Brighton-based painter Flo Brooks and Brooklyn-based sculptor Jes Fan, who both feature in the Hayward Gallery exhibition Kiss My Genders, discuss figuration, abstraction, family and identity in this joint interview.
Jes Fan: I really enjoy the fantastical quality of your paintings – they feel like two-dimensional billboards for queer dreaming. I’m interested in discussing how we both approach our trans-masculine identity through such drastically different means – maybe that’s fertile ground to start from.
Flo Brooks: Thank you! I love the image of a billboard for queer dreaming, what a great compliment. I really enjoy your handling and intermingling of different materials, and the pressure points between these textures. The glass ‘globules’ in Systems II and Systems III (both 2018) have a wonderful tension – for me there’s this uneasy sense of slipping, like I’m anticipating the moment when their just-balancing gives way and they hit the ground. I imagine they might smash into tiny shards, or break into small droplets, only to coalesce again into another form.
Looking at your work in Kiss My Genders reminded me of drawing complex cell diagrams in school biology classes, and the fantasies that I’d have while I was engaged in that meticulous activity – creating a whole internal queer world of strange beings and sex and feeling completely comfortable in myself.
JF: In my work, I rely on abstraction as a way to complicate biological identity categories, and often use linear and intricate armatures – for example, the frames in Systems II and Systems III – as an abstract representation of the human body.
Through my periods of dysphoria, I’ve come to acknowledge the distance between my body bag and my interior being. My skin is not a metonym for my self. Perhaps this is why I’ve always shied away from making figurative work. Do you also experience dysphoria? And if so, how does that affect your relationship with figurative painting?
FB: Ah yes, a lot of this makes sense for me too. Some of my recent works, including YessSIR! Back off! Tell me who I am again?! and U Bend but it’s still a trap (both 2018), feature plumbing systems as a stand-in for the human body. I always depict these systems as disrupted, mutated or undermined in some way – they are often blocked by objects, organisms, bodily waste or motifs relating to viruses – to get to a point where it feels closer to a body I understand, one that is continually subject to change and free of biological constraints. I enjoy idioms and metaphors that connect the human body to inanimate forms and systems, as well as the social and cultural taboos that are attached to them. Toilet humour, all that.
FB: And yes, I also experience dysphoria, though I feel it very differently since I’ve started taking Testosterone. It’s far more nuanced these days, and surprising. In terms of figuration, I grew up looking at painters like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bruegel and whatever else I could find in books. I read a lot of fiction, and loved listening to stories that people in my family would share, and making little dioramas and homes for characters I’d modelled. I wanted to create intimate worlds for things. I think that in a lot of ways this sort of activity was an escape from reality – dysphoria, shame, guilt, all that – and a way of creating a space for myself where I felt seen.
I like narrative a lot, telling and hearing stories, the ones where ‘people like me’ are respected and loved for our complexity and quality of character, not because we’re trans or queer, and not in spite of it. I’m really interested in the way that stories – and more generally, language – can reveal things about earlier cultural, social and political preoccupations or beliefs, and I try to keep that in mind in my figurative painting.
I’m also interested in how we arrive at a particular set of beliefs, and in the things that get torn out, misconstrued or inflated along the way. I often try to communicate something of that process in my painting. It can be difficult to employ figuration in a way that avoids essentialising, but for me that difficulty is exciting. The challenge is to instil enough movement and vulnerability into it.
FB: My relationships with my parents and cross-generational care often features in my work, and I’ve explored it a lot in relation to my experience as a queer trans person. I wanted to ask you about your work Mother Is A Woman (2018), where you used estrogen from your mum’s urine to produce a cream. What did your mum think about being asked to be a part of this piece? And more generally, do your relationships with your parents often play a role in your work?
JF: That project was a very, very personal one for me, and the process of opening my art practice to my mother meant a great deal. In my household, as in most conservative Chinese families, emotions are rarely expressed in language – whether that’s speech or body language. Instead, intimacy is expressed through object exchange, almost like a bartering system. For example, if I got good grades in an exam, I’d receive a present or a piece of chicken thigh, or my mom would make my favourite dish. Mother Is A Woman was, in a way, part of that language of object exchange, as well as a way to share my gender identity with my mother.
JF: When I first asked my mom to participate in the piece, she was really opposed to it; she said that urine is a very private material, which I completely agree with. But after I explained the idea behind the piece, I think she began to understand it and also to appreciate how this project tied that whole exhibition together. It wasn’t until the morning I was about to fly out to New York, however, that she reluctantly said to me ‘Look into my purse.’ And there they were – two bottles of urine in a ziploc bag. It was a very moving (and canto-drama infused) gesture. Our relationship really changed after that project.
You’ve talked before about the topic of liminality. How have you explored it in your paintings?
FB: I used to think about liminality a lot, but recently I’ve edged away from it, partly because it has a lot of colonial and ethnographic baggage I didn’t feel comfortable being connected to, and partly because it felt too academic for the way I tend to articulate things. I first discovered the word when my girlfriend at the time bought me a copy of Transgender Warriors (1996) by Leslie Feinberg. In the ‘Portrait Gallery’ section at the back of the book a person called Jennifer Miller, a bearded woman and circus performer (who coincidently appears in a work by Zoe Leonard in Kiss My Genders) said this: ‘…I live in a very liminal place … It means a doorway, a dawn or a dusk. It’s a lovely place. In the theatre, it’s when the lights go out. And before the performance begins.’ I thought it was really beautiful, and it spoke to my trans and queer identities. I try to express something of that in-betweeness, both formally and conceptually, within my painting.
I use collage to work out and build up an image, deliberately painting flat graphic motifs and abstracted elements and contrasting them with more naturalistic sections to generate a kind of friction, or a sense of unease. I also paint people in the midst of doing things, and objects and architectural environments that are in some way unstable or transient – that possess a ‘liminal’ quality. I like to eek this out as much as possible.
JF: Lately I’ve been researching how to make leather, and since I know that you studied at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, I wanted to ask whether you got to study drawing using human carcasses.
FB: Wow, it’s amazing that you’re learning to make leather. And yes, I did. In the first year of university, we spent a day a week in the Science Lab with buckets of human bodies – whole carcasses, parts of heads, arms, hands, feet. Sometimes a whole body would be lying on one of the metal slabs, the chest wide open, and we would draw them as our tutor talked about the muscles in that particular part of the body. The bodies looked small and pale, most of them were Caucasian, it was difficult to ascertain their sex, they all looked very androgynous and hairless, everything bleached out, all the colour seemed to have seeped away. All that was left were these very pale hues of yellow, pink, blue, brown. Several people fainted. I was fascinated by the experience; it was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body, and at the time I don’t think I really felt anything other than what an immense privilege it was to see all these people, to look inside them and to wonder who they had been before.
JF: I get really frustrated when I’m labelled a ‘transgender artist’, it feels essentialising for the sake of a sound bite. It actually happened in the catalogue for Kiss My Genders as well. I often wonder why only certain artists get this treatment. For example, Donald Judd was an engineer for the US Army, why is his interest in angles and cubes not attributed to that particular part of his life? Can an audience, especially the press, only see my art through the context of my transness? There are so many facets of my identity and of my work – this label feels so limiting.
When I’m called a transgender artist, I wonder, do I only make transgender art? I often joke about needing a more elaborate hyphen... like ‘Jes Fan the carb-loving-avid-bottom-trans-masculine-off-centre-ex-Catholic artist’. Perhaps my reluctance to make figurative work is all to do with my suspicion about naming, which I think is the most immediate way to essentialise.
FB: Oh god I really can’t stand being labelled either, urgh! It feels so tedious and yes so limiting. I really resent being asked to speak on behalf of the trans community, too, as if it’s this monolithic thing and as if I can speak for every single individual. This happens in all kinds of conversations and in all parts of life. I find I jump between getting irritated because of the assumption that I’m there to educate, and thinking that I ought to use this platform and my privilege to fire a question back at them, to make them think about what they’re asking. It’s a tough balance.
I like your elaborate hyphen, it’s very stimulating – unlike ‘transgender’ artist which suggests being an artist is sort of secondary or somehow not enough. If I had to make one on a par with yours, mine would be ‘Flo Brooks the animal-loving-trans-masc-actual-gentle-scorpio-devonshire-butch’, hahaha! Maybe something about being raised Roman Catholic too.
FB: I wanted to ask you about the materials you work with, which have included silicone, testosterone and melanin. What is your physical or emotional relationship to these materials?
JF: I often trace the materials I work with back to their source. For example, I commissioned the melanin in the glass globules of Systems II from a biotech company, Brooklyn Bio. I asked the scientist Julie Wolf to harvest melanin from transgenic e-coli in the lab. I’m interested in the buying-selling-bargaining-commissioning of this highly contested, racially charged material, but also how these flecks of pigment are developed from bacteria.
To me, this relates to the way that non-white races have been seen as dirty and infectious, and miscegenation seen as contamination. Using materials in this way allows me to relish in the absurdity of being a body in this day and age. I remember biking back from Atalantic Ave with the melanin in a Styrofoam box in my bike rack, and then opening the box to hold the cold sample in my hands. There’s nothing more absurd than thinking, ‘I just bought melanin! This is what defines my hair and skin colour, and subjects me to certain things in life. And I’m holding it now. How surreal is that?’
FB: I can imagine that holding it was somehow extraordinary and anticlimactic all at the same time. I like that you engage with your materials in that way. I’m reminded of Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos’s disturbing Modernist vision implemented through architecture – the idea of ‘white futurity’ and eugenic purity and of colour as excessive and degenerate. I’m also interested in the way that legacies of discrimination and control secrete themselves through our material world, in how we might ‘see’ remnants of these ideologies, in the physical forms that they take in our daily lives, and in using humour to counterbalance all of this and to draw people in.
JF: This might be a bit of a tangent, but I’ve been thinking a lot about haptic intelligence recently. There seems to be a consensus that we can assess whether an inanimate object – a computer, a robot – is intelligent by the way that it responds to language. Then I think about the many family members of mine who don’t speak English fluently, or about those who are autistic – would they be deemed unintelligent in that context? I’m interested in finding a way to think about and explore intelligence in a more democratic way – one that is not limited to language, but is more intuitive. Right now, this exploration has led me towards haptic and visual intelligence.
FB: This sounds really interesting. How do you see this research manifesting in your future work?
JF: I’m not exactly sure yet, but I’ve noticed that people tend to want to touch, squeeze or caress my works, especially the ones made out of silicone. The surfaces of my sculptures are often so heavily worked on – through processes like sanding and polishing, etc – that people are somehow triggered to reach out and feel them. If the budget allows, I always try to approach my exhibitions as installations; I try to make use of the entire space to create a multi-sensory impression that targets the very follicles of my audience, and gets under their skin.