Boys Be Good: The New Gay Interview
If Washington D.C. is – to adapt a canard beloved of this city’s famously self-deprecating political class – “Brooklyn for ugly people,” these guys haven’t been told. Christopher Cunetto, Jason Tucker, and Armando Bircann are three members of a swell new gay art collective calling itself Boys Be Good (check the link to see their work) who are setting out this summer to, among other things, “challenge the stereotype of ‘homosexual art’ and seek to explore the impact gay art and culture have on society while encouraging change and creative mutation within these same realms.” They’re words that should prick up queer ears in this town, especially coming from a crew as smart, young, and promising as this one.
I sat down with the Boys at the foot of the James Buchanan memorial in DC’s Meridian Hill Park, the closest thing America has to a monument to powerqueen ineptitude (Old Doughface could have saved us a lot of trouble by hanging every Secesh and Mormon traitor in the country if he hadn’t spent the middle of the 19th century fretting over doilies in the Red Room.) A fruitfully impious setting, all things considered, for the conversation we ended up having:
Andrew Fogle, TheNewGay: You guys have written that a big part of the inspiration for what Boys Be Good will be doing in the coming season was last year’s flap at the Smithsonian. Talk about what that’s meant to you and how it informs your work.
Jason Edward Tucker: As with David Wojnarowicz’s work, we all find it interesting that it tends to be gay art that’s entirely censored in the past 30 years. If you look at Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, the Hide and Seek exhibition: it’s a very interesting point that museums tend to take out gay art. Not many other pieces get this sort of publicity, if there’s any censorship at all. When it comes down to it, it feels as though it’s a direct attack, and our work is sort of a – I don’t want to say retaliation in any type of violent way because it’s not, it’s artistic – but it is artistic retaliation when it comes down to it.
Christopher Vincent Cunetto: It’s also an issue of where the public’s money is going. When you start to think about all these kinds of imbroglios, people are always concerned that people who don’t want to support these ideas or explorations end up paying for them, which in my eyes is a symptom that the culture isn’t ready broadly to accept even an exploration of the issues that our shows will come to represent.
Armando López Bircann: Also, for it to be ok to be institutionally repressed because of funding. Something that carries the name of the National Portrait Gallery is supposed to be national. Even if it’s not official, it still means something. So there’s a fear of artists repressing themselves before attempting something, in the fear of not being accepted to the scene.
TNG: In your statement of purpose you talk about the “stereotype of homosexual art.” You have between you an extensive background in art history stuff: can you talk a little bit about what that canon means, and how you expect to be able to push against it, or what needs to be pushed against?
CVC: I think that in gay culture there’s an idea of gay art as hunky, beefcake images that hang in gay bars. Though they might be nicedrawings, it doesn’t exactly engage thought processes or ideas beyond your lusts. In art history, there are a lot of artists who deal smartly and intelligently with the body and issues of sexuality and identity. Mary Coble is an area artist who does this very well – she has done some really powerful work that deals with these themes. So, it’s not there’s a lack of material, or art, in art culture. But there is a lack in gay culture. The perception is that the imagery we surround ourselves with are advertisements of hot men in their underwear that are marketing the latest parties, or drag queens selling us underwear, things like that, but there’s a lot more thoughtful imagery out there that we want people to see.
JET: I totally agree with that. I also have to say that there are so many stereotypes of the gay community that do have a negative feeling to them, and yet a lot of the media that comes out is completely supportive of them, and it’s sort of just reinforcing a bad stereotype. Something in there needs to just be a little bit more conceptual so that we can break ground and stop – I want to say – bad press when it comes down to it. You give anybody the idea of gay art and they think of 80s mustaches, leather, naked men on a playing card, and there’s no seriousness to it.
CVC: We want to bring compelling images into people’s eyes that they don’t get to see, and give them some different ideas to think about.
TNG: The theme of transformation is important in your manifesto. Each of you talk about what it means to be young and gay and doing art in the 21st century with the different kinds of dislocations and transmogrifications we all have to live now.
JET: We can start with the idea of a timeline. All of our shows, all of our events, are based around – it’s not really sequential – a series of events we feel are crucial in gay life and transformation. Starting with this idea of “coming out”: it’s our beginning, it’s our opening show. Also the idea of transformation and sacrifice: it seems in gay culture nowadays that it’s still kind of hard to come out – even if it’s getting easier, obviously – but it is a transformation when it comes down to it. You may lose friends, you may lose family members over it. I don’t want to say it’s a rebirth, because it sounds kind of silly, but there are sacrifices involved. I was raised with lesbian parents so I didn’t have that background, but we wanted to do a show that reflected that idea.
CVC: It’s also a nicely packaged metaphor for the way of life that you have in an urban environment as a gay man, constantly dealing with flux and transformation and all these different pressures you have to be, and act, and think certain ways at certain times with certain people. So it extends from that first moment when you decide to leave behind parts of your world and personality and start something new, but also touches on the continuation that you’re going to have to stay in a state of flux for the duration of your character.
ALB: Transformation also speaks to growth and it speaks to what want we want to do to people’s perception of us as gay men. For example: an easy way to transform any man regardless of whatever is to put on a pair of stripper boots and they’re gay, right? Straight up. It’s a spectacle, they’re gay, and that’s what we’re recognized for. And then we ask how do we break down that identity we have as gay men, and how we don’t have to conform to that. . . So it’s about transforming within this thing that we’ve been talking about, this cliché of the gay, moving that and opening that up and letting people know we are the same. It’s not, we’re not that separated. We’re the same person.
CVC: “We” being not just gay, but everybody. We all deal with these same needs, being in flux.
TNG: Lines worth quoting in full from the final paragraph of your mission statement:
“If in the eyes of others we are not equal, then we must strive to create a new gaze, a new way of seeing. If in the minds of others we are different, then we must use the tools we know best to insist on a more honest understanding of what it means to be alive.”
If you’ll allow something a little bit more thorny and curmudgeonly: whose gaze is this, that doesn’t understand who we are? Whose mind is it in which we have to invent new ways of seeing and being alive? There’s the (maybe uncomfortable) fact that we’re all here in a metropolitan area, living terrifically modern lives. Maybe our grouphouses are a little bit dirtier than we’d like them to be, but still there’s this embarrassment of privilege that always informs or taints or enriches whatever it is we do culturally. What do you guys have to say about the ethical or political challenges of making art in situations like ours, knowing that not everyone is in them? In some ways, speaking on behalf of or trying to represent the disadvantage of other people who are dealing with problems outside of this city?
JET: When it comes down to it, the idea of a new gaze goes towards, for instance, the kid who called Christopher a “faggot” last week. It goes towards any person that, simply for the fact that we are gay. It’s directed at people who are discriminatory against anything that’s different from themselves. Because we’re not so different when it comes down to it. And we’re using an artistic approach to that.
CVC: But we also do so many things to each other, we have so many expectations of the ways in which we’re supposed to see and perceive and interact with each other’s bodies and minds in really basic day-to-day ways in our own gay community. People are really kind of illiterate in terms of the signifiers that our – if you want to talk about figurative art or “the figure” – bodies give off to one another in terms of how you’re supposed to engage with one another. How you’re supposed to look at a muscle twink or bear or something ridiculous like that. You can use art and images to challenge people’s perceptions of what it means to be a body, pure and simple. Or what to expect from images of bodies. Or what to expect the bodies around you to look like, and to think a little more deeply about how images of the figure inform our social decisions and overall frame of mind.
ALB: And art can work as an educational tool. We’re in a hetero-normative, macho-dominated society in the West, and it’s all of us that live in it. Gender identity issues are not just particular to us: women are still having a hard time, as a gender, completely. By creating experiences that are relatable, as well- I’m speaking more from the performative angle, not necessarily the figurative – there are all these dense ideas about what should be, and shouldn’t be, and why, but there’s easier ways of showing someone who might not be as educated to wrap their head around all this, for example, cyborg feminism stuff that’s out there.
It’s a vehicle to freedom. Art is freedom, and that’s where we find our space.
JET: The idea of the gaze came up – Armando was talking about the heteronormative society idea – and it’s not really eliminating the previous gaze, it’s using our art to change the way that people look at things. I don’t want to say it’s making it less dense, because it’s just as dense, but it’s more visually informative than some text you’re reading. It’s taking that idea and turning it into something that’s visual, and maybe more readily available.
CVC: Feminist artists have been talking about this stuff for decades. How can we as gay men expect to teach society things when, internally, we’re still doing things to each other that straight men do to women? So there’s the idea that we’ve got to sort some things out first before we can really offer some super-meaningful shit to outside culture. And we want to engage both of those goals at the same time.
Your comment about this being like a state of privilege, being able to engage these concerns—
ALB: We totally are, and we need to take advantage of the fact that we are, and have the education. Because other people don’t have the privilege to make art, and we do, and that’s our job, and that’s why we’re artists. So yes, we are children of privilege, and we’re trying to pass that around.
JET: And as much as it is considered a privilege, you go to any event here [in Washington] and say “I’m an artist” and immediately it’s like a social judgment placed on you. And you go, “I’m a gay artist,” and it’s even a further social judgment. The position of privilege is – I wouldn’t say it’s a full privilege.
CVC: We’re not like poor and homeless. I’m not sure that our art is in line with talking as much about “class” in ways that are extremely direct.
TNG: Finally, so long as in we’re in the territory of gazes and projects and so on – and let the record show I’m staring at you with wide-eyed Sartrean intensity as I ask this – what the fuck are you guys doing with your lives?
ALB: Right now, I’m still learning, and always will be. And believing more in art as a tool for social reforms of some sort. I believe more in art as I find out more about it and pursuing it. Trying to bring some magic back into the world. People forget about it, it sounds corny, but I think it’s a mirror.
CVC: There’s this perception of the art world being an entirely academic pursuit. That’s not my goal at least: I want to engage people in really diverse variety of ways. Images are really easy to do that with, because people get sucked in by them.
JET: Art informs itself. When it comes down to it, what we’re creating will reflect upon our next show will reflect upon our next show will we reflect upon any work we create in the future. Experimenting with those ideas, you eventually get them out of yourself, and you’re able to play with them and turn them into something that everyone can share, instead of just being this idea you have stuck in your head.
The idea of art informing itself is key to our collective. There’s six of us working together: we’ve sort of got the same ideas, we don’t work in the same mediums, and all we have our own little niche of what we create. But we’re all sort of collectively creating questions.
Boys Be Good have scheduled their first show, THE METASCHEMATIZATIONS, for July 22nd at Morton Fine Art. Check out the event page here.
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