Fabulous History: the Past, fiction and queer culture
at play in the work of Justin Fitzpatrick
by Paul Clinton
You would be forgiven for thinking that Justin Fitzpatrick believes in the ‘hydraulic view of sexuality’—that uncontrollable desire builds up inside us like steam, driving our actions which, if it were to be released without restriction, would transform society.
Sex, in this picture of the world, is a potent, elemental force inhibited by modernity. Fitzpatrick’s paintings feature images of sexualized strength and organic abandon: homoerotic men in hard hats, and nature running rampant—in one a male construction worker is hooked up to a system of pipes that draw upon his energies. His work also makes frequent reference to the ways in which church, state and capitalism have privatized bodies and pleasures that used to be communal and pagan. In his recent show Underworld at Kevin Space, Vienna, two paintings on show depicted couples in a café—discrete, separate modern consumers—as their bodies begin to mingle and conjoin as a set of curlicues and frivolous, decorative twists. Their pleasures are no longer alienated, not kept in private, nor tied to market principles of consumption or production. Here they become pure, untamed forms.
Themes of repressed sexuality recur throughout his work. For Underworld he made reference to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque—the idea that in the middle ages, towns and villages were one porous body, where sex, defecation and sickness took place in public. Bakhtin argues that it was only as workers became alienated from their labor, and the church privatized the body within the family, that this sense of being part of one mass gave way to increasingly individuated lives. Even as Fitzpatrick responds to stories of persecution, he does so generatively through the use of gallows humor or absurdism. In the middle of Kevin Space, the notoriously prudish St. Thomas Aquinas appeared as a scowling, pinched face on a dustpan and brush, ready to clean up filth in both the literal and figurative senses.
In his 2017 exhibition at Galerie Sultana in Paris, Fitzpatrick drew upon Arthur Evans’s Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture (1978). Evans, a member of 1970s gay liberation movements, makes the rather fanciful, evocative argument that many people burned as witches in the middle ages were actually being persecuted for being queer. Here it is specifically gay sex which has been restricted in order to facilitate the containment and reproduction of society—or to divide and conquer by persecuting minority desires. By likening the invisible threat of homosexuality as magic, to fears around infection during the AIDS crisis, Fitzpatrick aims to recuperate both by making his artwork into a virus that spreads back through history to find the latent queerness where it has been denied. Monks appear joined at the cock, the homosexual collapsed into the homosocial where it is so often the inadmissible bond between members of an all-male society. In his show at Seventeen F-R-O-N-T-I-S-P-I-E-C-E, he took to the making of sigils featuring queer couples. For the uninitiated, these are graphic spells, a form of representation which causes change in the world, an acknowledgement of how representations do not just record but produce subjects.
The past for Fitzpatrick calls back to a time before what you did in bed became your identity. His paintings shown in the Seventeen show have the feeling of medieval illuminated manuscripts, marginal spaces where monks would sneak in subversive content that the biblical text would explicitly condemn. This work refers to a time before the Enlightenment or later in the 19th century, when the categories of heterosexual, homosexual and everything in between were invented. A short story written to accompany the show (writing is a major part of the artist’s work) describes an 18th-century court ritual in which male courtiers show their behinds, but then scowl at the narrator. It is never explained clearly whether the writer is too fey for a proto-gay community, or too gay and risks disrupting the straightness of the scene which might just be read as boys playing pranks. The shift from an early modern separation of desire from identity, through to the idea that who you fuck is who you are, is depicted as restrictive for the straight majority as well as the homosexual minority.
Queerness is disturbing, not because it is different, but because it emphasizes the unruly, multifaceted sexuality of all people. It is threatening because it might disrupt the closed world of coupledom or the family unity, what Bruce Benderson in his polemic Against Marriage has described as “the nuclear family isolation of the suburbs” in which people are sheltered from the political and social variety of life. Here is one of the contemporary relevancies of Fitzpatrick’s work, the concern with problems of gay assimilation, the most obvious version of which is the fight for marriage equality. The all-male construction workers may well be involved in creating gay suburbs, the taming of sexuality going hand in hand with the gentrification of neighborhoods.
But signs that Fitzpatrick holds a more nuanced view of sexuality and society than the hydraulic model can be seen most readily at the level of style. Whilst the artist makes reference to amorous nature unrestricted, his renderings of it are highly constructed and distanced. Take the paintings of bodies joining over a table: shown in cross-section, they look like an architectural plan, and the decorative twists that connect them resemble the highly stylized organic forms of art nouveau. This is artifice. Queer subjects have rightly long been suspicious of claims to nature, to essential gender, desire or self, beyond or beneath social constructs. The argument that something is natural is often used to claim that anything unlike it is unnatural and therefore undesirable. His treatment of his sources allows for such ambiguities. The cold, flat conjoining of bodies could just as easily be the impersonal reduction of people to interchangeable consumers as representations of some primordial, erotic communality.
The construction worker hooked up to pipes hangs flaccid, drained rather than empowered by the harnessing of his desire. Fitzpatrick is all too aware that sexual freedom can be turned to profit, with struggles for identity creating new markets so long as they are contained within existing social forms. So the hard-hatted men in his paintings may well be signs of assimilated homosexuals buying their first home after getting married, reproducing the suburban model rather than forging new models of society. In his Self-digestion Sigils (2017), images of gay couples are shown in the belly of a swan, a representation of metaphor where one thing is placed inside the other—the way diverse sexuality becomes produced as an identity, which can then be commodified and controlled. Gay culture, in its search for a picture of itself in the past, and tolerance in the present, is at risk of eating itself.
JUSTIN FITZPATRICK (b. 1985, Dublin, Ireland) lives and works in Brussels. Recent solo exhibitions include: Underworld, Kevin Space, Vienna; F-R-O-N-T-I-S-P-I-E-C-E, Seventeen, London; and Uranus, Galerie Sultana, Paris. Recent group exhibitions include: Whisky et Tabou, Musée Estrine, Saint-Rémy de Provence; Amazing Girls / It’s Complicated, Kevin Space, Vienna; The Bloody Chamber, The Koppel Project, London; and Bloomberg New Contemporaries, ICA, London.
PAUL CLINTON is a writer based in London, and lecturer in Curating at Goldsmiths. In 2018 he curated the exhibition Forbidden to Forbid at Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris, and the queer artist’s book fair Strange Perfume at South London Gallery. Forthcoming in 2019 will be his book Other Hunting published by Ma Bibliothèque.
Courtesy: the artistt, Galerie Sultana, Paris and Seventeen, London