In issue 148 of this magazine, John Waters said that ‘art is like joining a biker gang; you have to wear a certain outfit and learn a certain lingo’. If this is the case, then queer art is doubly coded. Almost a century ago, the dual taboos of homosexual lust and German nationalism were, for instance, bundled together by the American painter Marsden Hartley in a series of geometric abstractions that effectively squeezed same-sex desire into a dapper new iconography. In that vein, modern queer identity has often fashioned itself as a secret brotherhood, ratified by a visual culture of insider cues. Gay iconography can be esoteric, like club colours – the badges and pins from fetish groups and gay motorcycle gangs that have flourished since the late 1960s. In the 1980s, gay ‘tribes’ prevailed in the art world, a trope that allied a band of brothers along a bloodline. Tribes courted and protected their members. Now, in the long shadow of the AIDS crisis, it would seem the tribes could assimilate, but in spite of newfound mainstream adoration, the queer tribes are enforcing their distinctive visual/oral/anal histories. New splinter groups romanticize old taboos, and flirt with mysticism and sex magic. Even since Hartley’s piles of abstracted, crumpled uniforms, the tribes have never looked so militant, painted with colourful regalia and empowered, like natives raised from some mythical underground.
The metaphoric ‘tribes’ of the 1980s weren’t literally carving tribal designs, but the revived primal impulse is increasingly visualized through primitive motifs, sacred geometries, occult patterns and totems. For his ninth solo exhibition, John Parot crossbred Native American cosmology with ancient Egyptian burial customs to create proto-queer archetypes. These join other quasi-ethnographic approaches, in spirit, including William J. O’Brien’s ceramic deities, Steve Reinke’s stylized First Nations needlepoints, Edie Fake’s folkloric queer history scroll and Robert Lostutter’s metamorphic bird-men. Graduates of AA Bronson’s School for Young Shamans have performed the Invocation of Queer Spirits ceremony, including Elijah Burgher, who enacts sex magic rites with elegant sigils crafted from coloured pencils and spells. It’s a wild boy’s club that Walt Whitman might be proud to join, whose members identify each other, as he wrote, ‘by secret and divine signs’.
Homos, warlocks, Nazis, Egyptian psychopomps, cannibals and the ghosts of pornos past fill the closet of transgressive costumes. But what is it about death cults, and the Third Reich especially, that appeals to sensitive outsiders? Parot and Burgher alike have perverted pieces of the Nazis’ rigorous branding campaign. For Parot, the pink triangle – the Nazi logo for homosexual condemnation, later adopted by the gay rights movement and AIDS awareness groups such as ACT UP – ‘is a goddamn sexy shape’, he has said, and the altered pink triangles appear in his art works like valleys worth cruising. Likewise, Burgher has retrofitted an ‘anal swastika’ by pushing one swastika shape into another, creating a new symbol that he describes as ‘a puckered asshole’. To grasp ‘the troubling handsomeness of the Nazi’s adopted emblem,’ Burgher wrote, ‘I meditated on its contours while masturbating’. Tellingly, these symbols are not rainbow flags; the creative re-animation of lethal stigmas activates a shared genealogy populated by sacrifices.
‘Excavation’, the title of this exhibition, is a fruitful pun – an excavation is an anatomical term for a hollow within the body, such as the inner rectum, in addition to its common archeological usage – entrenching the dig for queer identity in both biological and cultural camps. For the show, Parot looked to ancient Egyptian burial practices, and the ‘handsome’ King Tut, to envision a new historical romance. The bounty of Parot’s tomb raid lined the gallery walls. The collection included patterned ‘stones’ and shields, basket weaves, geometric sigils, amulets, a pair of pink and black eyes, and a knotted purple serpent (all works 2012). Made of acrylic and enamel on single sheets of thick tar paper, the flat sculptures hovered slightly off the walls like hieroglyphic incantations. In total, the objects conjured a lively netherworld, like a nightclub in the afterlife. ‘Excavation’ suggested that future generations of heart hunters might exhume our bodies; what gifts will we bear for them?