The second in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”
by Carl Gopalkrishnan
Between 2008-2012, I created paintings with an ‘old school’ queer cultural affinity with vintage Broadway and Hollywood musicals. I used the life of Judy Garland as an internal narrative arc, a reflective tool, as part of my personal response to the 9/11 consciousness we inhabit today. It became a metaphorical exploration of American politics from the period of the Obama/Clinton primaries, through further conflict in the Middle East amid the background of drones and the war on terror. I think Judy kept asking the same question too, but kept singing the whole time, so keeping her fucked up life beside me as I painted was oddly grounding.
To me, Garland is more than a gay icon. She represents the best and worst of America – and their inevitable interoperability. The flipside of her talent helped me to understand the American partisan split personality in a more sympathetic way. I also had no difficulty with being sympathetic because I can’t not be sympathetic to one side of Judy without acknowledging the damage on the other side. And this ‘otherness’ in my paintings is how I conceive what is queer in this series of paintings. This led me to looking at Hollywood movies and musicals as metaphors for the political intransigence of both Bush and Obama’s foreign policies. I call the series The Assassination of Judy Garland, because I feel that we are now separated into those that see Judy in 2 dimensional tragic terms; and those that see how tragedy shaped her genius in glorious 3D.
I also used French medieval epic poetry – chansons de geste – roughly translated as songs of heroic deeds because they were used at that time to support the political narratives of the Crusades in ways that reminded me of how many Hollywood products supports the War on Terror. So the queer lens I created for these paintings is a prescription lens made for a specific time and place. And this lens acts as a screen to both hide and reveal motivations and desires, as much the screen icons I reference. So the modern political stage I see is through recent history (Judy Garland’s life) and medieval history (chansons de geste).
As a queer-identifying man of colour with multiple geopolitical and sexual identities, I found myself directly affected by the political climate of the last decade. It was the first time as a painter that I was looking outside to constructively use what was inside me to create an alternative to the narrative War on Terror, which always insists that I use my cultural heritage to position my loyalties in a dangerous time. When I looked around to find how I could use my queer identity, I found that it was so busy trying on clothes that it had gone way beyond the body it was made to clothe. It had changed as I had aged.
People seem to forget that queer theory breathes within a time of terror that smashes lenses and burns books. It fancies itself immune. But I could not find a queer framework that helped me to paint what I saw. I no longer understood what I call the new normative queer, and so I returned to what I knew was ‘naff’ and old school. I allowed myself to visually languor in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1950s. I felt quite alienated from the new normative queer climate influenced by a hyper-masculinized LGBTI culture that was becoming increasingly nationalistic in it’s desire to go beyond its backroom history into the light of mainstream acceptance. Part of that process seems to relegate our screen culture history into the domain of soft power forever, which I really resist. Screen culture has a power equal to that of the chansons de geste, which could inspire entire populations to lay down their lives through songs orally memorised and sung from village to village in the time of The Crusades. So I painted within that retrospective space, choosing sense over sensibility, perhaps.
I have taken away from these paintings a deeper appreciation for how our queer histories have become silent pictures that sit patiently and move slowly behind the interactive and hyperactive edges of this new normative queer. So while I reference moving pictures, the surreality in my paintings is happening on the silent screen inside us. Applied to the bigger stage, this screen can affect momentous change. We should respect that power.
And Starring Benjamin Netanyahu as Norman Maine (2010)