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Where has the gay art gone? My partner and I set out to buy a piece of lesbian-themed art. We had a more difficult time than we imagined.

I had an epiphany recently after I typed the words lesbian and artwork into the search field on eBay and stared at my laptop screen in disbelief. I also tried the word art in combination with the words, in turn, gay, queer, and sapphic.

Is finding a good piece of lesbian-themed art really this tough? Apparently so. I had been reduced to looking on the world's online flea market.

Months before, my partner and I had set out to find artwork to hang in our bedroom in suburban Orlando, Fla. We wanted a sensual painting of women, but nothing overtly sexual. We like vibrant color and edginess, not come-hither vixens from comic book lore.

Sure, central Florida is a long way from the gay meccas of New York City's Chelsea neighborhood or Provincetown, Mass., but the search was becoming excruciating. We looked everywhere from galleries large and small to local art festivals--but we found very little gay art.

During the late 1970s and '80s gay and lesbian art thrived as queer artists painted overtly homoerotic images with passion. Avant-garde galleries and gay community centers across the United States clamored to show their works. Has this trend reversed during the past two decades?

"Gay artists are not in the same sort of forward motion as 15 years ago, and in a way we are victims of our own success," says James Saslow, professor of art history at the City University of New York's Queens College and Graduate Center and author of Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. "Somewhere in the '90s we got trendy in the art world. You could be an out queer and no one would hold that against you."

As a result, incentive has been dwindling for gay and lesbian artists to bring their fight for social justice and acceptance to the canvas. "It's too limiting now to call yourself a queer artist," Saslow says. "The possibility is there now of mainstream success. We have, I sometimes say, been successfully co-opted by the mainstream."

Despite the widespread success of many gay artists, museums remain tepid about gay-themed art, according to the Guerrilla Girls, a touring theater collective whose members, feminist artists (most of whom adopt pseudonyms honoring historical female artists), speak at college campuses across the country. "We think museums are increasingly beholden to rich donors whose taste is often conservative," says a group member who uses the name Kathe Kollwitz, paying tribute to a German artist whose work came to prominence at the turn of the 20th century and was later banned by the Nazi regime.

Nonprofit organizations like the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation in New York have become crucial to keeping gay art alive. Started by longtime couple J. Frederic "Fritz" Lohman and Charles W. Leslie, the organization recently staged a show featuring photographer and filmmaker Rick Castro, who includes S/M fetish content in his photographic work. "It's very difficult to get work shown if it has a gay content to it, especially figurative work," says Wayne Snellen, Leslie/Lohman director. "The art world doesn't see gay art as particularly important."

Despite such discouragements, my partner and I kept searching and found Keith Theriot, an Orlando-based artist whose work has been shown at solo and group exhibitions in New York City and New Orleans and throughout Florida. The Louisiana native remembers the boldness of the New York and New Orleans gay art worlds during the early 1980s, an exhilarating era dampened by great loss. "When Mapplethorpe died, when Warhol died, when so many people began to die," Theriot says. "It was like everything just stopped."

(Incidentally, Cubans got their first look at the works of Mapplethorpe in December at Fototeca de Cuba, a gallery located in the heart of Old Havana. The exhibit of 48 images, titled "Sacred and Profane," won the approval of Cuban artists and politicians, including the speaker of parliament.)

Theriot found success in our conservative city by showing his work recently at Savoy, a popular gay bar in a trendy part of town, and at the Downtown Media Arts Center, an alternative space affiliated with the University of Central Florida School of Film and Digital Media. He continually looks for new venues and is always eager to contribute his works to fundraisers for beneficiaries such as AIDS service organizations and gay community centers.

Theriot is finding freedom in the gay-art void. He has created large works on canvas in a signature style and has painted a series depicting friends who have died of AIDS, one of whom is shown sitting with a walking cane and a red ribbon on his lapel--very different from Theriot's sensual paintings of abstract male figures.

This liberty, Theriot says, is one of the benefits of where the gay art world currently stands. "I can do anything I want," he says. "There's a real freedom right now--if we will take it. There's nobody restricting us."

We commissioned a painting from Theriot. Since we couldn't find exactly what we were looking for, we took it upon ourselves to help actualize it. We took photographs of ourselves in bed and sent them to Theriot. What resulted was a wonderful and sensual image bearing Theriot's bold color strokes, his interpretation of us, and our own title: Locked. Indicative of the locked embrace of the women in the painting, the title also hints at the security we feel when the bedroom door is literally locked against the prying hands of curious children. Our artwork is being framed now.

Resources for gay artists and art lovers

Leslie/Lohman

Gay Art Foundation

127-B Prince St. (at

Wooster Street)

New York City

(212) 673-7007

www.leslielohman.org

San Francisco Gay and

Lesbian Artist Alliance

www.sfglaa.corn

San Francisco Open

Studios (operated

during weekends in

October annually by

ArtSpan)

(415) 861-9838

www.sfopenstudios.com

ArtWorks for Life

(an annual event

hosted by the

Midwest AIDS

Prevention Project)

Detroit

(248) 545-1435,

ext. 104 (contact

Yvonne

Greenhouse)

www.aidsprevention.org

Artists United

1350 E. Sunrise Blvd.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

(954) 530-2723

www.artsunitedonline.org

Andy Warhol Museum

117 Sandusky ST.

Pittsburgh

(412) 237-8300

www.warhol.org

Florida Queer Art Collective

(at GLB Community

Center of Orlando)

946 N. Mills Ave.

Orlando, Fla.

(407) 294-3823

www.floridaquack.org

Highways Performance

Space and Gallery

1651 18th St.

Santa Honica, Calif.

(310) 453-1755

www.highwaysperformance.org

Queer Arts Resource

(online service with

links to many gay

art resources around

the world)

www.queer-arts.org

Griffith is a bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Griffith, Kelly
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 31, 2006
Words:1090
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