Queer Street Art, Gender Histories and the Function of Line: The Artwork of Jeffrey Cheung
Jeffrey Cheung is an Oakland-based artist who was exhibited at Edo Salon and Gallery during the Lower Haight Artwalk in San Francisco this past September.
Cheung’s gender bending practice works along the lines of Grayson Perry, Jerome Caja or Mike Kelley. However, where better known queer art has championed the reappropriation of grotesque, messy and/or disjointed aesthetic elements, Cheung has employed a smooth, linear style reminiscent of classical female nudes. His work reminds me of Egon Schiele’s in the way that it employs line. Also, Lucian Freud’s depictions of realistic bodies, in all their fullness and glory share similarities with Cheung’s work. However, Cheung maintains a lightness and a playful sensibility that is not commonly found in nude portraits.
His work does not fit into any readymade category of style. Rather, he incorporates well-trodden aesthetic conventions (like the absence of background) with male/transgender subjects, and a non-naturalistic, yet not completely abstracted style, to create a new take on the nude portrait. His hermaphroditic figures function as motifs for the universal human, who is willing to enjoy themselves through play, despite the ugliness that is inevitably part of life. Many of his pieces are large-scale (10 x 10ft. and beyond) and the use of scale as a device for articulating authority has worked out in a meaningful inversion of power. Pornography is usually small-scale, found in magazines between the covers, protected from public reception. By making such large-scale works, Cheung is affirming that his art is not something to be hidden away, but something to rejoice in.
For the exhibit at Edo Salon and Gallery, Cheung painted a massive nude on the wall that added a dimension of delinquency to the gallery space. An arm of Cheung’s work is devoted to street art: "I didn't see a lot of queer street art, and I wanted to see more of it," he says. "I wanted to make something that people like — something positive." Cheung locates the underrepresentation of queer art in the street art scene as a problematic gap that omits an element of the local community culture. He is a forerunner of queer street art in San Francisco, and it is exactly this type of public exposure that trumpets the pride that so many queer artists and people endorse in more private ways.
By covering a wall in the Mission District, he breaks down stereotypical ideas about street art as a criminal activity and about queer art as soft. Confounding these generalizations, Cheung’s Mission piece, Thanks Dad, displays an acute sensitivity to the local zeitgeist of San Francisco. However, street art is not Cheung’s main mode of expression. His work employs a variety of mediums, ranging from linocut prints, to paintings, to collage. Usually his subject is one or several men who do not fit the classical nude model, but who nonetheless reference this mode of representation. Unabashedly posing, these characters are not shy about their rolls of fat, boney legs, long noses, bald heads or modest penises. Instead, they are portrayed as proud of their bodies—luxuriating in the authoritative status imparted to them by Cheung’s use of larger-than-life scale.
Going a step further, they are proud of homosexuality, caught playfully in the act in pieces like Red and Pre Raphael Villet. However, nudity is not always a cue for sexuality in Cheung’s work; it also functions as the default setting for human representation. The prevalence of nudity in his work makes it less shocking and more benign. The figures are stripped naked before the eyes of the viewer and in some sense this makes them vulnerable; but they are also so shameless in their vulnerability that an atmosphere of unfettered love and play comes across sweetly. It is like a child’s nudity. These are not aggressive depictions of sex.
The absence of women in Cheung’s work seems like an easy target for criticism, but I would contest that women are in his paintings. Their ghost is present everywhere, haunting the actual nakedness of the characters. In pieces like Pregnant, Cheung uses an archival female nude form—the fertile woman. His character’s stomach is bulging with nascent life, the nipples and pectorals are elongated to resemble breasts, and the contented cradling of the stomach is a familiar image. The fetal position as well as the closed eyes signal to the viewer that the subject is comfortable and the attention is focused inward—the subject is not self-conscious in the least about their hermaphroditism.
Another example is the Edo Salon wall piece, where the character wears only red lipstick and painted red nails—posing coquettishly in large form, holding court over the salon. All of these conventionally female gender cues stand in for an overt female subject. Moreover, by using a non-female character, Cheung begins to atone for the centuries of female objectification in art. Certainly second wave feminists who feel that men should have to go through all of the same injustices women have, might find Cheung’s work a pleasant and humorous inversion of objectification. I must mention that the objectification of figures in Cheung’s work is obviously different from the outright oppression of women that is often on display in nude portraits in the canon of art (think: Olympia). Cheung’s figures are not prostitutes, and the willfulness of their sexual activity produces a lighthearted tone: Cheung’s work is gay in the original sense of the word.
There is one piece by Cheung that does use female (though possibly male in drag) figures. California Girls is a screenprint that shows a group of five child-sized people, with round, pre-adolescent tummies, short legs, and no apparent breasts. But, their faces are unexpectedly haggard— in fact, they look rather like world-weary clowns. One figure has the circled cheeks commonly used in clown makeup, and they all have prominent lips, as if they have on lipstick that goes beyond the lip line, employing the method that clowns use to paint their mouths. One figure holds a banana in a phallic way (also bringing to mind the clownish diversion of placing a banana peel on the ground for someone to slip on), and one even has a ‘Mom’ tattoo on her bicep.
They really look more like beer swilling carnival folk in drag than teenage California girls. Though California Girls also commingles gender traits, it works differently than Cheung’s other pieces. The title is printed on the front of the image, making apparent the unlikely juxtaposition of dreamy bikini-clad girls and raucous carnies.
Overall, Cheung’s art works to overrule hetero-normative artistic conventions. I find it a refreshing reworking of the nude portrait that manages to be both humorous and meaningful. Rather than sharpening the lens on painful or sad moments in life, Cheung acknowledges the imperfect, but focuses on the fun.
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