Earlier this year, Tate Britain’s Queer British Art: 1861-1967 became the largest ever exhibition of ‘queer’ art to be displayed in the UK. However, in our review, we questioned whether the exhibition was limiting in its decision to display no art produced after 1967. Our reviewer pondered: “If 1967 was such a pivotal year, I wanted to see why: how did art change after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality? How did artists respond to Section 28, to HIV/AIDS?” Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity picks up where the Tate left off, exhibiting the works of key artists from 1967 to the present day.
Coming Out was first exhibited in Liverpool at The Walker Art Gallery to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Sex Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in the UK. With such a late starting date (December 2nd), the Birmingham leg of the show’s tour does, perhaps, feel a little belated, but nevertheless this is an important exhibition. It displays the work of notable figures such as David Hockney, Steve McQueen, and Grayson Perry, as well as lesser-known artists, giving a brief and accessible introduction to the range of queer art produced over the last 50 years.
Diversity is definitely one of this exhibition’s strengths. It would be easy for the curators to rely on white, gay, middle-class artists such as Warhol and Bacon, but plenty of space is given to non-white, female and non-gender conforming artists, as well as local photographers whose work has been rarely exhibited. To the left of the exhibition is a section displaying art by women whose work crosses the boundaries between LGBTQ+ activism and feminism, notably Margaret Harrison’s drawings of sexualised women in pop culture posing with fast food. Space to the right of the exhibition is given to works that explore queer life outside of the UK, such as the photographs of cruising spots in India by Sunil Gupta. Building on Liverpool’s incarnation of this same exhibit, Birmingham also chose to include the work of Vanley Burke, a Birmingham-based photographer whose photos document protests against Section 28 in Wolverhampton – which are being exhibited for the first time.
Of course, it’s the big names that draw the viewer’s attention as they enter the gallery space. Tracey Emin’s neon writing is the most eye-catching piece; it perfectly captures her refusal to define her sexuality in gorgeous, looping calligraphy. Grayson Perry’s well-known dress is placed near the centre of the space and David Hockney’s portrait, which won the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967 (making it particularly timely), is also difficult to miss.
But this doesn’t feel like a ‘greatest hits’ exhibition; rather, there is a democratising sense of fluidity that refuses to place these artists on a pedestal.
Although LGBTQ+ political and social history is foregrounded, the exhibition isn’t ordered in a chronological fashion. Vaguely, the room is split into sections, but these bleed into one another loosely. A range of topics are covered, from black queer masculinity in Steve McQueen’s video installation to the etymology of Polari and the implications PrEP in work taken from 2015’s Alien Sex Club exhibition in Liverpool, but the exhibition, on the whole, doesn’t feel overcrowded. If anything, what makes this show so enjoyable is its refreshing simplicity. Free from the jargon of queer theory and mostly devoid of pretentiousness, it doesn’t require a degree in Art History for its connections and nuances to reveal themselves. It is this accessibility – and the sheer vibrancy of the work on offer – that makes Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity such an enjoyable and important exhibition for Birmingham’s queer community and its allies.
Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from 2nd December – 15th Apr 2018. To find out more follow this link.