by Dilpreet BhullarNov 02, 2022
The exhibition We Fancy at Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery, curated by Eric Shiner, looks at the work and legacy of over 30 LGBTQIA+ artists who’ve previously either studied or taught at the Art Students League, New York. Established in 1875 by a group of independent artists, the League is known to create studio-based art education—for close to 150 years now—which is accessible to people from all walks of life. The exhibition at the art gallery, with works by the League’s artists including—Judith Godwin, Deborah Kass, Robert Rauschenberg, Emilio Sanchez, Chitra Ganesh, and Cy Twombly, as well as work by artists including—Bernard Perlin, William Behnken, Doug Safranek, Dominique Medici, and Coco Dolle, raise the importance of acceptance and popularization towards queer aesthetics. It also features a newly commissioned work by Chicago-based Ajmal Millar, who has created a site-specific art installation at the League.
In the press release Michael Hall, the League’s Artistic and Executive Director mentions, “Since its inception, the Art Students League has been a site of unbridled creativity and a home for radical art makers who reject social norms in the name of art.” The League has been an “incubator” for making revolutionary art. Throughout its history, LGBTQIA+ artists have witnessed the space, to not be bound by a “traditional art education.” We Fancy revisits the artistic freedom enjoyed by the queer artists at The League.
In an interview with STIR, Shiner gives an explicit account of how the exhibition We Fancy speaks to the history of the Art Students League, “Every institution is largely defined by the people that envisioned, built, staffed, and populated it over the years. The League wanted to look back at its queer history and asked me to curate the first-ever exhibition dedicated to its LGBTQIA+ alumni, knowing that their voices and artwork have helped to not only cement the League’s reputation as one of the most important art schools in this country, but perhaps even more importantly to mark it as a safe space where one could be free to transmit their queerness, out to the world in an aesthetic package. Of course, as social attitudes on queerness have shifted over the decades, these works are at first veiled and gradually open up to be fully out and proud. I wanted to display this trajectory in the form of an exhibition, and I hope that the show holds many surprises for those that visit.”
While walking us through the ideation process behind the exhibition We Fancy, Shiner discloses that it started with the title, culled from a line in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about identity, beauty, vanity, and so much more. The full quote reads, “Art is always more abstract than we fancy. Form and colour tell us of form and colour—that is all. It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.” For Shiner, these words rang very true—when written in 1890, as hiding one’s queer identity was essential to successfully navigate the world. “I wanted to show that we are in a much different reality now—and yet our ability to freely express our true selves is tenuous and constantly challenged by the far right. Thus, the show is a reminder that our queer presence must be celebrated so that future generations never need to be afraid of fully revealing themselves,” explains Shiner.
Importantly, the art exhibition covers themes such as the—Pop aesthetic, abstract expressionism, magical realism, and architectural meditations. Shiner informs, “I wanted to make sure that all artistic mediums are included, and that as many identities and backgrounds that make up the broad spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ community as possible are represented. The resulting group of artists represent nearly 100 years of queer presence at the League, and yet this is just a start, knowing that there are thousands of queer artists who have passed through the League.” To select the artists for the exhibition, the curator started with the queer luminaries that have studied at the League—Paul Cadmus, Robert Rauschenberg, Deborah Kass, Chitra Ganesh, Paul Thek—and then looked for lesser-known names. He researched queer art history, obituaries, and League records to find hints of queerness as a starting point, and did a post on social media asking his network for connections to living artists, who taught or studied there. Moreover, a few current faculty members were also asked to participate.
Shiner is hopeful that visitors to the exhibition will see the expressions of queer identity come through in a variety of forms, not always direct, and certainly not tied to the stereotypes of queerness. “I trust that visitors will realize that queer voices have always inhabited these halls, and will continue to do so, well into the future.”
We Fancy is on display at the League’s Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery from October 27–November 27, 2022.