Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nice 'class'

Minneapolis artist explores gay identity and desire in photorealistic pencil-crayon still lifes

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Joe Sinness's drawings in Classy Touch, which opened Pride weekend at Aceartinc., are undeniably flawless, undeniably gay and just generally undeniable.

Pressed to identify a distinctive "gay esthetic," I suspect most people would come up with similar descriptions: "campy," "theatrical," "fabulous," "flamboyant." I also suspect that few outside of the LGBT community will have given much thought to where that sensibility comes from, what needs it addresses, what histories and experiences it reflects.

In his photorealistic coloured pencil drawings -- splashy still lifes of breathtaking detail and clarity -- Sinness picks apart that history, reconstructing it deftly in the present. Teasing out threads of desire, longing and resistance amidst tropical plants, rhinestones and anonymous naked selfies, the show's two dozen works are at once elegant and crude, celebratory and melancholic, sexually charged, highly personal and patently, perfectly ridiculous.

For all its self-conscious staginess, "High Camp" is a sensibility borne out of invisibility. It gleefully embraces the excessive, the tawdry and the ridiculous -- drag queens, musical theatre, Liza Minnelli, a grandmotherly approach to home decor -- but it does so in response to painful historical necessity.

Denied avenues for open self-expression, gay men in the West often turned to performance as a permissible outlet. Denied media representation, we've largely been left to comb the detritus of straight culture for cryptic suggestions of people like us and fragmentary reflections of our own experiences. We polish up the sparkliest bits, arranging them until we see ourselves in them more clearly. Until very recently -- and for many, still -- this work could only safely be done in secret.

Sinness works like a gay magpie, collecting and arranging porcelain figurines, magnificently tacky florals, shiny fabrics, cellophane and computer printouts, which he uses to construct informal, shrine-like "stagings." The photos includes camp-classic film stills (Showgirls), portraits of gay icons (Dolly Parton), and a potpourri of amateur and vintage studio pornography. He tapes prints to white walls, drapes things in velvet and wraps them in plastic, leaning them tentatively against one another before photographing the tableau and copying it exactingly by hand.

The imagery is often highly coded, layered in more- and less-obscure references to queer history and culture, but the undercurrent of sexual desire is unmistakable. (There's no full-frontal nudity as such, but a bunch of bananas isn't just a bunch of bananas here). Tip, which shows a red velvet curtain with a circular hole cut out, is a gently lascivious nod to Polari, the secret gay slang that emerged around the British theatre over a century ago ("tipping the velvet" was code for oral sex). Rock Hudson's mouth peeks through a hole in a scrap of tropical-print fabric in another drawing, which hangs conspicuously lower than the others. In another, slightly less oblique drawing, Sinness leaves a floral offering to an anonymous snapshot of what he calls "the perfect butt." (In my professional opinion, it's certainly a strong contender.)

Successful photorealism such as Sinness achieves is always impressive, but it's not always interesting. Technical perfection serves a critical artistic and even political function in Classy Touch, however. The exquisite detail, luminous depths and glittering highlights that he coaxes out of burnished pencil crayon is irresistibly seductive. You might find the content itself confusing or even objectionable, but the drawings remain utterly captivating.

They're here, they're queer and they're perfect, so you might as well enjoy them.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2014 D14

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