Critics’ Picks

  • Tom Burr, Deep Purple, 2000/2019, wood, stain, 6’6" x 82' x 17”.

    “Queer Abstraction”

    Des Moines Art Center
    4700 Grand Avenue
    June 1–September 8, 2019

    Queer critique is, among other things, the best type of bad behavior. In mocking or destabilizing cultural orthodoxy, queer critiques temper, and sometimes obliterate, the conventional. Surveying artists whose work complicates the formal language and conceptual parameters of abstraction, this exhibition demonstrates how “queer art” can disarticulate and reimagine routinized aesthetics, rather than exclusively illustrate desire or difference.

    One of the first works visitors encounter in the exhibition is a canvas by Elijah Burgher, displayed on the floor. The work’s placement, along with its drips and dots, immediately recalls Jackson Pollock’s technique. But while Pollock’s paintings were eventually hung, their hermeticism restored, Burgher’s work remains relational: Text adhered to the floor invites visitors to traverse its surface. Considerations of space motivate other artists in the exhibition as well, including Tom Burr, whose Deep Purple, 2000/2019, reinterprets Richard Serra’s notorious Tilted Arc from 1981. Although it mimics the original proportions and angle of Serra’s rusty curve, Burr’s take—composed of a series of wood planks and supports—is easily disassembled and transported, forgoing any impression of site specificity. Burr’s emphasis on a material history of transition replaces Serra’s insistence on authorial presence, perhaps reflecting the fluidity germane to queer identity.

    Other artists strategically disavow pure abstraction and its rigid focus on formalism. Carrie Moyer’s sumptuous canvases insert pleasure into nonobjective forms, delighting in Frankenthaler-like stains, hard-edge abstraction, textural friction, and glimpses of genitalia. Rather coyly, Prem Sahib tinkers with the literalism of Minimalism and its “specific objects” via a souvenir from his own queer biography: Roots, 2018, is a resin-covered replica of a steel water fountain from a gay club in the artist’s hometown. These sly subversions (along with particularly compelling pieces by Mark Bradford, Harmony Hammond, and Sheila Pepe) poke through the historically reified veneer of abstraction to repurpose, confound, or elide its dictations.