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Issue 238

Queer History According to Flo Brooks

At Spike Island, Bristol, the artist captures the flux of queer existence in collages of gender non-conforming figures throughout time

BY Elizabeth Fullerton in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 06 JUL 23

Crammed with detail and hand-written texts, Flo Brooks’s exuberant paintings evoke an array of emotions – from joy to pain, awkwardness to desire. I first encountered his work at Hayward Gallery’s 2019 show ‘Kiss My Genders’ and was struck by their unruly edges within which overlapping scenes depict a frenzy of activity as people relentlessly wash and scrub surfaces – a metaphor, I presumed, for heteronormative society’s tendency to erase what it considers aberrations and for the artist’s own experience of transitioning. The dynamism of Brooks’s paintings reflects the flux of queer existence.

Flo Brooks
Flo Brooks, ‘Harmonycrumb’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London; photograph: Dan Weill

‘Harmonycrumb’, the artist’s current show at Spike Island comprising painting and assemblage, extends this sense of fluidity to summon up historical figures who moved away from the gender they were assigned at birth. We meet, among others: Joan of Arc; the 20th century Belgian faith healer and lion tamer, Père Jean; the 18th century quack Charles Hamilton, who was publicly whipped after being exposed as the ‘female husband’ of another woman; and Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, a physician and the author of an influential book on transsexualism, Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics (1946).

The artist brings these figures into joyful collision with his personal experiences in seven large-scale, free-hanging paintings on linen appliquéd onto curtain fabric, which lends a domestic intimacy to the space in a departure from his previous works on board. How to find a soul a home (2023), for instance, depicts a messy adolescent bedroom scene with cats, a K.D. Lang poster, a Joan Armatrading album, the hellish landscape of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Dulle Griet (c.1564) and an image of the fifth century monk, Saint Marinos – one of the earliest examples cited. Nothing is stable: walls lurch, the carpeted floor dissolves into the earth and a beam pokes through the undulating ceiling; meanwhile, a two-faced figure on the bed simultaneously sleeps and stares into space. 

Flo Brooks
Flo Brooks, From her door (detail), 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London; photograph: Dan Weill

Brooks eloquently captures this multiplicity – of emotions and selfhood – in these vivid works featuring fragmented individuals layered on top of each other in an indistinguishable knot of faces and limbs. In a time of rife transphobia, Brooks’s merging of bodies speaks to strength in numbers, potentiality and polyphonic narratives. The juxtaposition of historical figures with these portrayals grounds Brooks – and, by extension, his contemporaries – within a long lineage of trans and queer ancestry.

Like saints in religious paintings, these androgynous figures appear like long-lost friends or guardian angels, along with snippets from their stories: Père Jean with his lion, say, or Hamilton with his bizarre potions of ‘viper drops’. It’s not a huge stretch to consider them as martyrs; many were punished for their supposed transgressions and Joan, of course, was executed. Brooks’s lyrical paintings, however, focus on celebration rather than trauma. The male-identifying cobbler, Ray Leonard, is portrayed with a woman lover; a bewigged Hamilton peers wryly into present-day Glastonbury, where heady concoctions are being mixed.

Flo Brooks
Flo Brooks, If I lapse (for Charley Wilson), 2022, acrylic on linen. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London; photograph: Dan Weill

Sculptural assemblages on linoleum pull threads out of the paintings into three dimensions: handmade cardboard versions of Saint Marinos’s boot or a dodgy potion bottle. Other items, such as a favourite purple sandal or a burning ear, reference Brooks’s own musings and memories. Weeds, insects, even a lone finger playfully disappear into and emerge from cracks in the rucked lino, emphasizing a glorious, leaky, web of connectedness between humans and nonhumans.

‘Harmonycrumb’, titled after a username that the artist spotted on a gay message board, commemorates plurality and resistance. Small, colourful forms – or crumbs – spill out of the canvases, which might almost be history paintings crossed with (self)portraits, and across the gallery walls. They invite us to meander between the works and lose ourselves in these dreams and speculative visions of harmonious, inclusive worlds where hope and resilience flourish.

Main image: Flo Brooks, The Dream (for Père Jean / Jeanne d'Arc), 2023, acrylic on linen. Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant, London; photograph: Dan Weill

Flo Brooks’s ‘Harmonycrumb’ is at Spike Island, Bristol, until 10 September

Elizabeth Fullerton is a London-based art writer and critic who contributes to numerous international publications and cohosts the podcast Art Fictions.