How Many Times Can You Keep Painting the Mona Lisa?
Recently I spent a sweaty, euphoric night on the dance floor of a queer party called Pink Bubble, run by the artist Justin Shoulder. The next morning Australia woke to news from Orlando; 49 dead and 53 injured in an attack on a gay club, the victims largely Latino and QTPOC; a shocking and incommensurable act of violence against the queer community. Our politicians were slow to acknowledge the pointed target of the attack, a silence that piles upon a long history of silences, burying a queer past within which this event will take its place. Orlando served to crystallise for many in the queer community a number of struggles: visibility; solidarity; our right to safe spaces and to the telling and hearing of our histories, particularly QTPOC and non-cisgendered bodies.
It was in service of this last imperative that I recently spent an evening with the artist Christine Dean. I was there to hear her story, one amongst many that make up the fabric of Sydney’s queer history. There are innumerable threads running through Dean’s life, distinct yet wound together like rope. To understand her art is to understand her life— sexuality, gender, art history, gay and trans politics, particular eras and places all come into vibrant relation. For Dean, as for most practicing artists, art is life and life is art. Listening to her story, one piece of a history I count as my own, I was struck with a sense of lineage; the continuity of queer lives and chosen families.
For Dean, this lineage is both personal and epochal. “One of the exciting things about being transgender now is that it’s like being gay thirty years ago,” she tells me. “Being gay in 1983 when I came out, it was a culture in formation. And the transgender scene is a culture in formation. It’s this sort of seminal moment—this germane moment in the history of a culture and it’s a nice place to be, particularly if you’re some sort of cultural theorist.” And cultural theorist Dean is; her art is both a patchwork history of queer culture in Australia and an exercise in formalism. “The problem with queer and gay art is that it’s almost too subjective,” she muses. “Gay men just want to paint penises all the time. I used to go around and count how many penises they could fit in a painting, it was wild. It becomes like a fetish more than art.” In an effort to move beyond what she saw as a siloing of queer art practice, Dean turned to art history and formalism to provide a framework.
"I used to go around and count how many penises they could fit in a painting, it was wild"