the lens of his “own complicated narrative as a nerdy Appalachian queer
guy,” artist AARON MCINTOSH examines desire and the role mass-media
images and text play in influencing our sexual identities. Combining
sculpture, drawing, text and textiles, he references the historically
gendered connotations of quilting and employs piecework
as a metaphor to address identity construction. Aaron received his MFA
from Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches at Maryland Institute
College of Art in Baltimore. His numerous solo exhibitions include shows
at Quirk Gallery Vault (2011) and Russell/Projects Gallery (2010) in
Richmond, Virginia. Most recently, Aaron’s work was included in Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community (2014) at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York. His essay "Parallel Closets,” published in the April 2014 edition of The Brooklyn Rail, addresses the twin pursuits of queering craft and crafting queerness. Aaron lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
OtherPeoplesPixels: I've read in another interview that your grandmothers were both skilled quilters. Did they teach you when you were a child?
Aaron McIntosh: My grandmothers actually didn’t teach me to quilt or sew. But they were always piecing, making quilts for family members, dragging out their scraps and in-process quilts and showing these things to us grandkids. I begged my mom to teach me to sew when I was nine, and she finally relented and showed me how to hand stitch. When I was 12, I taught myself to use the sewing machine, and off I went. I made lots of little quilts, clothes for dolls and for myself. I would show these things to my grandmothers. They were impressed and offered me sewing tips sometimes. Mostly though, I think they and everyone else expected me to grow out of this “phase.”
OPP: Why is quilting as a medium so well-suited for exploring "how stereotypes of sexual emotions, experiences, and identities are propagated in mass-produced images and print material, and in turn, how these images and text shape our own identities (from artist's statement)? Could you talk about the historical quilt patterns you reference in Big Little Men (2010), Bedroom Buddies (2010) and your 2013 solo exhibition Patterns?
The quilt is an excellent platform for my content precisely because of
the family connection and because it is a medium with multivalent
trajectories. Whether personal or communal, minimal or maximal, staid or
kitschy, high or low, quilts are flexible, open objects that are full
of possibility. Piecework itself can be traditional, rigid or
structured, but it can also be loose, intuitive, unhinged. Identity is
analogous to crafting: it’s something we work on, obsess over, tend to
with care. So I’ve chosen this patchwork medium to unload a lot of
disparate thoughts about my identities: queer, Appalachian, textile
nerd, academic, hopeless romantic, stray son, feminist, artist.
I am simultaneously deconstructing the quilt and my identity. On one hand, I am stripping away the quaint, Americana charm-factory status from the quilt, peeling back its cultural layers and infusing the medium with the realities of what happens beneath quilts: desire, sex, death and birth. On the other hand, I am enshrining that domestic decorative affinity as another burdened facet of gay male identity, a psychological sub-bottom to hyper-masculinity’s top. I use traditional quilt patterns such as Double Wedding Ring, Chain Links and an obscure one named Daddy Hex to further blur and complicate this relationship of parallel concerns.
In a recent series titled Fragments, I address this disjointed, scrappy, unfinished nature of identity. One work, Fragment #3: Roses are Red, is made by piecing a traditional quilt pattern called Roses are Red into an image of a heaving jock stud from a gay erotica magazine. The patchwork fabrics belonged to my grandmother, and the digital textile print is an enlarged, scanned copy of a cover of FirstHand magazine from the 1990s. Initially, I picked this blocky quilt pattern from my grandmother's collection because it could partially mask the cover model’s face—a direct nod to online cruising culture in which some men blur out their faces, focusing instead on their bodies. Deliberately using feminized quilt squares to dominate the figure reveals my hesitancy around body image, appropriate sexiness and gay male objectification. In the same way that this gay, masculine body is out of reach for a fag like me, so too is a fulfilling relationship with my family and their traditions. Both are just tantalizingly out of reach. So in this very literal way, I am forcing my queer desire to intersect my craft heritage and creating a space for what is in between.
OPP: You've used gay and straight
romance novels as a material in numerous ways since you were an
undergrad. What first drew you to this material?
AM: Reading has always informed who I am, shaped my desire and sense of self, so it’s no wonder that I turn to printed text as a material. When I first turned my eye to the thrift store heaps of discarded romance novels, I was searching for a more evocative material than the masculinized plaids and men’s pants I had been using in quilts. I initially chose this material for aesthetic reasons—the pattern of text and yellowed pages—and because the novels were feminized objects that represent heterosexuality.
But after receiving several gay erotic novels as gifts, my relationship to the romance novel began to shift. Romance novels intended for straight women and those for gay men are radically different. Romance novels written for women tend to be drawn-out narratives with more focus on all the details leading up to the sexual act; entire pages may describe a mere glance. Gay novels, on the other hand, are typically printed in large type and double-spaced for quick reading. They have horribly loose narratives and a sex scene every couple of pages. I was fascinated by the simultaneous material resemblance and subject opposition. I played with juxtaposing the straight and gay romance novels to highlight their differences and their commonalities.
OPP: How has your use of these cultural artifacts changed over time?
AM: I was entirely critical of them as reading material for the first several years. But then I decided to seriously read a few and give myself over to the possibility of a romance novel fantasy. I read five novels and was surprised to find my own stories in these novels. I became really intrigued by the small markings, repetitive cursive name writings and underlining by previous readers. I was inspired to start notating the novels, recording my own experiences. I changed (i.e. queered) the text by eliminating female pronouns and devised a coding system for repetitive motifs. I pieced these coded pages together with glue and they became the substrates for many works, including the large Notes for Future Romance(s), Boyfriends Series and Island.
I was drawn more and more to the materiality of sexual identity and began to use printed erotica and eventually porn. This widening spectrum of desire-bound material had one unifying quality: the intended reading space is a domestic setting. The home is the most private space to escape from workaday drudgery into romantic dreaminess or sexual fantasy. These fantasies take flight from the couch or bed. I wanted to make a functional object about reading and taking in desire. The Couch is a very grandmotherly couch covered in hundreds of racy pages. The original novel pages were scanned and digitally printed on fabric, so the couch is wholly functional. When a viewer steps closer, the homey look of patchwork shifts into a barrage of homoerotic titles, colorful straight novel couples, illustrated gay men en flagrante and text from both straight and gay sources. While some images and titles might be aggressive or oversexualized on their own, they are dulled by the conflation of so many disparate desire-driven images and text. As a visitor to my studio pointed out: “There’s something for everyone here!” The Couch has no hierarchy or dominant sexuality. It charts the known and unknown territories of my personal desire, which has been informed by a variety of gendered and sexual experiences.
OPP: Could you talk specifically about the notion of erasure and absence as it is used in many of your works, including Romance Series (2006), Boyfriends Series (2009-2010), Chronicles of Cruising and NSA Boyfriends (both 2010)?
AM: Absence in my works speaks to both the voyeurism and loneliness that can accompany desire. Responding to loneliness and the lack of stable romantic relationships in my personal life, I created a series of larger-than-life boyfriends appropriated from romance novels. The flimsy, cut-paper men in Boyfriends Series are attempts to fill the voids of unattainable love; they are the stand-ins for boyfriends I cannot attain in real life. These boyfriends are “stolen” from their female counterparts in the romance novel covers, but the work is not a statement about removing women. I’m simply calling into question the heteronormativity of these couples and pointing out that straight men are just as desirable to queer men as they are to women. The removed men are made vulnerable and their sexual identity suspect. In eliminating one partner from these cover relationships, I am choosing to highlight what is absent rather than present.
Chronicles of Cruising is a collection of 365—I made one everyday in 2011—paper cut-outs of attractive guys from desire-based, print sources. Each guy is carefully removed from his respective partner, isolated on card stock, and then cataloged by month. Each man carries the traces of his fractured story in his clothing, accoutrement and posture, as well as the absent partner’s removed body silhouette. Such removal creates an overriding sense of loneliness in this set of new bachelors. The act of cruising—taking in quick, furtive glances of other bodies with no specific intention—is echoed in this queer reversal of the male gaze. Men become the objects of scrutiny, and the obsessive nature of desire itself is splayed open, rendered cold, mundane and creepy in the archival act of clipping.
Forest Frolic is my most recent work to take on absence. Two cavorting male figures have been removed entirely from an erotic illustration, The remaining scene is enlarged, printed on cotton and then quilted. This is the first work to completely remove all figures. Suggestive of the dangers of being sexually overt as a queer person in rural spaces, this quilt contains as much personal fantasy as anonymous, pervasive fear.
The nature-based themes are an entirely new move in my practice, but
they have been rising to the top for some time. The exhibition was the
impetus for new ideas of embedding queerness into representations of
nature. The title of the show is a reference to unmanaged gardens and
the surprising, perhaps unwanted, growth that occurs when nature is
allowed to freely form itself.
The Bear is a very family-personal work. Like The Couch, this work attempts to reach across generational divides through a language of form, but difference and unease are manifest in the materiality. In my remake of this taxidermy heirloom, the bear has been "freed" from his constraint as a legendary, family hunting trophy. Covered in shredded, gay pornographic "fur," he is the subaltern of my own romantic forays, sexual legends and hunted desire.
The Bear is surrounded by Weeds in an installation mocking "natural habitat.” The weeds—Briars, Pigweed, Broadleaf Plantain—are
scourges to the home gardener. I draw a covert connection between these
pernicious, unwanted plants and my own anxious efflorescence as a queer
person in a tradition-steeped culture. My copies of disregarded, local
plants are made strange by their patchwork skins of vintage fabrics and
printed, gay erotica. In contrast to most of my other work, the text and
images are embedded into the form so tightly that only fragments can be
read, favoring subtle meaning over easy decoding.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago.