Liverpool: The New Queer Art Scene

Liverpool is known for many things, including the Beatles, Cilla Black and Scouse brows. Now, the city is garnering a reputation for its growing queer arts scene, from the new artists tackling race, HIV and faith to the classic artists whose queerness is more nuanced. Mickey Carroll takes us on a tour.

In 2008, Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture. Superlambananas took the streets (an artistic sculpture by Taro Chiezo) and a giant robotic spider crawled along the Albert Docks. Tourists flocked to the city (there was 34% more of them than usual), giving Liverpool the confidence and audience to embrace its art, which is still flourishing now.

Although the scene was already cool (you can’t produce the Beatles and not be a bit creative), since the Capital of Culture award, art is everywhere. As Dr Michael Birchall, Tate Liverpool’s curator of Public Practice and a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, told us: “There’s an expectation from people in Liverpool now that there will be art to see.” Whether that is from the more established museums, like the Walker Art Gallery or Tate Liverpool, or from the contemporary spaces, like the Royal Standard or the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), the people in Liverpool now expect to see art in their spare time.

Curves and Swerves – Plaster cast condoms, OSB and emulsion [photo by FUNF]

With that demand comes opportunity for LGBT+ art. It seems like everyone has got on-board in pushing LGBT+ artists. National Museums Liverpool (who run most of the major galleries and museums in Liverpool) launched their Pride and Prejudice project, which aims to document all the objects in their collections with LGBT+ links. The Royal Standard has had an unofficial ‘queer takeover’ according to one of their artist directors, and contemporary artists exploring queer issues are getting ever more support.

It wasn’t always this way, though. Just nine years ago in Liverpool, six in ten LGBT+ people had been the victims of homophobic crime. Over half of LGBT+ people in the city reported living in fear of attack. Now, the Bishop of Liverpool has spoken in support of the LGBT+ community and Liverpool Football Club supports the city’s annual Pride celebrations.

To celebrate how far the city has come, we’ve selected the key highlights and recommendations from influential people in the Liverpool LGBT+ art scene.

Rene Matic/Yung Reen

Start off at the Royal Standard on Grafton Street. This is an artist-led gallery and studio, founded in 2006. Maggie Matić, one of the artistic directors, says: “People feel more comfortable identifying as queer now. Artist and poet Liv Wynter [featured in HISKIND’s issue 001 Expression Sessions] talks about the idea of ‘queer’ as not necessarily something that has to be about your sexuality but also as the way you present, the way you behave and the way you approach your artistic practice. I really like that idea of queer also meaning pushing boundaries and queering the norm. Maybe that is why people feel more comfortable identifying as queer now.”

Whatever the reason, the Royal Standard is obviously getting its queer environment right. A huge number of the artists in residence explore issues of gender and sexuality. The two you should definitely see are Joe Cotgrave and Yung Reen, also called Rene Matić. Disclaimer: Rene is Maggie’s wife, so obviously she is biased but we are not. Rene’s work is brash, political and amazing, exploring race, sexuality, gender and class. She hasn’t been to art school yet, which, if anything, benefits her work. As Maggie describes: “Rene’s work is an interrogation of her identity. A lot of artists lose that uninhibited way of looking at what’s going on in their lives once they’ve been to art school. They become more nuanced, which can be really good, but what I like about Rene’s practice is the naïve way it looks at being queer, working class and mixed race. I think that is such an important voice right now.”

We first heard about Joe Cotgrave through Michael Birchall (the queer art scene in Liverpool is very interconnected). Birchall describes Cotgrave’s work as “about his identity as a gay man but also life as HIV+. It challenges misconceptions, stereotypes and discusses the gay dating world.” The work is incredibly raw. There’s no mistaking what he wants you to think about. It is very contemporary and mixes medias, using space, technology, sculpture and text.

Tony O’Connell

The last contemporary artist we’ll mention is Tony O’Connell. After being rejected by his Catholic church when he came out in his teens, O’Connell now looks at reclaiming Christianity. He has no desire to become Christian again, but it is about having the option. “I firmly believe LGBT+ people should be able to ask, if they want to, what happens when you die, what is the nature of consciousness, why do we exist, why are we here? It seems like all those issues are forbidden for gay people, like you have to reject that because it rejects you.” This is why O’Connell’s work is so intriguing. It asks something that seems taboo even within the community. What these questions translate to is essentially a democratisation of faith. O’Connell turns everyday people he meets into saints through photographs and goes on personal pilgrimages to iconic gay sites like the Harvey Milk plaza in San Francisco.

The next place to head for is the Walker Art Gallery. We spoke to Lynn Wray, one of the researchers on National Museums Liverpool’s Pride and Prejudice project and asked her for some recommendations.

See William Hamo Thornycroft’s The Mower, in Room 10. This sculpture was revolutionary at the time for suggesting a working class man was a valid subject for art, but it also has hidden LGBT+ links. The mower who inspired the statue was actually a strapping field worker Thornycroft spotted from a boat while he was on a trip with his friend and lover, the author Edmund Gosse. After many revisions, the sculpture finally went on display to much criticism – Thornycroft was accused of glorifying the working classes. Later research, however, suggested that the work was less a revolutionary comment on the class system and more an appreciation of the male form.

The Mower 1888-90 Sir Hamo Thornycroft

Wray also suggests going to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, in the Port Sunlight village. One of her favourites here is the Statue of Antinous, the famously hot lover of Hadrian. You can find him in Room 19. Hadrian was a Roman emperor (117-138AD) and Antinous’s boyfriend (back then, you could date whomever you fancied as long as the man was the ‘active partner’). Hadrian loved Antinous publicly and passionately, and he was apparently one of the most beautiful men in the empire. When Antinous drowned on holiday with Hadrian and his wife, Hadrian ‘cried like a woman’ and then commissioned statues of him to be placed all across the Empire. Now you can see this homage to gay love in the Wirral.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the great LGBT+ art in Liverpool – in fact, it barely scratches the surface – but it does give you a place to start. Though it is no longer the crowned Capital of Culture, the city has created a culture and an environment that encourages, nurtures and celebrates queer art, superlambananas included.

Words: Mickey Carroll