In the art world, what makes regular abstraction different from "queer abstraction"?
Unlike LGBTQ artists who explore identity through representational images that make clear statements, the 20 artists in "queer abstraction" at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art are expressing themselves through color, shape and form.
But as with non-queer abstract art, what they're expressing is not always easy to discern.
"If you were to just wander into the gallery and not see the title of the show or anything like that, you would think, 'Oh, this is another cool abstract exhibit at the Nerman,'" says Stuart Hinds, curator of special collections and archives at UMKC Libraries, who has written a catalog essay for the exhibition.
According to Hinds, who also co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, some viewers might still find the word "queer" — once used as a gay slur — offensive. But starting in the 1990s, he says, the members of the LGBTQ community reclaimed and politicized it.
"One of the ways I see it being interpreted now is really as an umbrella term," he says. "Many people will just use the term 'queer' to capture all the pieces of the acronym."
Like the acronym, the definition of queer abstraction depends on the artist.
Tom Burr's "Deep Purple"
Tom Burr's "Deep Purple" is a purple wall that stretches along the Nerman's lobby like a stage backdrop.
Jared Ledesma, assistant curator of the Des Moines Art Center and the curator of "Queer Abstraction," says Burr is "queering" a piece called "Tilted Arc" — a controversial, 120-foot steel wall by the prominent American sculptor Richard Serra, exhibited in Federal Plaza in New York City in the 1980s. "Deep Purple" is similarly shaped.
"A lot of artists in the show are thinking about queer as not only a noun, but as a verb, as this idea to kind of subvert this history of art that's connected to straight, male artists," Ledesma says.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres' "Untitled (Water)"
To enter the first floor galleries, visitors will walk through Felix Gonzalez-Torres's beaded blue curtain.
"You're leaving one space and then entering a new kind of queer world," Ledesma explains.
When Ledesma moved from the West Coast to Iowa nearly three years ago, he says, the Des Moines Art Center encouraged him to organize a show about queer subject matter and queer themes.
"And I was like, 'This is it. Like this is my opportunity to do a show on queer abstraction," he said. "And I jumped on it."
Ledesma had studied Gonzalez-Torres' work closely when he was in graduate school. An openly gay artist active in the 1980s and '90s, many of Gonzalez-Torres' works were crafted from materials such as strings of beads or stacks of paper — abstract sculptures and photographs about identity, desire and loss, often inspired by AIDS.
Bo Hubbard's "Moonflower"
After hearing about Ledesma's show, which ran from June through September in Des Moines, the Nerman Museum's executive director, Bruce Hartman, reached out to Ledesma to bring it here. Hartman wanted to add a few more artists with ties to Kansas City, including Matthew Willie Garcia and Bo Hubbard.
Hubbard studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute and has done performance-based work with the queer artists collective Alter: Arts Space. He now creates rugs through machine tufting. After gathering clusters of yarn, he sculpts an uneven surface with sheep shears.
With 40 different shades of white, Hubbard's rug "Moonflower" is named after a white flower that blooms at night. It's a nod to the energy and promise of nightlife.
Hubbard was, he says, "thinking about my younger days as a teenager, living in Oklahoma City, going out to our one street, 39th Street, and starting to participate in a queer nightlife, and almost being a different person at nighttime."
Matthew Willie Garcia's "Reorienting Space-Time"
Matthew Willie Garcia studied printmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute and is now an MFA candidate at the University of Kansas.
During a recent artist's talk at the Nerman, Garcia was described as a "queer interdimensional explorer" and introduced his work with a love poem he'd written for his partner.
"It's an idea within quantum mechanics called quantum entanglement, one of the most romantic ideas," he said. "My work is coming from a weird, queer space that I want to develop."
Garcia's works are in the Kansas Focus Gallery on the museum's first floor, and on the second floor in the new media gallery. His installation "Reorienting Space-Time" transports the viewer with a digital animation projected on to three prints.
"And it’s this kind of beautiful idea of this flexing, undulating curving form," he said, "that is created by space and time."
It's a form, he said, that "celebrates everybody."
"queer abstraction" runs through March 8 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kansas. 913-469-8500. The campus is closed for winter break through Jan. 1.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.