Do Ask, Do Tell: Male Homoerotic Art from Latin America (1970s-2016)

Do Ask, Do Tell: Male Homoerotic Art from Latin America (1970s–2016)

Juan Ledezma

I. The exhibition’s argument unfolds from a discrete perceptual situation. The viewer looks at an angled volume, two sides of which meet at a protruding frontal plane that recedes as it turns into a line, slightly swerving on its path towards the bulk’s tip. The volume is an uninflected white-coated mass, the very figure of abstraction, yet invested with a suppleness that might be described as unctuous. And so described, supple abstraction figures forth a disruptive image, as it does not take too much viewing for the sensation of slickness that the adjective “unctuous” invokes to trigger the insight that the curved shape of this denuded mass might very well pass as a glans penis, tense and expectant. It is the back-and-forth, slippery reading therein involved that counts. Between what the work purports to be (a sleek abstract sculpture) and what it evokes (a slick part of male genitalia) there takes place a sort of metonymic slide that allows Venezuelan artist José Gabriel Fernández at once to upend abstraction from within its own field and uphold the object of a proscribed desire. Again, it is the two-sidedness of this operation that counts, as it broaches the exhibition’s general field of inquiry—the artistic construction of homosexual difference in Latin America and the strategies that such a construction have generated to disrupt entrenched forms of the region’s art.  

In its attempt to ask and tell about a silenced condition, queer Latin American art, as the selection of works shows, has critically revisited both abstraction and its concern with new modes of perception, or both conceptualist practices and their interest in alternative modes of public experience. Starting in the 1970s and developed in tandem with these practices, art used in the declaration of homoeroticism has, like them, resorted to the design of systems, actions, and processes, yet by means of specific forms that are disruptive and denunciatory though furtive and oblique. They posit queerness, the destabilizing force of an unruly mode of desire, as a mode of transformative perception to be used in the construction of non-normative territories of experience. Do Ask, Do Tell maps out the alteration of such territories along its progress from the body—de-familiarized as it is grasped by a yearning gaze—to the city—estranged as the secretive sites it offers to homoeroticism are brought to light—to queered concepts of a more comprehensive reach, such as those of the nation and Latin America itself.

II. The exhibition probes ever-broader sets of questions as it courses through each of the mentioned territories of experience. The curatorial strategy used to raise them derives from another perceptual situation, this time extracted from one of the forms of conceptual art produced by the driven force of queer desire. It comprises two male viewers standing in an embrace and being allowed only to look past each other’s shoulders towards either side of their meeting point. In the photographic descriptions offered by Claudio Perna, the conceptual artist who imagined the men’s intimate “company” as an “action” in the late 1970s, a visual discrepancy breaks their encounter apart as one man commands a perspective that the other does not. Out of discordant vision, however, a common territory begins to emerge, made up of assembled bits of the landscape that each man perceives and communicates to his partner through a dialogue that transforms their individualized grasp of space into a shared text, which in turn deploys itself as a map. In Perna’s illustration of the proposed action, that map is still not finished—it is still being constructed as a common, collective ground borne out of homoerotic company. Perna, who was also a professional geographer, called the series of these actions “Gemini” (a term he generally used to refer to homosexual friendship) and proposed them as nodes of a possible geo-homoeroticism. The latter might be understood as a modality of queer art that could be either enacted, as it would have been in the described performance, or brought to bear on other mediums, as Perna did in innumerous photographs in which coloring, cutting, and other procedures are used to locate nodes of desire in “perceptual geographies” (the artist’s term for physical and cultural environments that are produced via the exercise of perception, rather than just perceived).

Geo-homoeroticism was most poignantly used in a map (Vang-Urgente, Perna tellingly titled it) that reinvents South America as an expansive ecology of homosexual desire. Pasting figures of men on distinct countries, themselves understood as perceptual geographies, Perna photomontaged a queer chart of what he professed Latin American conceptual art should be: “systemic” and integrative, open to the coordination of “distant and distinct” points of view. The map also reads as a chart for Latin America’s renewed invention, to be accomplished through the productive exercise of sexual inversion.

III. Implicit in Vang-Urgente and explicated in Perna’s writings and other works, the proposal that sexual inversion might result in the production of a new cultural territory—and centrally, that it might provide templates for communal binding that, instead of excluding desire as a disruptive element, would integrate it as a social force—has served as a guide for the coordination of the distinct, distant, yet also convergent viewpoints conveyed by the works on show. The exhibition approaches each of its sections (the above-mentioned territories of experience: body, city, and national or continental integration), as referential sites where the homosexual subject might be constructed, located, and identified. Yet here such identification—involved in the bid to ask, to tell—proceeds in terms of the strategic inscription of queerness that Lee Edelman has called “homographesis”: the multiplication rather than the constriction of self-identifying marks; the production of ever estranged, always renewable signs through which to rediscover difference and use it as a creative instrument. Thus identity itself becomes an expansive standpoint—a territory, rather, which is to be produced as it is revealed to be different from the constrictive molds that heterosexual normativity imposes on sexual variation.

Importantly, since in this case it is a question of a subject marked both as Latin American and homosexual—and since the first condition is also constricted within enforced and culturally hardened molds—the self-identification which the exhibition examines turns into a necessarily two-layered process. It does so, for instance, in the work of Carlos Motta, who digs out of the region’s colonized past indications of a violently silenced sexuality and uses them to “speculate,” as he puts it, “on the ways in which indigenous groups may have lived homoeroticism as part of their sociability.” Ending with Motta’s work, Do Ask, Do Tell speculates on how the production of the featured artists constructed alternative ways for coordinating Latin American-ness and queerness into a non-normative framework for shared life. Since this involves tracing, like Perna does in his map, a queer perceptual geography, one might say that Vang-Urgente illustrates the exhibition itself.

Nota Bene: This exhibition is to be followed by a show that will display female homoerotic art after properly conducting the archival research that it demands. A third show will include inter- and transgender artworks that we hope will also serve to cross such a male-female divide and provide pointers for further research and exposition.