly colored watercolors whose subject matter did not deal with sexuality.
As a largely self-taught artist, Schact’s style borrowed from a number of sources. McKee, in his essay for the exhibition, noted that: “Ornamentation, as Schacht deploys it, negotiates and exceeds its limitation to the decorative, a foundational assertion for theories proffered by Gottfried Semper and Alois Riegl at the end of the nineteenth century.” But this was not a conscious act on Schact’s part; he just incorporated elements of what he liked into his work. Schacht, who lived in Chicago in the 1970s, also absorbed some of the stylistic conventions of Imagism, which was the dominant aesthetic in Chicago at that time. And his affinity for surrealism is manifest. But he did not belong to any particular group. More significantly, there is a spiritual component to his work that overshadows these formal technical conventions. The drawings are ritualistically repetitive—like prayers or mantras being repeated over and over again.
In his drawings, Schacht expresses his sexuality symbolically. His drawings are mostly hard-edged outlines, uncolored, and have a cartoon-like or coloring book quality about them. In them, he uses the outline form of the penis as the symbol of his sexuality—almost a hieroglyph—and embeds it somewhere in each of his drawings —almost like a cartouche. But it is not necessarily treated in an erotic way. It is a symbol of everything psychologically and culturally connected to his sexuality, and it functions much like a meme. (Keith Haring later deployed a similar strategy.)
His watercolor pieces are dramatically different. They are intensely colored and more abstract. But he still embeds symbolic forms that have special personal meaning in the pieces. In one, it is a favorite chair; in another, it is a blue teapot. These works have a distinct “chinoiserie” look to them. Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, permeated popular culture in the early ‘70s. And Schacht did a whole series of brightly colored mandalas, one of which was included in the exhibition.
But in no image did Schacht ever address affection or any kind of person-to-person relationship. Like the song says: “What’s love got to do with it?” When there is an individual, it is a solitary male and he is usually depicted in an erotic context. The emotional isolation implied in his work is palpable and is characteristic of the closeted gay culture of the ’70s and ’80s.
Move forward 40 years and things look very different. Overlapping the Schacht exhibition, Chicago’s Julius Cæsar gallery showed the works of Kyle Vu-Dunn. This young (30-something) Baltimore artist also showed two different bodies of work. He is best known for his acrylic paintings whose surfaces are built up with plaster-reinforced foam and coated with fiberglass. The pieces have irregular edges and evoke a vaguely bas-relief feel. Vu-Dunn also presents a number of acrylic works on watercolor paper. The larger fiberglass pieces are brightly colored. The colors in paper pieces, on the other hand, are more subdued.
But in Vu-Dunn’s work, and with apologies to Tina, “love has everything to do with it.” His subject matter is his partner and he paints him with the same passion that 19th and early 20th century artists painted their models and paramours. The works are often about the emotional interaction between people. Although many of the images are male nudes, eroticism is not the works’ main point. Most of the nudes are “portraits” that express certain emotional states and are not frontal. Several contain two individuals interacting in some way, as exemplified in the painting Pink Crush (Greenhouse) or the paper piece Bad News, both from 2018.
Person-to-person interaction never appears in Schacht’s work. In his time, showing such work to the general public was unthinkable. Homophobia was so strong and prevalent then that it often inhibited the development of close personal sexual relationships between gay men. (Schacht was once beaten up for being gay when he lived in Iowa.)
But 40 years later, Vu-Dunn is free to openly depict his sexuality and sensuality in the context of such relationships. That is a seismic cultural shift in so short a time. It is a shift that has dramatically affected the subject matter of art produced by members of the LGBTQ community. It has freed LGBTQ artists to produce art with overtly homosexual content that concentrates on interpersonal relationships and that is not necessarily tied to political protest.
Sometimes the world does get a little better than it used to be.
Michel Ségard is editor-in-chief of the New Art Examiner.
John Schacht, Untitled, 1972–75, pencil on paper. Image courtesy of Iceberg Projects.
John Schacht, Untitled, c 1985, acrylic and marker on paper. Image courtesy of Iceberg Projects.
John Schacht, Untitled, 1970s, watercolor on paper. Image courtesy of Iceberg Projects.
Kyle Vu-Dunn, Pink Crusk (Greenhouse), 2018, acrylic on fiberglass and plaster reinforced foam, 34x28x1 inches. Image courtesy of Julius Caesar gallery.
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