Restoring Queer Narratives in Art with Re-gayze

Interview by Deborah Krieger.

When I heard that Blake Oetting, a member of the Swarthmore Class of 2018 and an art historian, was working on a project that aimed to shed a light on queer artists’ identities within the contexts of their works, I was immediately intrigued. Featuring artists ranging from Mickalene Thomas to Jasper Johns to Michelangelo, Re-gayze uses Instagram (and an eponymous website) to share thoughtful, informative blurbs on these artists whose queerness has been erased or censored by time, by history, or by design, in the world of academia and education. I reached out to Blake to talk about his development of Re-gayze, and why the project is vital and necessary for art historians, artists, and art enthusiasts alike.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?  

The project arose chiefly out of my own frustrations with my own art history education not making room for queerness as a thematic consideration within the work of queer artists. Often, an artist’s sexuality is offered as a coincidental and biographical tidbit of information that stands separate from their works’ meaning. Intuitively, I assumed that this was reductive and chose to investigate whether there was any scholarly work standing at the intersection of queer theory and art history. There certainly is, but that work exists within the work of academia mostly, so with Re-gayze, I was hoping to disseminate that information done by scholars in a more democratic fashion. 

What made you realize that there was this pedagogical and historical gap, and how did you decide on this project to fix the problem? 

I also saw a number of articles and talks given by Jonathan David Katz who presents queer art historical work within the context of censorship from museums and other arts institutions. I thought that distilling that spirit of his work, of exhuming the importance of queerness to queer artists’ work, and presenting it as a form of resistance to institutional censorship on a widely available platform like Instagram could potentially get a discussion started around issues of representation in museums for not only queer and trans people, but also for women, people of color, and any marginalized community that falls outside of the dominant milieu. 

On a larger note, how do you feel like queer artists and their lives should be better incorporated into existing canon? (I know women in art history have this kind of question thrown at them all time.)

I think that part of this movement will naturally “out” artists who are deceased, which often stands against the wishes of these artists’ foundations and families but nevertheless must be done. It seems that this process of “outing,” however, has been appropriately centered on understanding their work more fully and not about making a spectacle of their closeted live just for the sake of it. More importantly than focusing on the outing of individual artists, however, is that curators must center shows on issues of queerness in an unabashed, fearless manner. Because of course, the issue of queer censorship in museums is not only a lack of representation, but also the idea that queer identity can not be mapped onto artwork in the same way that issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. are done freely.  

Due to the lack of this kind of focus on queer artists specifically in traditional education, how did you begin your own investigation into the lives of these artists like Johns, etc? 

There really is a lot of scholarship on queerness and intersections of verbose queer theory and aesthetics, which is fascinating. Much of what I do on the blog is try and read as much as I can on a specific artist or queer theme within artistic production and distill that into a succinct caption. So, in general, I would say that process of researching the work to producing a blog post is figuring out to best democratize rather esoteric scholarly work.  

How did you come up with the title? 

Every art history student will (hopefully) learn about the male gaze at some point in their career. At some point though, after hearing the term so many times, I began to think people were saying “the male gays,” so the name really came from a joke! On one hand, it reference the queer gaze, which comes up throughout the blog, but also be re-casting this gayze, by re-gayzing, I am making explicit the idea of the blog being a revisionist consideration of modern & contemporary art with a queer lens.  

How do you choose which artists to feature? 

I have a whole set of books in my room that I consult every day to seek out potential artists, but I also receive ideas from my friends and professors about people to feature. I highly encourage submissions! There are so many amazing queer artists that, as a product of their erasure by the art world, are not discussed as widely as they should be, so I depend on people sharing their knowledge with me. 

How far in advance do you plan posts? 

I don’t plan posts ahead of time at all! Every day is a bit of a scramble to fit all the moving pieces together. It really is a lot more work than I thought it would be when beginning the project and I can’t post every day, but I try to. 

Do you want to move Re-Gayze into a more physical form, such as an exhibition or installation, or do you think it really relies on being digital? 

At this point, I think it is most appropriate to stay digital. While it would be amazing to publish a physical production at some point, the platforms on Instagram and Facebook are the most able to reach a large audience I think. 

What made you choose Instagram as a platform? Have you considered Tumblr? I think it might be really good for getting people to share the posts (better than Instagram anyway). 

I chose Instagram and Facebook as the initial platforms to pursue because I was most familiar with them as places where other social campaigns functioned. I have definitely considered expanding to Tumblr, the only issue being I don’t know how to advertise there as effectively. 

As you amass more images and posts in your collection, do you plan to curate it further in any way (creating a section related to AIDS art/activism specifically for example)? 

I have definitely considered doing special projects as offshoots of Re-gayze once I assemble enough material, but I don’t think I’ll know what those will look like thematically until farther down the road. 

Are there media you find yourself drawn to more than others for this project? 

While I have definitely tried to maintain a fairly equal distribution of painting, photography, sculpture etc., the medium that I have become the most invested in is performance, mostly because it is brand new for me. I find that the performance pieces I have looked at are able to articulate entirely new meanings through their incorporation of movement and space in ways that are impossible in a static context. Similarly, video pieces [like those by] Jacolby Satterwhite have been highly influential for this project. 

Do you hope to continue Re-gayze after Swarthmore? How does this kind of academic work factor into your future goals?

I would absolutely love to continue the blog after graduation, as I think there are many avenues to expand and improve it when I have more time. After Swarthmore, I definitely plan on getting a doctorate and working to be a curator of 20th century art, so Re-gayze is also, in some sense, preparing me for my professional life but it chiefly a project for the art world and queer communities searching for representation throughout visual history.  

 Photo courtesy of Blake Oetting.

Photo courtesy of Blake Oetting.

What kind of feedback have you received on your work so far? How have you taken it to heart, if at all? 

I have received a lot of support from friends, professors, and some of the featured artists. It seems that my suspicion, that queer people have been looking for an account (like I was) is indeed the case. This support has been so encouraging because, again, the entire point of the blog was situating queer people within art history, so the fact that this made queer people in and out of the art world is incredibly satisfying for me. 

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with Re-gayze? 

The goal with Re-gayze has, and always will be, dissemination and (an attempt) at education. It is absolutely crucial that queer people understand themselves as a part of art history, both as subjects and artists. Beyond the important issue of representation, however, Re-gayze also hopes to literally and metaphorically queer the art world as a means of bringing queer themes into formal art history discourse. The reason the captions are quite lengthy and attempt to cover a lot of scholarly ground is that this account is really aimed at speaking in the language of the art history discipline to show how queerness has been and can be a part of that discussion.