Writing and photographs by J Houston J Houston is an artist & photographer working in Brooklyn, NY and sometimes Pittsburgh, PA. Art work by Théo Bignon from his August 2019 solo exhibition titled, Indecent Exposure at Bunker Projects
First Friday on Penn Avenue is busy as usual, even on this muggy evening post-storm. The gallery crawl might be about the beer as much as the art, which for me tonight is a refreshing change from the somewhat stuffy nature of museums in the area. After wandering down Penn, I walk up the narrow staircase that opens into Bunker Projects. Usually the space feels small with the large amount of viewers, but the bright lights and white fabrics open up the space. It’s often hard to tell if the music playing at Pittsburgh openings is part of the show or not, but tonight’s music -- chosen deliberately by the artist -- transports me from the loud gatherings on the street into a quieter cocktail hour. I’m particularly interested in this shift; so much of gay culture is seen as existing at night, in the darkness, secretive.
Théo Bignon challenges this and pays homage to facets of Pittsburgh interiors by highlighting the fireplace and adding ornamental moulding to that already existing. This bright, sitting-room atmosphere results in a different take on queerness in domesticity, a representation I’m invested in. What does it mean to make the nuclear home into room for our community? It’s a generous gesture to turn a gallery into a place for queer bodies to exist rather than only highlight the art -- especially in Pittsburgh where walking down the street openly queer is not explicity safe. While I’m not convinced the perfection of this bright white room quite reflects the mundane nature of the everyday, it references it enough to bring us out of a nightlife context and into a fantasy in-between.
Having read a statement and short bio on Bignon, I’m unsure what I’m about to see once I get past the ambiance and into the individual works. I’ve seen a lot of white ‘cis gay’ work from men -- will Bignon complicate this at all? At first, I’m concerned he won’t: on the first wall, I see a pair of Calvin Klein underwear, easily an art trope by mid-2019 and often used by gay and straight men alike in painting and performance. As a symbol of hyper-masculinity, commodification, the current time? I am never quite sure.
While the beading is beautiful, it does not seem to transform the underwear enough to subvert the reading of white Calvin Klein briefs. I have seen some of Bignon’s prior work cutting up and sewing back together Hanes underwear; the combination of performative action, different brand recognition, and wearable nature feels more successful and complicated in using masculine briefs as a metaphor.
Thinking of performative action, ejaculate is listed as a material on two of the pieces in the show. What I initially find enticing about this material is the objects before me -- in which ejaculate is not immediately apparent -- exist as proof of a completed action. However, the embroidery muddies this performative action with one of its own. The pieces are smaller and, in this context, feel as if they need more space to hold both the actions of embroidering and ejaculating. While I would like to see more of this interesting juxtaposition, the ejaculate becomes more of a shock factor than a lead towards this comparison. Perhaps this is due to the seemingly small amount of ejaculate and beading, indicating less repetition. I’m hoping for both the embroidering and ejaculating to be pushed further in a less curated manner to bring viewers closer to the “untamable sexuality” which Bignon wrote about in the show statement.
Despite this, Bignon’s casing and framing -- referential to an anthropological museum -- complicates the reading of the pieces in an interesting way. What does it mean to take these fabrics off the body and engage with them as relics, evidence of existence? Beauty in these pieces is an important entry-point for all audiences. We desire to be close to the delicate fabrics and embroidery, unthreatened from the lack of bodily presence, only to be surprised by ejaculate on mesh or pornographic clippings turned into wallpaper snippets. This initial palatability to nonqueer audiences -- while historically tied to respectability politics -- can absolutely be a contemporary tool for drawing in those who are unfamiliar or repelled, offering a meeting ground.
An exception to this anthropology, Tank Top consists of a mesh panel hanging from the ceiling with glass beads and sequins referencing a body in space. As such, Tank Top feels different than the others. The spatial presence combines this beauty with bodily existence, instead of a mounted relic. I’m not sure which I prefer; they are both successful in framing the viewer’s approach to the work through specificity of form.
Us also feels like it is starting to get past this palatability, using leather and rubber juxtaposed with pearls and ribbons. Even the strange stand, while referential to a museum vitrine, also mimics a bench for a body to occupy or bend over. The intricacy and beauty of the embroidery on this also sets it apart. Instead of feeling as though I want more (ie. bigger, more complex, more fragile) I found myself spending a longer amount of time with this piece thinking about the other objects that are made from these materials.
To conclude, I enjoyed existing as a queer person in Bignon’s fantasy living room for a moment on Friday evening and am excited to see how he pushes this work forward.
A Note from the author, J Houston: It’s important to note a few things surrounding the context of this writing: the reading of Bignon’s work is complicated by identity, something he leans into in his show statement, and Pittsburgh generally does not have strong art writing or criticism because the community is close. There’s a face to every review, every show. I write all of this from a place of love and desire for the community, specifically the queer arts community here, to grow and challenge itself -- something we have not experienced head-on in a while.