RESEARCH SCOPE AND MOTIVATION
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 troubling 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, queer, 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.
During World War II, Nazi occupation forced the centers of modern art and transsexual medicine to move from Europe to the United States; my forthcoming book explores the legacy of this convergence in modern and contemporary American art and cultivates transgender art history as a distinct subfield. In my first chapter, I explore how the abstract symbolism in paintings by Forrest Bess (1911-1977) allowed the artist 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 surely have been seen as perverse ideas. The next chapter interprets photographs of Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (1944-1974) by Richard Avedon, Richard Bernstein, and Peter Hujar through her journals and letters to understand how her figure 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 dolls by Greer Lankton (1958-1996) present gender transformation a form of sculptural metamorphosis while also responding to cultural attitudes about transsexuality in the 1980s and 1990s. In my last chapter, I investigate how contemporary performance works by Cassils (b. 1971) activate a specifically trans masculine art history that is rooted feminist performance history and histories of gay male aesthetics and point to racial contingencies within transgender experiences.
My new work for chapter five will focus on the ways in which Tourmaline's (b. 1983) films and photography deploy historical imagination and speculative futurity to centralize joy, leisure, and play within capacious narratives of contemporary black trans life. My final chapter will attend the ways in which Chris E. Vargas’s (b. 1986) Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) reimagines transgender object archives and considers how to preserve the cultural nuances of transgender history when the meaning of “transgender” is still evolving and often contested.
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.