On a balmy Friday evening we made our way to the KZNSA Gallery. A celebration of lockdown moving to stage 1 and finally a legitimate excuse to get out of the house, we attended the Three way exhibition by invitation of artist Philip Steele.
Three way is a group exhibition of young artists Callan Grecia, Phillip Steele and Brett Seiler whom explore notions of queerness in, sometimes, very direct and other times veiled ways. All three artists present a personal relationship with the notion of queerness.
Whilst exploring the art on display, my (straight) friend enquired: “I thought we couldn’t say queer anymore?” Thus a long discussion on the politics of reclaiming the term Queer ensued. Apt as this is what this exhibition explores.
The word Queer took on a new meaning in the early 1900s when it started to be used as a form of insult towards men and women who engaged in homosexual relationships and to those who exhibited non-normative gender expressions. In recent years, social movements have reclaimed the word as a self-identifier for non-heterosexuals. Queer is now generally used to describe people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
The term Queer is still contested, both celebrated and hated, and continues to hold various meanings for the individual. In Three way their work is examined through the queer lens as each artist uses historical references while remaining rooted in the current moment and some idea of the future.
Grecia, Steele and Seiler explore notions of queerness to both question and highlight historical movements and moments with a particular emphasis on sexuality and the LGBTQ+ community. All three artists work with the human figure in relation to text, to conjure up feelings of queerness or the concealment thereof in the viewer. Working with a wide scope of media, from paintings to film, sculpture and installation, the artists engage in experimental modes of working, exploring ideas around quick application, gestural mark-making and surface. Grecia, Steele and Seiler use both colour and monochromatic elements in different ways to investigate the complexities and variedness of queerness in a local context.
Callan Grecia describes: “The way I paint is still deeply rooted in a long white history of oil painting which is unfortunately a product of my also very long, very white academic training. At the same time, it is a continuous attempt at rejecting, subverting and generally taking the piss out of the parts that I find pretentious, superfluous, racist, etc. The images that inform my work are a distillation of my environment, which is then run through the filter of my own perception and unique experience of the world. Sometimes vice versa.”
Football, fashion, raves and other artists work finds its way into the paintings much in the same way as they occur on the internet, where any multiplicity is flattened into something cohesive and easily digestible via newsfeed or timeline. His use of bold colour, gestural mark marking juxtaposed with the use of hard line, exploration of the surface and the introduction of layers of mixed media talk to notions of “unusualness.” Through these explorations Grecia conflates past, present and future in less obvious and more interesting ways.
While Phillip Steele’s work is more direct in its exploration of gay identity and the modes in which it is presented, viewed and owned; his use of colour, text and the human form speaks to that of Grecia’s. In his attempt to arrest exoticization, exploitation, denial of certain bodies, and stereotyping he uses the strong contrast of monochromatic elements alongside flat poster paint colours.
Steele states: “The work recognises, elevates, and inserts untold narratives into the accepted Western art canon, ensuring a more inclusive, truer telling of the history of desire in art and culture. My source material is 20th century gay “adult” and physical culture magazines. As much as these publications contributed to keeping homosexuality in the public realm, ironically, to still be published they had to practice self-censorship.”
Steele’s process allows him to control certain aspects of work – the flat use of colour to suggest poster painting and his use of text – can be seen as a metaphor for his attempt to control some of the ways in which his community is presented, perceived and exists. As he says this is his unapologetic gesture to the representation of acts of gay desire, lust and love.
Steele’s Wheatpaste Flag installation takes up an entire wall as you enter the space, it’s striking colours arranged to mimic the Pride rainbow flag. The piece is reminiscent of street flyers, usually found on streetpoles, trains and any other public surface usually advertising the services of quick terminations, sangomas, penis enhancements, etc. Each flyer in this case has a number you can call and we found out that it is actually functional.
“When you buy the Wheatpaste Flag you get a signed boxed set of all the colours and a certificate of authenticity. You also receive extra copies for installing your own flag to the size and in the space you select. You can install it multiple times when you own a certificate,” says Steele.
He goes on to explain, “When you call the numbers on the flag you will hear my voice quoting the French philosopher Michel Foucault. My dream is for this piece to be installed in 100 places. Even entire rooms wallpapered with the flag. Help me to fulfil the intention of this conceptual art piece.”
Exploring complex themes such as love, loss and queer identity, Brett Seiler’s work dives into historic gay modes of communication and conduct. The use of mixed media, text, language and the human form being crucial to Seiler’s work is the thread that runs through all three artists work. Focusing on the sexual oppression of gay men Seiler’s monochromatic paintings, process works, and installations bring about feelings of longing and nostalgia.
Seiler explains: “I think that is what is so romantic about found objects – because they hold stories and histories and when they eventually land in my studio, I try to re-purpose them which in itself is a sort of queerness, to give a new narrative of romantic gesture to discarded materials.” Often Seiler’s work is accompanied by interventions – bringing ‘queer’ into the gallery space through writings and imagery directly onto the walls of the space – as a revolt or disobedience.
Queerness is proudly represented in this exhibition of three diverse artists.
There will be a walkabout of Three way, led by curators Jo Voysey and Kim Kandan on Friday 23 October at 13.00. And if you can’t make it to the KZNSA Gallery before the exhibition ends on 1 November, you can view it virtually here.
Images: Installation views by Paulo Menezes