I was planning to improvise on remembered visual tropes from golden era Hollywood actresses’ head shots.1 I finished up with this surreal agglomeration of objects and anatomy, combining male and female gender signifiers. Initially I cringed. I didn’t like the idea of viewers thinking that this image somehow revealed my desires, or my own identity, or that I thought this a worthy subject for a painting. I think my reaction was a throw-back to internalised transphobia and self-loathing from growing up gay and queer and confused. It’s the kind of self-censoring that Rory O’Neill described brilliantly here, in his drag persona Panti Bliss.
From my teens to my twenties I was fascinated with exaggeratedly glamorous representations of cis women, but felt uncomfortable and uninterested in drag acts, transvestitism, or anything involving a male gendered body combined with female signifiers. The only cross-dressing act I enjoyed was Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna, which I loved, perhaps because he was known to be heterosexual and I felt comfortable that the gender disruption was contained within the conventions of character comedy. When I was eighteen I saw David Hoyle performing as The Divine David, and that opened all sorts of doors to self-awareness, for which I am eternally grateful.
I also drew hundreds of images of glamorised females, which I now believe was an outlet for feelings related to transgenderism, although those feelings didn’t extend to a desire to cross-dress or modify my own body. Creating images of these women functioned as a way of vicariously being these women, although I wasn’t conscious of that motivation until later, so in a sense this relates to what I’ve written before about automatism, subconscious referencing and unintentional figurative content. I still believe that when I paint a certain type of female imagery, it’s an outlet for some kind of repressed transgenderism.1603j Queer Portrait II was another painting which began as a picture of an imagined cis woman, but finished looking more like a man in drag, possibly due to the proportions of the face and the exaggerated wig-like hairstyle. Once again, my initial reaction was to dismiss and repress it, as a “failed” image of female glamour, as opposed to a positive image of a queer or transgendered figure.
Finally, there is this painting, in which I consciously tried to broach the relationship between my painting and my gender identity. It is a first step towards shaking off my internalised transphobia and freely exploring this subject in and through my painting.
I’m also interested in the way that “expression” has been such a contentious concept in art theory over the last century or two. The etymology of the word express, to “push out”, seems relevant in relation to the way artistic “expression” has allowed me to “push out” otherwise repressed aspects of my own psychology, from childhood to the present day.
I need to do more research on this subject, and on gender generally. I’ll be coming back to this for sure.