RESEARCH SCOPE AND MOTIVATIONS
In a culture where vision reigns supreme, identity tends to describe how one sees oneself and how one is seen by others. Visual art not only records and produces identities, but also pictures relationships of power between them. My research investigates how marginalized identities—especially those of transgender and disabled people—have been made to appear (or disappear) in art. Because transgender people do not fit neatly within fixed gender categories and disability is as much a product of inaccessible environments as it is of an individual's physical or intellectual condition, art history that follows binary logics of male/female and able/disabled can make transgender and disabled figures difficult to discuss. Thus, I look to interdisciplinary methods of transgender, intersex, and disability studies when considering sex, gender, and disability in art. This approach produces new insights into how hierarchies of gendered embodiment that organize US-American culture appear in art. Furthermore, my work also demonstrates how the visual and material information that art objects contain gives critical access to aspects of transgender and disability history that are not yet written.
My dissertation, titled Deep Cuts: Transgender History in US-American Art after World War II, explores transgender history and identity in US-American art through the work of Forrest Bess (1911-1977), Candy Darling (1944-1974), Greer Lankton (1958-1996), and Cassils (b. 1971). I will complete my dissertation as a 2020-2021 Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and file with Stanford University by June 15, 2021. In my first chapter, I explore how the abstract symbolism in paintings by Bess allowed him to stealthily present his controversial theory of gender to audiences that would have at best disagreed with him and at worst attacked him for what would likely have been seen as perverse ideas. The next chapter reads photographs of Darling, one of Warhol's Superstars, through her journals and letters to understand how her image challenged the very idea of gender authenticity that was (and still is) used to undermine transsexual identity in the 1960s and 1970s. In chapter three, I examine how Lankton’s dolls from the 1980s and 1990s functioned as surrogate materials for the artist’s body, vehicles for imagining the potential of the body within and beyond the limits of medicalized gender transformation, and sites of play between binary extremes of male and female genders. In my last chapter, I consider how Cassils's performance works from the early 2000s through to the present challenge twentieth-century US-American models of medical gender transformation by laying bare the capacity that all bodies have to be masculine, feminine, or both and by visualizing the violence against (particularly black and brown) transgender people that these models incite.
By focusing on how these works of art undermine strict divisions between categories of “man” and “woman,” this dissertation will construct a more capacious picture of gender in art than the field of art history has offered thus far by contributing to the growth of the subfield of transgender art history. Transgender visibility in art has largely occurred outside of traditional art history through the 2017 anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility and earlier work by Jay Prosser and Jack Halberstam. However, a few scholars—including Roland Betancourt in his forthcoming book Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages—are working to bring historical depth to this growing subfield of art history. I aim to do the same within the recent past of US-American art.
I focus on US-American art after World War II because the US became a springboard for contemporary global movements in art and transgender medicine after Nazi occupation forced the centers of both modern art and transsexual medicine to move from Europe to the US in the 1930s and 1940s. Starting in the 1950s US-American doctors used “transsexuality” to describe a medical condition wherein patients longed to become the “opposite” sex. By the 1990s, “transgender” emerged in the US as self-declared social identity not predicated on desires for surgery or hormone treatment. In recent decades, “transgender” has expanded to include not just people who were assigned female at birth but identify as male (or vice versa), but also people who disidentify with compulsory binary logics of gender altogether. My dissertation traces how this evolution is seen in and has shaped US-American art. As many aspects of transgender history are rooted in the materiality of the body and art history studies the materiality of objects, my book will also demonstrate why art objects are key to mining the depths of transgender history.
PUBLICATION HISTORY AND PLAN
The first chapter of this dissertation will be published in the Archives of American Art Journal no. 61 in spring 2022. An editor with Duke University Press has also expressed interest in potentially working with me to transform this dissertation into a book. This process will include revising my existing text and adding two additional chapters on artists Tourmaline (b. 1983) and Chris E. Vargas (b. 1986). In my new fifth chapter, I will describe how films, performances, and installations by Tourmaline bring critical attention both to ongoing legacies of white supremacist, transphobic violence (physical, rhetorical, and institutional) and to the power of speculation imagination, futurity, and leisure in the production of contemporary transgender art. My sixth chapter will be chapter-length epilogue dedicated to Chris E. Vargas’s Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA), that will discuss how MOTHA cultivates novel approaches to archiving transgender art and visual histories while challenging mainstream institutional forces that tend to render gender transformation invisible or make gender appear to be more intrinsic and stable than it is. This epilogue will expand on my article, “Chris Vargas’s Consciousness Razing: From Forgetting to Futurity” which was published in Transgender Studies Quarterly in February 2020 and considers how Vargas reimagined George Segal’s Gay Liberation Monument (1980) to reflect forgotten histories of participation in the Stonewall Rebellion by transgender people of color.
Concurrent with completing my dissertation, I have also co-edited the August 2020 issue of the Journal of Visual Culture dedicated to transgender visual culture with Dr. Kirstin Ringelberg. In our introduction, “Prismatic Views: A Look at the Growing Field of Transgender Art and Visual Culture Studies,” I assert that the visual is central to transgender history, and therefore art objects are key to the mining the depths of trans experiences that the most important texts in trans studies address. This journal issue was born out of the 2018 College Art Association panel called “Keeping Up Appearances: Historicizing Transgender Art,” which was the first in the conference’s history to focus entirely on transgender art history. For the second edition of the book Art and Queer Culture (Phaidon, 2019), I also increased the representation of international transgender and intersex artists in one of the defining volumes of queer art history through entries for Evelyn Taocheng Wang, Vaginal Davis, Giuseppe Campuzano, and others.
In addition to this work, I am also researching a second book project focused on disability in US-American art. This project transforms the methods I use in my investigation of how binary logics of sex and gender eclipse transgender history in art to ask how and to what end disability is seen—or not seen—in US-American art. Historians of US-American art have investigated how individual experiences of disability are portrayed in works of art like Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World or how disability history and culture manifests in US-American material culture. Yet, much remains unsaid about how disability itself is produced through art objects. By using methods of contemporary disability studies that characterize disability not as a product of individual capacity but rather of environmental accessibility to examine works of art, this project will question how we identify disability in the visual and material field and contribute to the emerging field of disability art history.
This project focuses on works of art made in the United States because of work by disability activists in the US that led to globally unprecedented legislation like the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Artworks at the heart of this project include: portraits of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) that disguise his disability; performances, paintings, and poetry by Frank Moore (1946-2013) who created San Francisco’s Outrageous Body Revue cabaret in the late 1970s and was later targeted by Jesse Helms for obscenity; photographic documentation of the protest event Capitol Crawl by Tom Olin that was pivotal to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990; fiber sculptures by Judith Scott (1943-2005)—the reception of which raises questions about the limits of formalism in addressing works by neurodivergent artists; multimedia works by Park MacArthur (b. 1984) that interrogate issues of spatial accessibility for wheelchair users; and sound art, drawings, and installations by Christine Sun Kim (b. 1980) that explore visual language and her experiences as a Deaf artist in a predominantly hearing (art)world.