coming home* to queerness

21 September 2017

By Philippe Pamela Dungao


To walk through home* is to inhabit the contentious space that locates belonging and queer subjectivity. Curated by Adrienne Crossman and exhibited in Toronto’s R \ F gallery, home* featured works from four Ontario based artists working across disciplines and mediums: Sarah Kelly, Lee D’Angelo, Bethany Rose Puttkemery, and Luke Maddaford. With works that explored the intersection of queerness, community, and belonging, home* felt like an arrival to one’s own queer identity, a homecoming in more ways than one.

At first glance, the exhibition’s title already signals a reimagining of the word’s meaning. What is home to the queer body? Where are community and belonging located in queerness? Purposefully in lower-case (“h”), deliberately followed by an asterisk (*); unconventional, resistant  to conform to the confines of a singular definition, and queer—all the ways in which the title invokes a challenge and a broader inclusion of how we understand “home,” of what “home” looks like, of what “home” can be and already is.

I Haunt the Prairies, and they Haunt Me Back, 2017 by Luke Maddaford. Image by Natalie Logan.

For Luke Maddaford, home is found in the process of navigating one’s own queer body within the Southern Ontario landscape. An interdisciplinary artist, Maddaford’s focus on the intersections between identity and place is manifested through the objects that make up the installation, I Haunt the Prairies, and They Haunt Me Back (2017). Here, Maddaford uses found objects—a fur tail, a map, ruler, miscellaneous photographs of varied  landscapes, and a stack of old Western pulp fiction—an assemblage of items that feels more like a collection of things lost and found; a shrine of miscellany. The phrase, “Call your mother but never tell the whole truth” is embroidered on a blanket sprawled haphazardly on the floor. In the corner, we see a television screen with a video of Maddaford sitting cross-legged, surrounded by the green foliage of the forest. 

When asked during the exhibition’s panel discussion what Maddaford was thinking of in the aforementioned video, he explained that he was telling the trees his secrets. For the artist, there is comfort in materiality, comfort in knowing that there is no judgement from objects. If growing up within the repressive and violent nature of rural Alberta becomes Maddaford’s point of reference, the comfort afforded by inanimate objects, by nature, is one that grounds and haunts his work. On a stack of paper laid on top of a platform, “still your fag” is scrawled in ink against a black and white image of a horizon, faded and grained.

Locustland, 2017 by Sarah Kelly. Image by Natalie Logan.

On the wall next to Maddaford’s installation screened Sarah Kelly’s Locustland (2017). Filmed, produced, and directed by Kelly (who goes by Tigerwing), Locustland is a 14-minute 3-D rendered digital composition that takes the form of both a short film and an extended music video featuring Tigerwing’s synth-heavy, vocally layered tracks, rich in texture with rhythm and melody. Tigerwing appears as five different characters moving through this digital utopia. A church, a club, a tomb, and a flying gazebo are all synthesized in bright purples, pinks, and blues. Tigerwing’s vocals sheeting one on top of the other gives Locustland a transcendent and otherworldly quality. It feels dreamlike, which is not to say that to imagine a queer utopia is to imagine the impossible; rather, it provokes the imagination of a queer utopia that is, however intangible, permeating. 

If Kelly’s Locustland permeates the imagination, then Puttkemery’s and D’Angelo’s collaborative installation permeates the gallery space. A life-size sculpture of a vagina embellished by different types of plants, flowers, and crystal rocks occupied the central area of the gallery. Closer in, five hands made from plaster moulding are placed between the labia, installed against the wall. Reminiscent of an outdoor landscape ornament, Puttkemery’s and D’Angelo installation makes a sanctuary—a garden—out of the vagina, and vice versa.

D’Angelo also performed stick n’ poke tattoo appointments during the opening of the exhibition and throughout the run of the show. As a queer tattoo artist, D’Angelo’s practice and mandate aims to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. For D’Angelo, it is through the practice of tattooing queer bodies where community and kinships are built and flourish. At R \ F, D’Angelo’s stick n’ poke appointments further transformed the space into more than just a gallery housing art works by queer artists. It became  a space that also housed the makings of community—one that situates the queer self within a space of belonging.

From the underground terrain of Kelly’s otherworldly soundscapes and digital media, to Puttkemery’s floral practice and Maddaford’s rendering of the queer body within a rural landscape, it would be a mistake to assume that home* lacked aesthetic cohesion, a troubling feat for a group exhibition even as small as this. But perhaps what acts as a thread between each piece is the presence of the natural (the flower, the forest, a plant); an inextricable and—what Crossman admits during the panel discussion—an “accidental” link underlying the exhibition. In this way, home* is not found in the city, where the urban-rural binary conceives the space of the city as a space of sexual diversity and liberty and the rural as sexually homogenous and repressed. 

A plant, instead, becomes a symbol of one’s own settling—a comment made by Kelly during the panel discussion. “I admire people who own plants and can take care of them,” Kelly said. “It feels like they’ve settled.” It’s a sentiment that echoes Puttkemery’s and D’Angelo’s vaginal garden piece where they were required to tend to the plants and flowers daily, to be present in the gallery space whether or not they expected viewers to be there.

In this way, home* settles into a somewhere that dwells in more than the physical and confined renditions of homeliness. home* can be imagined, rendered, and ultimately, found. It’s an open terrain sheltering all our desires and aspirations to belong, however that may look. It’s a self-made space of refuge that is always ever-changing, ever-growing, and ever-nurtured.

home* was a group exhibition hosted by R \ F gallery in Toronto, ON from May 5-21, 2017.

Feature image: home* (2017) by Bethany Rose Puttkemery and Lee D’Angelo.

All images courtesy of Natalie Logan.