Queering the Painting
Content Warning: The following story contains information about sexual assault and domestic violence. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or is the victim of domestic violence, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. Tufts students can learn more about campus resources here.
Last August in New York City, Amanda Pickler, MFA '23, a self-proclaimed introvert, had to push past the deep discomfort of canvassing strangers to ask if she could take their photos as a basis for a new body of paintings. A SMFA Dean’s Research Award supported her research trip to Henrietta Hudson, New York City’s oldest continually operating lesbian bar. “I went up to strangers, identified myself as an artist, and asked if I could take their picture and eventually paint them,” she said.
To her astonishment, bouncers, bartenders, and patrons were all “surprisingly supportive” of the project, agreeing to candid Android shots while sharing personal stories about the dwindling night scene. In the 1980’s there were over 200 Lesbian Bars in the United States and now just three remain in New York City. Pickler’s thesis project examines these now critically endangered, inclusive spaces.
A painting in progress dominates one wall of her studio space—bathed in emerald-green oil paint. “I gave out my Instagram to everyone I photographed at Henrietta Hudson’s and one of the people I’m painting is actively supporting the piece as it progresses,” Pickler explains. In the foreground, the same woman smiles at the floor, hands jammed in jean pockets. Other patrons flirt, drink, and loiter in the background.
The entire scene swirls softly like the beginning of a dream sequence. “These colors are clearly not realistic as I am constantly investigating how color can have an active role in what I’m trying to say. While it will remain dominantly green, it probably won’t stay this green. I was looking into the history of technicolor and how it has queered films like The Wizard of Oz. I’m pushing the idea of queering the painting too.”
After taking the photo, she sketched the scene on paper, making a smaller study on canvas before committing to the painting that will be the cornerstone of her master’s thesis. This spring it will appear, pinned like a butterfly to the sterile wall of Tufts University Art Galleries.
The rest of Pickler’s small studio is filled with experiments—many ongoing and some failed. Lithographs are printed onto paper with stone and aluminum plates and in three cases, directly onto scraps of glittery, malleable silk, referencing the historic sensuality that comes from silk fabrics in consumer goods, and media. “Many of my current work centers around expressions of intimacy. I wanted to move from printing onto paper to printing on a more intimate material,” she says.
Several oil paintings hang on one wall—smaller studies for larger works Pickler plans to create. In one, a woman lies on her back in a rumpled bed, holding hands with someone just out of view as the afternoon light streams in through the window.
“I’m trying to invite the viewer into the painting and a moment of intimacy between women. I want to challenge the historic gaze of lesbian women being sexualized in art for men’s pleasure,” Pickler explains. These paintings depict loving physical acts between women without hyper-sexualization. In fact, they carry an ordinary romantic sweetness, as echoed in titles like Hold My Hand, Hold My Hair, and Golden Embrace. Each painting is based upon Android snapshots that she either took herself or had texted to Pickler by friends or strangers.
A previous series, which Pickler completed prior to coming to SMFA also involved collaborations with volunteers but addressed a much heavier topic. At the time, she lived in Seattle and worked as an art fabricator at Lead Pencil Studio and a studio manager to local artist Molly Vaughan. As a survivor of sexual assault, Pickler was bewildered by the lack of accessible, high-quality healthcare available, and set out to create art in community to help herself and others process, heal, and share resources.
She says, “My project, If I Could Turn You into Stone, I Would was a social practice project involving volunteers who had experienced sexual assault or domestic violence.” After meeting individually with 15 volunteers and inviting them to share their stories or simply just sit in supportive silence, she created Xerox lithography portraits based on drawings. The volunteers were asked to write the titles. The portraits have a blank stripe where the subjects’ eyes should be, both to preserve anonymity and convey the permanent impact of abuse.
This community-based work was interrupted by the pandemic, at which point Pickler said she saw a major shift in her practice, as it became more focused on reclaiming pleasure. “I started looking at my own queer identity and art that invoked a celebration of intimacy,” she says.
Knowing that she wanted to teach and work as a professional practicing artist, graduate school seemed like the obvious next step. Pickler chose SMFA for its interdisciplinary program. “I didn’t want to be boxed into working in just one medium. SMFA is supportive of artists with interdisciplinary practices.” Nodding to the photography, printmaking, and paintings stacked against her Mission Hill studio walls she says, “Sometimes the artwork tells you what it needs and other times you don’t find out that answer until you start exploring.”
Lead image by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University.
Editors note: Due to the sensitive nature of the content, the above article was reviewed and approved by the student.