Queer Abstraction: A Roundtable
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On November 12, 2016, thirty-five people came to the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York, and pulled chairs into a messy circle to sit and ponder the term "queer abstraction." The event—which was organized by LOREN BRITTON, KERRY DOWNEY, and myself—took place in conjunction with, and in the very room that housed, "Read My Lips," a show I'd curated of Loren's and Kerry's work. When we organized the roundtable, we wanted to eliminate any barrier between "speakers" and "audience" and keep the conversation open to anyone in attendance; yet we also asked six artists—JOHN EDMONDS, MARK EPSTEIN, AVRAM FINKELSTEIN, CHITRA GANESH, GLENDALYS MEDINA, and SHEILA PEPE—to start the conversation off with their reactions to this slippery term, "queer abstraction."

Although it would be difficult to find the very first use of "queer abstraction," the phrase has come increasingly into use, not just in my own conversations with artists and curators, but also more widely in scholarly inquiry and at exhibitions. Its recent popularity is part of the wave of exciting new efforts over the past ten years or so to rescue abstraction, expressionism, and painting from the dustbin of masculinist bravado. During our studio visits and conversations as we put our show together, Kerry, Loren, and I often talked about the potential—but also the problems—of labeling art forms as "queer abstraction." For me, the term flirted with ideas I sought to highlight in "Read My Lips," which brought together Loren's paintings and sculptures and Kerry's videos [End Page 285] and prints. Their work deploys abstraction in the service of marginalized bodies to address problems of language and the complexity of subject formation in a binary world: thus its queerness. Both artists use the language of abstraction to experiment with a politics of refusing visibility. The formal qualities of their work plunge us into indeterminacy, making us step outside prevailing modes of understanding both selfhood and language.

I would argue that refusing visibility is an important tenet of the constellation of art practices gathered under the rubric of "queer abstraction." While many queer and feminist artists—Harmony Hammond, Louise Fishman, and Joan Snyder, to name just a few—have made abstract art since the 1970s, a new generation of queer, genderqueer, and transgender artists are taking up abstraction to deal with issues of gender—and, in this case, to talk about the body without representing or signifying it explicitly. In his recent research, art historian David J. Getsy has asked, "What happens when the body is invoked but not imaged?"1 In such a mode of image making, abstract art exceeds the constraints of binary logic; the body is posited as a catalog of sensory experiences and a place of flux. Julia Bryan Wilson has referred to queer abstraction as "a resource for all those in the margins who want to resist the demands to transparently represent themselves in their work."2 In organizing this roundtable discussion, Kerry, Loren, and I recognized that queer abstraction is in no way a new turn-of-phrase and that its origins are probably impossible to locate. Rather than trace its origins, therefore, we decided that the goal of this conversation would be to wonder out loud and together: what are the offerings and limitations of this term in contemporary queer art practices?

Figure 1. Installation view of ""Read My Lips," Knockdown Center, featuring Loren Britton, Bud (2015), Canvas, polyfil, velvet, and cotton; and Splitting Legs (2016), Acrylic and flasche on muslin. Photo: Marie Catalano. Reprinted with permission.
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Figure 1.

Installation view of ""Read My Lips," Knockdown Center, featuring Loren Britton, Bud (2015), Canvas, polyfil, velvet, and cotton; and Splitting Legs (2016), Acrylic and flasche on muslin. Photo: Marie Catalano. Reprinted with permission.

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ASHTON COOPER/Thank you all so much for coming. It is really special to be spending this time with you, especially at such a dark moment where a lot of us are struggling to find meaning. We hope that this can be a place for healing, for calls to action, and for working through. We have asked six artists to prepare short...