Through Cis-Tinted Glasses, Pt. 1: De-gendering the Way We Look at Figurative Art
By Louis Fermor
Vol. 1 Issue 02 Fall 2019
This essay was written in Mohkinstsis (Calgary) on Treaty 7 Territory
"You don’t know what the gender of a person, body, or artwork is if it hasn’t been signified to you. If you believe you do than you must either know the artist intimately or you’re relying on the assumption that everyone understands gender the same way you do."
"Until that consent is given or a gender identity is made explicit by verbal, visual, or textual expression, then you are likely relying on cis norms to make that determination."
"... them being a Baby Queer and still figuring out cis-normativity is more reflective of contemporary queer identity in all its complicated glory than any drop-in cis opinion you have."
"... a possible reason that we may not be recognizing gender deviance in an artwork and mis-identifying it as cis: because our race or cultural background is different from that of the artist and we aren’t recognizing the cues that this person’s expression of gender is different from ours."
“Stories” is a feature that Instagram uses to let users post an image that can only be seen for a short duration of time (15 seconds at most) and that will vanish after 24 hours. Unlike a regular image that you upload to your feed, you can see who has watched your story. Last winter, I posted an informal guide to mine that I called, “Ways to Look At Non-Binary Art”. The story was eleven short-lived images in a row, and were just photos I took of my cat wandering around my house overlaid with short text statements about how someone could support non-binary artists by degendering the way they look at and talk about our artwork. That story, to this day, was one of the most watched I’ve ever had.
Now, with Studio and the multi-part "Through Cis-Tinted Glasses", I want to take the time to broaden this conversation beyond an Instagram story and write a more in-depth touchstone of sorts for re-thinking the assumptions that are being made about gender in art observation (and one that won’t disappear after 24 hours).
De-gendering The Way We Look at Figurative Art
FIRST THINGS FIRST
A great way to approach an art work and the artist who made it is to let the work/artist take the initiative. Consider how the artist or the work is already self-describing and whether gender is even involved. The context that an artwork is made within is important, but assuming you’ve accurately distinguished a part of that context based on a cis-normative conclusion is likely doing both yourself, the artist, and the artwork a disservice. If you’re viewing the work within the presence of the artist (say you heard them talk about it at an artist talk, read something they've written on it, or know them irl) then listen to what words the artist uses to describe the work. If the work is figurative then pay attention to how they are describing that figure. Can you discern any explicit signifiers made by the artist that refer to a self-identifying gender for that figure? Or maybe a reaction against one?
If you can’t find any, then pause and consider why you or an audience would come to a conclusion about gender in the work. This critical consideration of the visual, textual, or auditory clues that artists use to signify a gender is a much more fruitful way to start a conversation about an artwork because it will set you up to have the same criticality when moving on to themes that include gender such as feminism, sexuality, new masculinities, etc.
If you’re in a situation where you’re observing an artwork and the artist is present, you should understand that this viewing of the work will be unique from if you had seen the work on its own, without the artist there. Remember: an artwork simultaneously exists as a creation and extension of the artist and as something that exists entirely on its own, within the understanding of the audience. You can experience the former if you know the artist, are having a studio visit, attending a crit, or attending an artist talk. This is the time where you can observe the artwork within the direct and worded context of the person who made it but is also the time when making gendering comments about the artwork without consent can most easily harm the artist and any other queer folks in the space with you. Gendering an artwork without consent or an expressed signifier embedded in the work, reminds both the artist and any other queers in the room that they are considered by the general public as being something they’re not.
If you have the chance to listen to the artist speak about the work, listen. Consider: What words are they using? If there is a figure, how are they describing it? For example: the artist is saying “the body” rather than, “his body”. If the artist isn’t using gendered words at all, or if the artist hasn’t had the chance/doesn’t want to speak — neutralize your terms. Until that consent is given or a gender identity is made explicit by verbal, visual, or textual expression, then you are likely relying on cis norms to make that determination.
This is an especially important thing to keep in mind when viewing self-portraits. Applying a gendered word to a portrait that you don’t know the self-identity of can make the artist and perhaps another viewer dysphoric. (Personal side note: This happens to me constantly. I paint figurative self-portraits (or, as I understand them: portraits of imagined people where I use myself as the model), and often include a body part or article of clothing that is typically sexualized or gendered such as a chest, hips, a pair of underwear, or a dress. When I speak about these figures that use my likeness I always use gender neutral terms and almost always refer to it in the third person. I don’t say, “my skin”, “my hair”, or “my dress”. I say the skin. The hair. The dress. And I always say the body. Not “my body”. However, regardless of how I speak, people (average viewer and artists alike) throw this to the wind and gender it anyways, sometimes pulling a double-whammy and directly following with a “you” when talking about the figure. Example: “The shadows on your body changes, especially around the breasts” — oof.)
Before you’ve been given/observed consent from the artist to use possibly gendered/dysphoria-inducing figurative words to describe something you see, you should use neutral alternatives. For example, instead of saying “breasts” or “tits” you can use chest. Instead of “penis”, “vagina”, “vulva”, or a similarly bio-normative term, you can use groin (I personally avoid “genitals”. Though gender-neutral, it has a simultaneously clinical and sexualized vibe to me. And sexualizing a figure without consent can have harmful effects to someone as well, and is often something that happens to queer — especially racialized — forms).
When you’re contextualizing work within history, politics, or a genre, you should consider the possibility of gendering there as well. For example, inserting a figure into the context of the feminine form in art history is probably cis-normative unless there’s been that crucial signification towards self-identifying as such. And just because you read a body or artwork as having a certain gender, it doesn’t mean that it has to interact with a theme in any certain way.
Now, an important part of contextualizing any artwork is understanding that it does exist within the context of things that are currently harmful realities. So an artwork your see could be made by someone who may very well be participating in cis-normativity and your reading it as thus is a candid evaluation. Or maybe it could … just be cis. It could be a work about cis stuff made by a cis person — cool. That’s only ever a bad (or lazy) thing when the artist is relying on the audience agree-ing on their cis-ness and didn’t critically discern that as a factor to their art making or the way someone will view it.
It’s also possible when you’re cis-norm radar goes off that it’s a queer person knowingly or unknowingly mucking around in cis-normativity. If you’re cis and you suspect the artwork reflects a queer unknowingly participating in cis-normativity, then this is the case where it’s not yours to call out. Any familiarity that you have with the topic of cis-normativity does not compare to the lived reality that the artist has with it. Them being a Baby Queer and still figuring out cis-normativity is more reflective of contemporary queer identity in all its complicated glory than any drop-in cis opinion you have. Instead, acknowledge that you’re both learning about this in different ways and from different sources: them from lived experience, and you from the internet (this essay included). You could also go the extra step and realize how much of a shame it is that you, as a privileged cis person, was able to access information about critical queer identity easier than an actual queer person was. And then consider how a cis person critiquing an artwork by a queer person for being cis, is actually just a demonstration of this privilege.
Another context of being a queer figurative artist and one that is crucial to consider their work within is the historic and present realities of racism and colonialism. Many of the struggles that queer people go through and the views that they have to fight against are directly handed down through white colonialism. This is why any queer allyship that non-racialized people provide has to be anti-colonialist and anti-racist in nature. It’s also a possible reason that a viewer may not be recognizing gender deviance in an artwork and mis-identifying it as cis: because their race or cultural background is different from that of the artist and they aren’t recognizing the cues that this artist’s expression of gender is different from ours. Hair is a good example for a part of our bodies that does not reflect the same thing for different cultures, and therefore wearing it/cutting it has different meanings to different people. Cutting your hair short may indicate a masculinizing process to white people, but keeping your hair long can be a reclamation for people of colour. Being POC and keeping your long hair while still asserting masculinity in a white space is an intersectional gender expression, and an example of why we should wait for explicit, not assumed, signifiers before thinking we understand the gender of someone or thing (in this case, assuming hair length as equating one’s gender would not only be cis-normative, it would also be white-washing).
This goes for assuming other visual cues as well, when applied to both figurative and non-figurative art. Blue/pink as masculine/feminine. Square as masculine, round as feminine. Small as feminine, large as masculine. Domestic as feminine, public as masculine. None of these are universal and are only present as the norm in our minds because the white washing and cis-normativity of our art history education made it that way.
You don’t know what the gender of a person, body, or artwork is if it hasn’t been signified to you. If you believe you do than you must either know the artist intimately or you’re relying on the assumption that everyone understands gender the same way you do. I’m here to tell you we don’t. I’m also here to tell you that once you de-gender the way you look at figurative art you’re understanding of it will be refreshed to the core: all the way through the gallery and studios of contemporary art-making to the annals of history and museums. Your evaluation of a work will either include a context that you never considered, or even completely change your understanding of it.
So instead of wading into the tepid, stagnant waters of cis-normative dialogue to plunk your critique of an artwork onto the surface, careful to not cause ripples — consider throwing it into the impassioned, storm-wracked and glittering waves of intersectional gender and watching how it fares. Your crits, reviews, curatorial essays, and weekend trip to the gallery will be all the better for it.