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Interview: Richard Dodwell on Queer British Art

Duncan Grant, Bathing, 1911. Oil paint on canvas 2286 x 3061 mm © Tate


(Tate Britain, until 1 October)

Richard Dodwell is a painter, sculptor and performance maker based in London. He is interested in found objects, life writing and the ocean. 

Tom Powell: When the exhibition was announced, Janet Street Porter questioned how appropriate a Queer art exhibition at Tate would be. She wrote that the society’s ‘obsession with sexuality dims our ability to simply respond to and enjoy great art for what it is.’ What would you say to JSP and those that might agree with her? 

Richard Dodwell: Seeing that homosexuality has only been decriminalised barely 50 years I find Janet Street Porter's reaction bigoted and short-sighted. For years, homosexuality and queer identity was something that was hidden, evoked in art only through suggestion and subtlety. A lot of queer artists, as a result, suffered immensely from harbouring a secret that society thought sinister or unnatural, with only them and those closest to them knowing the truth. Yes, art can be appreciated for its own sake, and it should be, but saying there is no need for a specific show that redeems hundreds of years of queer oppression and displays the richness of queer artists who were making work despite knowing their desire could lead to arrest, is frankly appalling. 

TP: And yet you’ve said yourself that the exhibition made you feel a bit like you were being buried alive or ‘nudged back into the closet' - can you explain that reaction?

RD: The exhibition itself is a big disappointment. It lacks in a certain curatorial finesse and attentiveness to spacing and light, not to mention the vibrant politics of queer history (and thus queer art history). I thought there was little dialogue between the work throughout the exhibition; some rooms were dark and crowded, others were light and spacious. There was so much text on the walls; as if each work had to be deeply explained and justified -- even work that wasn't that exceptional and wouldn't otherwise be displayed in the Tate or any other decent gallery's collection. That was quite patronising. The text itself used some of the same code and coyness of the art of the artists featured, at a time when their sexuality would have warranted imprisonment or chemical castration. Indeed, the chronological journey of it didn't really evoke anything powerful either; it felt like a small regional museum's exhibit: unremarkable, inoffensive, and lacking the anger, sadness and sexiness that has defined queer art history in the time period that the show is about. It was all very polite and sort of winking at you in that prissy, theatre-ey way; replicating much of the burying of queer lives that has dominated our history, rather than being a defiant statement. I felt a sense of it all being made palatable to a non-queer audience; the kind who I saw pulling up outside the Tate in their chauffeur driven Jaguars on the opening night. There was so much missing: early Derek Jarman, Howard Hodgkin, Denton Welch... Sure, you can't include everybody, every voice; but then isn't that what queerness seeks to redeem from the dark closet of history? 

Laura Knight (1877-1970), Self-Portrait, 1913. Oil on canvas 152.4 x 127.6 cm. National Portrait Gallery (London, UK).

TP: And the curators specifically used the word 'Queer' in the title to explore other LGBT+ stories within this history. The exhibition presents several queer readings of works and approaches to gender fluidity - I wonder whether you think they were successful? 

RD: I think the exhibition as a whole is really unqueer - the readings you mention are often basic and derived from some of the most off-the-shelve queer theory. In addition, the accompanying text sits rather clunkily next to the work. It's often long and muddled - obsessive about explanation and contextualising - it feels nervous; fixated on a certain way of speaking about queerness. Why? I found that deeply patronising to the creative genius of some of the work presented. I would even argue that the Tate has a problem with class: for instance, the love relation between a master and his servant is highlighted in class terms rather than simply referencing the passionate love between two queer people. 

I think the approaches to gender fluidity that you mention were some of the worst dealt with aspects of the exhibition: gender fluidity was and is so much more than a night at the theatre, prissy dinner parties for rich white people and putting on your aunt's dress. For a lot of people it was matter of life and death; an expression or feeling of a fluid self that manifests itself in sometimes not so obvious, clichéd ways. In trying to provide a chronological journey through ‘queer’ art the curators have forgotten the most important aspects behind the word queer: the liminal, the in-between and the often indefinable. 

Queerness is a conversation between the living and the dead. There is a deep well of tragedy behind some of the artists featured (for example, Dora Carrington or Keith Vaughan) that is hugely underemphasised and often absent from the exhibition, perhaps to make some feel less ashamed, or guilty - perhaps to make it less dreary. I felt my sense of my queer predecessors obscured; myself pushed backwards; risking burial by text. The final room features Hockney and Bacon together, two of the greatest artists of the century, and yet the room left me feeling vacant, the conversation between their work, and that which came before it, entirely lacking in the emotion and affect that such an exhibition should elicit. Fluidity, in whatever context, is so much more than signposting. 

Keith Vaughan. Drawing of two men kissing 1958–73 Tate Archive © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

TP: So do you feel that the interpretation is trying to be too authoritative about something that should have instead been the start of a conversation? Is it trying to be a documentation of what Queer means, for the benefit of those who don't understand it, rather than an exploration of what art can be and mean within a Queer frame of reference? 

RD: Being authoritative is fine as long as it's done in a way that doesn't obscure or mask the truth of something. The show seemed to replicate the same codedness; the same uniformity and droll way in which queer history has been presented under years of heterosexual orthodoxy. Like I said, it all felt like a grim regional museum you maybe visited once on a school trip - the magic, the power and the myriad and complex ways in which queerness has been lived and expressed across painting, sculpture, film, photography and other forms of art was lacking. That's not to say the work wasn't stunning. I just think hung differently, with different lighting and use of the space, and the inclusion of more diverse works (sculpture being one I thought particularly lacking, as well as more abstract forms of queer art from the early 20th century, plus more work from people of colour / non-white would have been good). I suppose it was trying to be a documentation for other's understanding, but in doing so I think it lost our own voice and expression as queer artists. It is our history too, after all. 

TP: A lot of your own art is performance based; in that respect, do you think the exhibition’s cut-off date of 1967 is a bit jarring? Alex Farquharson talked about this being a 'pre-history of the queer present'. Do you feel like there's another exhibition that actually needs bridge that gap?

RD: Absolutely. I think the responses to the Tate's show, which among my colleagues has been largely mixed, although receiving complimentary reviews from the press, mean that another show is necessary. One that'll blow people's socks off. It is imperative that this gap is now bridged, between the dark times of legal persecution and the explosion of voices that emerged in the 70s and 80s, before AIDS took us back several decades, and that queer art is brought to the fore, bold and unapologetic, in all its anger, grief and unrivalled sexiness and diversity.

Richard Dodwell, March Hare, mudlarked jaw bone, shell and razor clam, 2017; Floating Man, oil on pizza base, 2017

Richard Dodwell, Radio Wave, mudlarked ceramic and jaw bone, 2017

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