A matter of perspective

Is there such a thing as gay art? It depends on how you look at it.

Creative queer people tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they embrace LGBT themes in their work, or they downplay any notion of a so-called gay sensibility. More often than not, it’s the latter. Gay artists, it seems, don’t want to be pigeonholed. In some art forms, it’s understandable: Out actors, for example, can’t always find work while out directors complain that it’s tough getting gay-themed films greenlighted.

But that’s not necessarily true for visual artists. After all, many know they won’t see commerical success in their lifetime, nor is their chosen form of expression contingent upon being hired or cast by someone else. They have a greater opportunity to push LGBT themes in their work, but does that mean they should—or will?

Kara Wabbel, a 24-year-old visual artist, is trying to do just that. She paints unabashedly queer-themed art in the form of lesbian erotica and is trying to establish a gay-oriented art and peformance venue on the North Side. She doesn’t second-guess the LGBT focus of her work. “I’m incredibly attracted to my girlfriend,” Wabbel says. “I think she’s totally beautiful. I love to paint the things that I love, and I love her. Why wouldn’t you want to express that?”

However, she acknowledges that finding an audience hasn’t been easy. Wabbel has tried to get her work into galleries, cafes and bars in queer-friendly Andersonville and Boystown, but she says the response has been a resounding “no” due to its explicit nature and the fact that gay male imagery tends to dominate. Instead, it hangs at places like Tulip, a local feminist sex shop.

Wabbel did contribute her work to a show called “First Forty” this past summer that was organized by the Gay and Lesbian Artist Network Chicago (GLANCe). A social networking group for LGBT artists, GLANCe has an exhibit on display at the Center on Halsted called “Creative Convergence: When GLBT Artists Come Together.” Although it’s a fine collection of work, apparently when gay artists come together, nothing explicitly gay really happens. Only a few pieces stand out as queer-oriented. That’s just fine, says  David Joseph, an abstract visual artist and the show’s curator.

“There are artists out there who are doing images that are depicting a lifestyle,” Joseph says. “But I don’t think most LGBT artists are doing artwork that is about their lifestyle. I think they’re just trying to make good art.”

But that begs the question, does a so-called gay lifestyle inform a queer artist’s perspective? Bret Grafton, 36, a fine art and commercial photographer and painter, might say yes. He has a piece hanging in the GLANCe show that isn’t queer, although many of his works are. Photographs depicting club kids, ravers and bar trash in various stages of debauchery and undress were informed by his experiences with Chicago’s gay nightlife.

“I was really inspired by the people, the lighting, the craziness, and the idea of what is the underground scene,” Grafton says. “Because I was working in clubs that catered primarily to gay and lesbian people, they became part of my constituency as an artist.”

Grafton admits that his work is informed by his sexuality, but he’s also interested in remaining true to himself as an artist whether that translates into gay art or not.

“You always have to push yourself as an artist, to be true to the thing in your head,” he says. “If you’re gay, and your work reads that way, great. If it doesn’t, also great.”

 But whether or not his art reflects gay themes, he still advances LGBT rights by contributing art or services to local organizations like TPAN and Chicago House. 

Wabbel believes in doing the same, but sees art and queer power as intertwined. “Gay is the next civil-rights movement and artists really inspire people to get their shit together.”

“Creative Convergence” runs through Wednesday 31.

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