Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons
Anyone who finds similarities between drunk women eating each other out in dingy bathrooms and the spiritual quests of Catholic saints is bound to make a compelling interview and, more importantly, an artist worth watching. Gwen Shockey is that artist. Her art is brave, romantic, and fun (pretty similar to the artist herself). I sat down with Shockey to chat about how her queerness impacts her art. It went something like this:
Phillip M. Miner: How was growing up queer for you?
Gwen Shockey: My parents are, and always have been, really open-minded and amazingly supportive, but I didn't grow up with any queer role models at all. I think I formed a sense of myself through play, and through looking at and making artwork.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with classical Italian drawing. I spent a lot of time making copies of Botticelli. My first crush was on the three Graces in Boticelli's "Primavera," with their high foreheads and voluptuous breasts!
It's confusing growing up surrounded and enclosed by assumptions of heterosexuality. I was taught how to admire men, you know? I had to learn how to feel desire for women. To be honest, I don't think I realized that I could even be bisexual or queer or a lesbian until high school.
Miner: How did you come out?
Shockey: I came out to my mom and dad in college and have always been very open with my sister about my crushes and relationships. I've been insanely lucky to grow up and come of age in liberal communities. I realize now that "coming out" for me has been more to help the people close to me to come to terms with my sexuality. I came out to myself in my artwork even before I realized that was what I was doing.
Miner: Your work is very sensual. Could you tell me a little more about that?
Shockey: When I began my undergraduate thesis at Connecticut College, I wanted to experiment with nude portraiture. I was reading a lot of feminist literature and biographies of famous photographers who worked with the body, most of whom were male. The more I read and the more nude photography I looked at, the more I realized how loaded the body was (and is) as visual content, and the more I wanted to portray it with intention and agency somehow.
When I did my first photo shoot with a female friend of mine, I freaked out a little bit. I realized I was looking at this beautiful woman and wondering how I look at the female body as a woman who desires women. I felt as though I was using my friend's nudity (and inherent vulnerability) to find a pleasing image and an artistic voice without even considering her relationship with her visual self, and that really upset me.
I switched my project and started using my own body to try to figure out what it felt like to be the person represented and the person doing the representing and how that dynamic is different or the same depending on our attractions. My project became more about the act of looking. I hope that the sensuality in my work is honest. I feel as though I haven't come to any conclusions about how to depict women in any other way than what I have experienced personally.
Miner: None at all?
Shockey: Well, I think it's clear that I look at women's bodies with desire, but I also have a female body, and I know what it feels like to be made vulnerable by someone's eyes. It's just so complicated, and I'll probably forever be exploring the dynamic of agency and observation. The second you have a naked body, it becomes something else. It's never just a naked body, you know?
Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons
Miner: Tell me more about what you're working on.
Shockey: I am continuing the work I just told you about, but I am also starting a series of drawings re-imagining the stories I grew up with as queer: the prince and princess, the two lovers, the protagonist and antagonist, the god and goddess.... I'm trying to examine how these stories would change if the characters were LGBT. The style is very illustrative, not at all abstract. I reference classical drawings and great contemporary lesbian photography, using mostly graphite and stitching into fabric and paper, the mediums I learned from my mom when I was young.
Miner: Fairy tales are really popular currently.
Shockey: I know! Everyone is doing the fairy tale thing right now! For me, I grew up with these stories, and they became archetypes for how I view relationships and life. When I first moved to New York, I went out a lot and got involved in the lesbian hookup culture. I started noticing these classical relationships being acted out between women (and men) and that really intrigued me. Finally I was seeing the tales of my childhood played out in real life in a way that applied to me!
Miner: I'm sure my readers want to hear more about this lesbian hookup culture.
Shockey: [Laughs.] The lesbian scene has definitely influenced my art a lot. It was so important for me to hang out at the bars, to be surrounded by queer people and to figure my identity in with all of these others. The hookups in the dark, dirty bathrooms, the excessive drinking, all of these bodies searching for pleasure and a sense of belonging -- it was all quite primitive and also full of iconography.
Miner: What iconography were you looking at?!
Shockey: I suppose I mean iconography both in the interpreting of this nightlife as a search for identity and belonging and the specific (occasionally religious) icons that, in one way or another, have made their way into my visual language. For instance, I was out one night, and I went to use the bathroom, and there were two women in there going at it, surrounded by empty liquor bottles, and I thought, "Holy shit, this is like St. Theresa seeking ecstasy through seven glass bottles (or castles) in her manuscript The Interior Castle." You can look that up if you want more context.
Miner: That sounds hot.
Shockey: It is totally hot! But it's also not all about sex. Sometimes I'm thinking more about the context in which these interactions are happening: the bathroom in which the scene is taking place, the bar that contains the bathroom and the trash-ridden city that contains the bar. Sometimes I'm thinking about the misunderstandings of sex (especially lesbian) that shape our desires and our experiences of self-confidence and self-worth.
Miner: Not that I have to ask, but do you think you make lesbian art.
Shockey: Yes, I guess I would say that I make art from a lesbian perspective because that's who I am. There are a lot of questions I have about the world, about human beings: how we form connections, how we look at one another and how we live in the spaces provided for us. I am only one queer person with a lot of questions, though, you know? There are so many complex voices and visions out there. I am just lucky enough to be talking with you and sharing mine!
Portrait by Daniel Jack Lyons