The students of Leeds Arts University have curated a temporary exhibition focusing on queer identity in the heart of Leeds at the well-renowned Corn Exchange. It feels like privilege to be allowed such a personal view of someone's identity; these multi-media works give us an insight into the subject of queerness as the artists themselves experience it. The exhibition is one of pure intentions, seamlessly empowering both artists and audience by shining a light on valuable stories that need to be told.
Whilst the exhibition is interesting when viewed as a body of work, it is clear that each work was not made in response to one another. It is the joy of queerness that binds all the pieces together, the emotional reaction from each artist does differ, cascading through themes and feelings of deep sadness to acceptance and celebration. For Harriet, as a queer woman there's a lot that really resonated, but the exhibition created a voyeuristic atmosphere in which any person could peek and enjoy queer culture.
Like many contemporary exhibits this exhibition doesn't abide by a set route, encouraging the viewer to take their own path as they gravitate towards works freely. In Harriet’s case it was ‘Preview’ by Milly Routledge. This large painting from Milly Routledge instantly provided comfort, a sort of 'if you know you know' nod to the queer community. It's very easy to project your own narrative as a queer person onto this piece, with references to the late 19th century and early 20th century depictions of the Pierrot and Pierrette as a symbol of public performance, there is a sense of protecting one’s true identity. The work is inspired by the performativity of gender identity, the artist explores their own experience as a lesbian in both public and private spaces.
Meanwhile artist Beatrix Haxby offers up a still from a cinematic masterpiece, that doesn't actually exist beyond the edges of a canvas. Medusa's lair tucks itself nicely into the world of surrealism, the painting represents the liminal state between a physical painting and a film. It is the beauty and scale of this painting that leads you to fantasize about the overarching narrative that you are given a taste of, not to mention the 16:9 aspect ratio bars that boldly claim space on the canvas, which is standard cinematic format. At first viewing, the piece seems to have a religious connotation because of the snake and apple, however upon further research you will find that the artist is referencing Greek mythology hence the title, ‘Medusa's Lair’. The attention to detail is somewhat amusing and deadpan, specifically the chocolate fountain stalagmites which are almost phallic. The focus of this work is semi naked figures that sit poised, on a perfectly molded stone like sofa around the dining table. This gives the painting a staticity that purposely contrasts the idea that there is a previously animated scene to this still. This work from Haxby is incredibly smart and every detail was clearly planned, allowing the audience create their own assumptions of the ending to this cinematic work.
As noted, the exhibition took a deep dive into the vulnerability and strength of identity. Eleanor Chandler’s work, focuses on the latter. As a series of three documentary photographs, the images capture the often-unseen nature of queer performance. The images take reference to the LGBTQIA+ scene of Leeds, predominantly centered around the revered Viaduct Showgirls Bar. Synonymous with its Drag performers such as Anja Bach and Uma Daze, Viaduct is at the forefront of queer night-life in the North. The uniqueness and perspective of these images are what brings them strength. The work is private and vulnerable at times but simultaneously unmissable. Yes, the images are visually impeccable, but what draws the audience in is the fusion of stillness and action. We have become invested in the people within the images, we want more, but the images themselves say all you need to know. Somehow you can physically feel every emotion felt in these photos, that shows the power Chandler has managed to capture.
It is important to note the different elements of queer identity that are often overlooked due to harmful stereotypes, Georgina Bond looks to explore queerness through kinks and taboos. Their photographic series ‘Have Your Cake and Eat Me’ plays on the proverb of ‘Have your cake and eat it’. With the original meaning that you cannot retain two good things simultaneously, Bond’s adaptation displays how kink orientated relationships complement one another through mutual sexual gratification. The “flamboyant scene of sexual confidence” breaks down prejudices against consensual kink sex and aims to change “bad attitudes” that are withheld by the mainstream media. What we found most interesting was the references of sploshing- “a form of sexual fetish whereby a person becomes aroused when a substance is applied to their naked skin”. The openly hidden references elevate the images as they draw you in closer and closer to the often overlooked role eroticism plays within queer identity.
Lastly, we want to mention Oliver Clarke’s photographic series. The untitled works tell the story of an undisclosed transgender man who underwent top surgery last year. As noted, these images aim to “normalize a trans body in a positive light” and are able to through the links to nature landscape photography. What interests us most about the work is the pairing of grass alongside the subject’s surgery scar. The correlation between the two forms are alluring and craftfully intertwine the images together, depicting the transgender experience in a new way.
For all it's successes, one thing was missing from this exhibition. Considering the sheer importance of the work created by these queer identifying artists we were surprised there was no detailing written or presented next to each piece. The works were just left to exist in their own right without explanation, and maybe that was intentional but as an audience we were left wanting more. We longed for the story of the artist, the subject and the turmoil. Not everyone that visits an exhibition is an art buff who can understand every intended reference at first glance, it’s important give newcomers a chance to get invested.
We are so excited by the work being produced at Leeds Arts University; they really are cultivating some of the best in Leeds from what we saw down at the Corn Exchange. If you are interested and want to find out more about the work at Leeds Arts, contact @queer.identity.exhib on Instagram. The exhibition has now closed but it'll be interesting to see the outcomes of their future exhibitions.
Find them on Instagram
Beatrix Haxby- @beatrixhaxbyartist_official
Eleanor Chandler- @epmc_photography
Georgina Bond- @lovesexandsuffering
Milly Routledge- @milly.routledge
Oliver Clarke- @olly_shutterbug