When it comes to art, sex and sexuality have enormous impact on the way the work is perceived. But what about the artist? Does an artist who is part of the LGBT+ community always need to be recognised as a ‘Queer Artist’? Jessica Lindsay talks to artist Transknasty to find out.
One of the most iconic images that came out of the US presidential election was the mural in Lithuania of Putin and Trump sharing a passionate kiss. This piece was retweeted and shared hundreds of times with the obvious aim of shaming the two politicians – only for all the wrong reasons and done in the worst way possible. This is an interesting example of art’s complex relationship with homosexuality and gayness in general. The art world is more or less considered a liberal and inclusive world. But what’s so funny about two guys making out? We have so much real, tangible material to work with when it comes to Trump and Putin, yet we’re resorting to “haha you’re gay”. Miss me with that.
It’s not just art itself that reveals tricky prejudices, but artists. Even greats like Robert Rauschenberg felt the need to live a closeted life, and it’s been alleged that Andy Warhol’s first exhibition was rejected by the venue for being “too gay”. Whether these issues come from society as a whole, or from the powerful sway of the people and institutions that purchase and consume art is unclear. Yet, since art can’t exist in its own progressive bubble all the time, there was always bound to be issues. More recently in 2009, a pair known as the Art Guys based in Texas performed a marriage ceremony between themselves and an oak tree. In an apparent big-fat-fuck-you during the same-sex marriage debate, they put a ring on the tree, said vows to it, and basically made the subtle point: “if two men can marry, who next?”
On the flip side, there has been a long list of artists from every media format that have been hugely successful and open about their own sexuality, and haven’t committed douchebaggery akin to the Art Guys. You could reel off names from Annie Leibovitz to David Hockney to Alexander McQueen. Some of the most significant works have come from members of the LGBT+ community, and that’s something to be hugely proud of.
However, what happens to the artists that are wary of being defined by their sexual preferences? Should they live like Rauschenberg, choosing not to talk about that side of themselves, or even lying about it?
Young mixed media artist Rowan Smith refuses to be pigeonholed on either side. He also goes by the moniker Transknasty (the k is silent) and performs in drag as a host of strange and extraordinary characters. The name itself came from something he saw in the botanic dictionary. He says, “a -nastic response is one ‘caused by an external stimulus (but unaffected in direction by it).’” Since his work deals with the in-between within two different topics (whether that’s male and female or humanity and nature) – aka the trans between them – the prefix just stuck.
The work itself, Smith refers to as “cast of knasty characters, realised through part-video part-interactive-live-performances inspired by neo-pagan costumes and trashy theatre.” His piece Flower Freak certainly embodies this. It feels trippy, like an episode of Bernard’s Watch on acid, with twee music and an old-school story-time vibe. Smith details how he ate a bunch of flowers given to him by a hot waiter, drinks a bottle of plant feed, and suffers through the changes of becoming part of nature werewolf style.
He also hosts live streams urging people to “command him, tease him, tell him he is worthless trash”. He plays with themes of voyeurism and kink, saying that what makes him stand out is probably his “garish visuals and exhibitionist’s thirst for attention.” Keith Haring once said that sex was part of his work because it was part of his life, and for Transknasty it’s no different, as he asserts that, “everything in the world is about sex”. But after a successful night at Uniqlo Tate Lates, where his hyper-detailed Flower Freak costume was displayed to the masses, it seems that he could break into the mainstream regardless.
Nonetheless, the labels that come with being open with your sexuality can be hard to break free from. There is the expectation that if you’re gay and an artist you suddenly need to be a “gay artist”. Smith says: “I once felt I had an obligation as a ‘gay artist’ to paint Putin getting his dick sucked, but by the time I finished, I realised I had no authorship over it. It was a lie!”
This idea that you’re required to be conscious of your preference when trying to work can be limiting. “As a creative human translating my voice to the world, I don’t want to influence that message by putting everything into a ‘gay’ context,” Smith states. While artists like George Quaintance were culturally and artistically important, not everybody wants to paint jockstraps and biceps.
For Smith, his influences include Robert Mapplethorpe and JT LeRoy (a character/pseydonym of Laura Alexander), admiring the fact that their works spilled over into the real world: “Fucking with the notion of celebrity identity, (something continued today by terrible-actor-cum-self-proclaimed-metamodernist Shia LaBeouf), their entire lives were works of art, all-consuming grand performances.”
Essentially, they were and are just bloody interesting people, who you know would have the best stories at any given party. Part of the pull of art for many is hedonism, nihilism, and many of the other –isms that come with a creative lifestyle. Knowing that the artist has something controversial to say and a life behind the scenes gives artworks an edge.
This is why putting people into a box and expecting either activism or the male physique is so restrictive. As Smith puts it, “Nobody should feel pressured to fit into a mould, because you are always going to be speaking through somebody else; pushing somebody else’s agenda.” After all, where’s the fun in that?