'Chasing the Light', 2015'

How Gay Shame and Cruising Created an Artist

"The most important issue in a gay man’s life is not “coming out,” but coming to terms with the invalidating past. The byproduct of growing up gay in a straight world continues to be the internalization of shame, rejection, and anger—a toxic cocktail that can lead to drug abuse, promiscuity, alcoholism, depression, and suicide."

- Alan Downs, PH.D

The majority of my life has been spent escaping. My comfort is in my escape, the place beyond the physical world where I can retreat to, in order to be able to handle being vulnerable in social situations. After moving to Los Angeles less than a year ago, my social sense changed dramatically. I began to realize that the majority of my peers ('peers' here meaning other queer/gay men in the art scene) were experiencing something I felt myself: internalized shame and fear of vulnerability, which ultimately has lead to a culture that can frequently be exclusionary and consciously intimidating. 

My experiences in what I will endearingly call "gay male/synthetic drug culture" have allowed me to take a moment and observe the situations at hand, and draw inspiration from them. Most of my artwork touches on some form of queer ideology: whether it be internalized shame, false idol worship, politics, sexuality, submission, or violence. This has mostly been actualized in my performance work, with the latest being the beginning of a performance series entitled 'CRUISING', in which I create 5 hour live installations to symbolize the relationship I have with certain facets of capitalism and material culture.
These pieces are meant to display the sense of loneliness that shame can cause, while juxtaposing this with saturated colors and sexual imagery. In this way, I attempt to describe certain contradictions of the gay scene. Everyone goes to the parties and clubs to enter the scene, but once they are there, the scene can be so intimidating that regression of memories that caused the shame can occur. 

My personal shame comes from my upbringing. Although my guardians did whatever they thought was best for me, even outside of the home I felt uncomfortable and unwillingly placed in the target of intense scrutiny. San Diego has wonderful liberal areas such as downtown, and the gay community of Hillcrest, but the rest of the county is filled with the most conservative demographic in all of California. Even before I began to create confrontational artwork, my physical appearance and (somewhat) feminine demeanor automatically made me stand out in an environment of heterosexuality. "With the homes being all shades of white, shouldn't the homeowners be as well?" is almost what I imagine the homeowners' association saying at their first meeting.

I used to experience catcalls from other children, with slurs such as "freak" and "fag" standing out most prominently in my memory. Additionally, my family has never felt comfortable with my self-expression, so much so, that even my grandparents are unaware of my sexuality. The sad fact that my grandparents may die never knowing who their grandson truly is, is something that tortures me, and threatens to break ties with my parents and family altogether. Thank god they haven't taken the time to learn how to Google me yet.

Because I grew up always being fearful of the consequences of my opinions, I have become an adult who fears confrontation. My performance work in particular has challenged me to break through this fear, and has allowed me to somewhat transcend an aspect of my personality that was crippling my pursuit of happiness.

The CRUISING series is meant to be representative of my past with loneliness. I grew up as an only child, and in every city I've lived until Los Angeles, I have been secluded. The village in Germany where I was born was very small, and in San Diego, my community was 20 miles away from the nearest convenience store. These performances, where I create sexualized, graphic living installations, depict what I remember my childhood feeling like: alone, fantasizing, looking out between the blinds of my room to see the other neighborhood children playing. I am intensely athletic, but I was never able to let myself feel comfortable enough to actually go outside and play, for fear that I would be chastised by my surrounding neighbors. In these performances, I am allowing myself to actually put on display a facet of my life that, before I became an artist, I felt I would have to internalize and ignore. 

                                  'CRUISING #1', performed at Mid-City Arthouse, Los Angeles

As a painter, most of my pieces are dealing with my perceptions of society in this day and age. Specifically, Chasing the Light (below) is a depiction of what I believe gay male culture has become. 

Chasing the Light, watercolor, 2015

Many of my new paintings feature a primitive style derived from ancient Egyptian and Greek iconography. I draw many large, tall figures wearing accentuated crowns. These crown figures in particular represent any type of ruler, whether it be a physical ruler such as a political figure, or a hypothetical ruler, such as new social standards that have been put in place during an intense age of technological advancement. In Chasing the Light, I use lack of color to symbolize access to power. The wall the ruler leans against is black and white, a ying and yang, representing infinite knowledge that can be ignored due to political and social manipulation. The primitive figures with the arrows pointing down on them represent how quickly we can follow a certain doctrine if it gives us a sense of power and comfort. The crouching figures depict how I feel about gay culture today. So many of us young gays are met with intense scrutiny when we come out as our true selves. We have no idea how we should act except for the gay stereotypes which we access through television and the internet. If these stereotypes are our only perception of what our identity "should" be, we run the risk of becoming a stereotype ourselves, in order to achieve social validation. 

The relationship between gay male culture and politics is tense. Based on what research I have done, the art of cruising has seemingly lost its luster. The footage in the documentary linked above depicts a certain sense of dissidence among the "cruisers". They were bonding together to achieve a common goal, which was acceptance from a heterosexual society. With the legalization of gay marriage, the idea of gay sex has been commodified to fit the status quo of the United States: two people, raising 2.5 children with a white picket fence and beige house. This is why so many of us younger gay males are unsure where to place their shame. Our identities have become a grey area. We are still judged and misunderstood in many places in the world, but in the United States, it is politically incorrect to do so publicly. Thus, the chance of us being catcalled or beaten has decreased, but the likelihood of us having psychological problems due to feeling out of place has skyrocketed. 

I have spent the last summer within a research based practice to develop a new style. Before, I used to paint classically abstract. The societal symbolism remains, but the work is stylized in a completely different way, almost entering a void of sex, drugs, and self-deprecation. 





                                    'Standing on your Thrones', projection installation, 2015

                                              Screenshot from film 'THE THRONE', 2015

Although the newer work appears to have taken on a crisper aesthetic, it is symbolic of many of the darkest attributes of living a lifestyle like mine. In the work, I attempt to purge out all of my internalized emotion in order to be more empathetic in my daily life. If I destroy myself on stage for an audience, I won't need to let out that hostility in social situations. Those who have not yet found a way to purge this shame, however, run the risk of projecting it onto those who they identify with, which in this case would be other gay men. Psychologist Alan Downs narrows gay shame into three stages:
  • "Overwhelmed by Shame", in which the individual is "in the closet" and fears their sexuality. 
  • "Compensating for Shame", in which the male "attempts to neutralize the shame by being more successful, outrageous, fabulous, beautiful, or masculine." During this stage, the individual may engage in reckless sexuality and / or excessive cruising.
  • "Discovering Authenticity", in which the individual breaks free of their mental handicaps and begins a life dictated by their own passions, values, and ideals. 
I find this breakdown of the cycle of shame to be quite relevant not only in my experience, but also in the experiences of my close gay male friends. We all had our own way to purge ourselves of the crippling feelings of shame and loneliness that we experienced. Mine happened to be through performance, pain, and color on canvas. Through art, I have found a way to push my limits and free myself from a constant stream of crippling shame and self-deprecation.

- Peter -


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