In Works Ranging from Tiny Sketches to Enormous Fabric Installations, Here Are Some Mesmerizing, Sensual, Vibrant and Visceral Pieces from Today’s Queer Artists.
Queer folks have been at the vanguard of creativity in all its forms for as long as queer people—which is to say people—have been around. Whether looking to the top of today’s music charts or to the famed filmmakers, writers and designers of yore, there will be the influence of LGBTQ+ individuals there.
Since 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, much attention has been directed to queer visual artists. Working with pen and paper, paint and canvas, fabrics, stencils, woodcuts or steel, queer creators around the world are very much visible, still pushing boundaries – and entire movements forward.
Yet, as art-focused quarterly Elephant Magazine’s Hannah Williams explained in a May opinion piece, this year’s major art exhibitions largely look backward to past works and collections by David Wojnarowicz or Keith Haring. These emphases do make sense in 2019, Williams explains, in certain ways:
It seems particularly gratifying, then, that recent retrospectives of artists such as Wojnarowicz at the Whitney, Mapplethorpe at the Guggenheim, Jarman at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Haring at Tate Liverpoolhave emerged as blockbuster exhibitions. The strange circumstances of our present social climate lend themselves well to these restagings: LGBTQ rights are more advanced than they’ve ever been, accepted more widely in both a legal and societal context; HIV/Aids, once an effective death sentence, has been transformed through medical innovation and public health campaigns into a manageable and treatable illness, with the increasingly widespread availability of PrEP allowing gay men to live without the omnipresent spectre of the disease.
It’s also a period of increased conservatism, with cuts to both the arts and social programmes affecting LGBTQ people happening on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a growing far-right presence and increased instances of hate-crimes against LGBTQ people, particularly trans and gender non-conforming people.
While these touchstones remain “urgent” in this way, per Williams, powerful institutions—like the Whitney, in New York, which put on the Wojnarowicz exhibition—curating the past at the expense of acknowledging the steep challenges of the present feels “not-quite-right.” Groups like ACT UP, for instance, have accused the Whitney of trying to “sanitize” artists and of “historicizing the [AIDS] crisis.” Instead of “addressing the impact [AIDS] continues to have,” the Wojnarowicz exhibition highlights HIV/AIDS as some form of artifact.
Williams points out one pernicious effect of such framing:
The Whitney controversy suggests that the reason for these retrospectives is not to present accurate representations of the artists, but rather to smooth them over; to sand the edges down and fill in the cracks where the true radicality of their work is exposed.
The internet—equal bits scourge and respite—offers up some of what the polished, ticketed exhibitions do not. Hence, the following largely avoids high-profile living legends, like portrait artist Kehinde Wiley, famed for his paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.
Although a few have done commercial work with clients like Nylon and high-profile fashion brands or have had pieces featured in significant gallery exhibitions, most of those featured here have not. Instead, these works and artists are largely smaller-scale displays and some not–yet–famous queer creators around the world. Indeed, some artists have a few thousand or a few hundred Instagram followers; some have not exhibited work publicly to date, at least not yet.
From massive public-involved pieces to series upon series of intimate sketches, here’s some of the most interesting work from queer artists across myriad mediums, with works to soothe, stimulate and inspire you. (And there are more than a few which will make you laugh, too.)
From Cardiff-based poet and illustrator Mazahir, one among many amusingly captioned pieces on his (sometimes quite NSFW) Instagram.
Queering the Map
Starting off with something a little unexpected, Queering the Map describes itself as “a community-generated mapping project that geo-locates queer moments, memories and histories in relation to physical space.” Translation: countless thousands of individuals, using the tagging feature on the site, share their memories and descriptions of their queerness on a global scale.
Confession: I intended to get this piece published within a couple hours, but fell down the rabbit hole that is Queering the Map. Emotions went totally wild, from laugh-out-loud comments to absolutely gutting confessions, heartbreaks and rejections. Below are some semi-random selections from the Map itself.
Collaboratively Created History: Some Memories Shared, Self-Discovery and Identity
Frankfurt, Germany / Image via screen shot
Near Bursa, Turkey / Image via screen shot
Near Mombasa, Kenya / Image via screen shot
Others Share Their Quiet Meet-Cute Moments
Toronto, Canada, where stargazing sounds likely to be cold. / Image via screen shot
Near Charleston, West Virginia / Image via screen shot
Missed Connections, “Happy Middles”
Montreal, Canada / Image via screen shot
Mexico City, with a “happy middle” and sweet well wishes / Image via screen shot
Near St. John’s, Canada / Image via screen shot
Queer Perspectives Through the Lens: Photographers
A rather renowned artist does show up here, but their photography stuns and demanded inclusion. Montreal-based Laurence Philomene’s portfolio includes an extensive commercial collection (and an impressive client list including Netflix, VICE and Refinery29); they routinely update Instagram with jaw-dropping, sometimes mind-bendingly surreal images; and they’ve been profiled by i-D, where their work was summarized, in part, as follows:
Fizzing with saturated colours, their images examine queer identity by using contrasting textures to create tension. Conceptually, the relationship between camp and kitsch underpins much of Philomene’s work, and they cite the “quintessentially queer” sense of rebellion in early John Waters films as a huge inspiration.
Keep an eye out for this respected, if still-underappreciated artist; their photos might pop up just about anywhere bold color and camp iconography catch your glance.
Prins de Vos, an Amsterdam-based photographer and filmmaker, uses light and color—and intimacy—to different, but no less engaging effect.
Stark architectural and cityscape photographs let sharp lines in greyscale draw the eye around an image, as here:
That’s not to say color and bursts of light aren’t used elsewhere. On the contrary:
Portraits tend to skew toward quiet, unprompted moments:
Left on Pins and Needles
Tel Aviv-born artist Layla Nk describes her work—delicate, intricate works stitched or knitted—as follows:
[They] examine queer bodies and femme existence through embroidery and knitting, focusing on the erotic potential and the obsessive, bordering mentally ill nature of slow stitch crafts.
The material, method and labor are never an afterthought, but the basis of her works, drawing from the cultural and artistic stigma fiber crafts hold, marrying them with the stigma of the queer, insane, femme body.
Layla’s Instagram (including some NSFW content) includes works like the one above along with simply remarkable, detailed pieces, such as “Hand 02” and massive installations like this collaboratively created one, the Knitted Nest:
Painting Multiple Masculinities
Madrid-based Brazilian-Spanish painter Daniel Jaen has a far-ranging collection of lively portraits on Instagram and a separate web site. On the latter, Jaen’s work is self-described as “expressive” and focuses on his research regarding “the plurality of masculinity.”
The artist and the portrait, showing the large scale of his works – and a larger still to come.
Per his site, Jaen’s works have been featured in three exhibitions, all in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, over recent years. More surely are to come, given the beguiling qualities and sheer breadth of output:
And, for one of Jaen’s female-focused portraits:
Sense and Sensuality
London-based mixed-media artist Ego Rodriguez often portrays beautiful men in glorious pastel watercolor, imbued with a vaguely (or brazenly) surreal splendor.
To reduce Rodriguez to just these works, though, would be unjust. His range is showcased well on Instagram (some NSFW) and on his individual site (and store), where “Tom of Finland meets Warhol” offers another summary. But again, when some pieces have a photorealistic focal point and others use negative space and bending light to hypnotic effect, Rodriguez can’t be pinned down quite so easily.
Pretty Prints and Sweeping Photographs
Anthony C. Tresp makes delicate, minimalist prints and takes some really immersive photos of nature and architectural details, many of which you can browse—and come to own!—through his online store. As is the case with many artists profiled here, Tresp’s Instagram is a constantly updating highlight reel of beauty.
This grand vista is representative:
Another purveyor of prints (including many for sale) is Yan Liang, aka @cloudinhiseyes, who offers a glorious range of color palettes, focal objects and moods in eye-catching works. Some of the collage art, like the one below, mixes anachronistic elements to superbly surreal effect.
Fashion x Art
Fashion is an art unto itself, but it often serves as the core inspiration for and object of other kinds of creativity from music to the works of visual artists collected here. Demontier, a Brazilian artist whose work encompasses architecture and graphic design to illustration and animation, takes these inspirations and runs with them in unexpected directions, exemplified by the mini-gallery of his Instagram shares here:
Other illustrators and eye-catching designers to follow? A (highly truncated) list includes:
Ronen Cohen, based in Tel-Aviv:
Robyn Estes (some NSFW), whose works explore—and celebrate—femme form(s).
Tbqf, this delightful little beluga might be my personal favorite? Just look at it!
Some Micro-Accounts to Browse – and Support
Some of these artists are just getting started out, with small—but passionate—followings. They’re doing beautiful, intriguing work across a range of subjects in every imaginable medium and, despite our culture’s emphasis on follower counts, deserve your time. It’s worth it, promise.
“I Love Drawing Strong Girls”
Sam Church, a University of Kansas student and queer artist producing sketches of strong, loving characters and heroic figures, both super and otherwise, posts new works at least weekly on Instagram. If you love lush, colorful pieces capturing the spectrum of emotion—passionate love, defiant individualism and strength—check this one out and show some love.
… And Strong Folks of Every Kind
Valentín (aka “SnakeChub”) is a fabulous sketch artist whose collected works subvert norms of masculinity in images that run the emotional gamut from beautifully sensual to the totally visceral. Color is used only sparingly, but every subject is a mood unto itself.
Look not only to Instagram (some NSFW), where new pieces are routinely uploaded, but also to the SnakeChub store on Threadless – just in case you want to permanently own—and wear—a piece of Valentín’s catalogue.
Iconic Stars in Brilliant Color
NYC-based Justin Carter-Van Pelt might have a fairly limited Instagram presence with only four portraits posted from a single series focused on queer icons, but – frankly, just check out the inimitable Grace Jones below.
Structure and Portraiture
Belgian Yves Torfs specializes in architectural and portrait photography, along with other mediums of visual art, including videography. The portrait photography—gorgeously lit, with an extensive series featuring a diverse range of men (Projekt Y) viewable on his main web page—stands out.
But so do the clean lines of his interior architectural shots:
On his site, Torfs summarizes his oeuvre as follows:
He is fascinated by the idea of self-reflection/ representation in general and explores this through a vast range of subjects going from architecture to portraits. Themes such as the absence of perception (activity), identity and time are often discussed in his work. He describes his imagery as a staged and more idealized perception of reality with his works referring to art history.
Give his beautifully collected works on Instagram a look.
A Haunting Series from an Up-and-Coming Graphic Novelist
Visual artist and comic-writer Katharine (Kyle) Vingoe-Cram publishes their work through Instagram (some of which is NSFW), but their graphic novel—called “Kettle Harbour”—recently got a separate page set-up this past spring. Be sure to venture back to it as it’s updated with Vingoe-Cram’s latest in a series described as a “haunting” journey, a “highly visual narrative of queer sexuality, love, and memory set against the backdrop of a wildly disruptive summer theatre festival” – which is 100% exactly up my alley.
A trio of images from Vingoe-Cram / Image via Instagram screen shot.
Christine Alexander’s Instagram is a treasure trove of queer beauty, an endeavor described as “a journey to find the angels,” and “practice of communal hope” for “a future world in which all of our queer sides,” our “inner androgyny” and “our deepest, beyond-the-earth dreamers are given a bigger role in running the damn show.” That’s one heck of a mission statement – and one exquisitely pursued, often against the equally mesmerizing backdrop of America’s southwest and Rockies.
We surely missed many times more artists than we could ever feature here, so keep exploring the beauty and provocation to be found. Of those we did manage to highlight, who were your favorites? Who did we unfortunately miss? Let us know in the comments.