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Queering the Collection
[ Stories )
For LGBT+ History Month 2022, we asked Dan Vo, a Patron of LGBT+ History Month and Head of Learning and Engagement at Queer Britain, to explore the queer artists and themes in our collection.
It’s not every day I get to say, “Hey look, I’m in the Rolling Stone!”. I would like to say this is the reward at the end of a long rainbow that specialising in queer art history has led me. Instead the true reason was the magazine was covering the announcement that Queer Britain is soon to become the first museum of LGBTQ+ history in the UK. Which is, in and of itself, a priceless treasure.
I am part of a quickly growing team that is feverishly working towards opening in Spring 2022. Walls are being painted, floors are being polished and soon frames will be straightened (so to speak). Queer Britain will be an essential place for all, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Many have supported us on our journey which will soon have a destination.
A journey that I hope will go two ways. As a young museum we look to well established places like the Pallant House Gallery for guidance and expertise. Here there has been a long history of appreciating and collecting queer art. We can benefit from the research built up over decades. It was, therefore, quite an honour for me to be invited by Pallant House Gallery to cast my eye over the collection and choose works to celebrate queerness this month!
The Model Art Gallery
I used to really enjoy playing with my sister’s doll houses. I would have adored a residence full of art like this. Now, it might be a little bit of a cheat to choose The Model Art Gallery: Masterpieces in Miniature (2021), but it means I can point to several gender non conforming or queer artists all at once.
The absolute smash hit has to be the Michael Landy’s Have you got the Miley? (2021) in the model’s attic. It places the words Miley Cyrus inside an orange explosion bubble. Keep the little wrecking ball away from that artwork please.
Other artists featured include Maggi Hambling, Grayson Perry, and Lothar Gotz… in fact it is starting to sound like the guestlist for a fabulous party!
Michael Landy, Have You Got the Miley, 2020, Pen on watercolour paper, (c) Michael Landy
Grayson Perry, National Treasure and Pablo Brontstein, Rococco Clock
Maggi Hambling, Naked Light, 2020, Oil on board, © Maggie Hambling
Leonard Rosoman, The Drag Ball
If the party should look anything like this, I want to attend! In 1965 The Royal Court showed great courage when it produced A Patriot For Me, which included the first gay kiss on stage. It was particularly remarkable because theatre censorship was still firmly in place and homosexuality was still illegal.
Leonard Rosoman was fascinated by the play and returned night after night to sketch what he saw. He wanted to capture the spirit of the party scene in his series depicting A Patriot For Me. The painting The Drag Ball, No. 2 (1967-8) looks like an absolute riot. It is a cacophony of lurid yellows and flourescent greens, with the occasional blue or pink attired figure hiding in the composition. The glamorously posed central character is about to take the limelight. Yet, they are upstaged by what looks like their lady in waiting – wearing a vivid pink dress – their seductive pouting accentuating their bristling mustache. As your eyes adjust to the wild festivities, you start to notice couples pairing off. Two people in dresses are kissing with intent while they slink away into wings, making an amorous exit stage left. In the lower right quadrant, an admiral and an officer are deep in conversation, but there’s three others in the space around them who are more curiously bonded. Handsomely dressed, there is one wearing a wig who rests a hand on the shoulder of another holding a cane. This second person leans back in acknowledgement, but holds up a right hand with forefinger poised, perhaps begging for a moment’s grace. Why the hesitation? Follow the cane and it traces a path directly to the crotch of a mustachioed figure reclining on the bench in the foreground. What a night they are all having!
Pablo Bronstein, Wall Pomp
A different time and a different place. This phrase is apt when describing the work of Argentinian artist Pablo Bronstein, who now lives in London.
His architectural installations try to recapture the grandeur of his grandmother’s house in Buenos Aires. As an immigrant, I too have a nostalgic longing for places left behind. Perhaps not a grand place, but a safe space. A sanctuary beyond reach. I wonder how many other queer migrants, whether by choice or circumstance, also feel this loss for places no longer visitable – not simply because of distance, but also because of time?
Lubaina Himid, Birdsong Held Us Together
I adore Lubaina Himid’s work which often explores Black identity, radical love and connections between women. Sometimes her work requires interpretation through the queer eye of the beholder, but other times it is plainly written on the artwork.
Birdsong Held Us Together (2020) is a little different to the works by her that I know best. Created recently, it refers to life in lockdown. Yet, I still deeply relate to this work, because I remember desperately longing to hear birdsong in my mother’s garden back home. I still have not yet been able to make the long trek home, maybe this year.
Glyn Philpot, Flesh and Spirit
I close with another trip I am looking forward to making. I cannot wait to see Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit (the exhibition ran from May to October 2022).
It will be momentous as it has been four decades since a retrospective of his work has been seen, and because Simon Martin and the team at Pallant House Gallery have put in so much effort into locating lost works.
I find Glyn Philpot’s portraits so captivating. Perhaps it’s how the sitters are often looking away, I want to catch their attention, hold their gaze. I suspect once the exhibition at Pallant opens, I will be there in the galleries quite regularly, staring down the paintings, transfixed and probably lost in thought.
Dan Vo is the Project Manager of the Queer Heritage and Collections Network, supported by National Heritage Lottery Fund. The Network assists galleries, libraries, archives and museums in their research on queer history. Dan is also a Patron of LGBT+ History Month. For more information about Queer Britain visit: https://bit.ly/QBGranarySq
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