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Gemma Rolls-Bentley on Her New Book, Queer Art: From Canvas to Club, and the Spaces Between

For Gemma Rolls-Bentley, encapsulating the breadth of the contemporary queer experience in a single book has proven to be the ultimate curatorial exercise. ‘There were meant to be 100 artists; in the end there are nearly 200’, the London-based curator, creative consultant and writer tells Christie’s of her newly published tome, Queer Art: From Canvas to Club, and the Spaces Between. Having worked at the forefront of contemporary art for almost two decades, Rolls-Bentley has established herself as a fierce advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community by curating shows across the globe, including the 2023–24 exhibition Dreaming of Home at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City.


Left: Quarto/Frances Lincoln Right: Gemma Rolls-Bentley. Photograph by Christa Holka


Approaching the book ‘like a curator’, Rolls-Bentley grouped works by LGBTQIA+ artists like Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Catherine Opie, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Nina Chanel Abney, amongst others, into three sections: ‘Queer Spaces’, ‘Queer Bodies’ and ‘Queer Power’. ‘I didn’t want to organise it chronologically because I wanted it to be super approachable, not academic,’ says the author. Her selection of images reflects a full spectrum of experiences within the community, whether it be survival and protest, heartbreak and lust, domesticity and nightlife, or isolation and belonging.


Below, Rolls-Bentley discusses the queer artists, past and present, whose works have most touched her — for as many pieces pull at her heartstrings, there are others that fill her with joy, laughter and pride to be part of this multi-faceted community.


Christina Quarles, Try n’ Pull tha Rains in on Me, 2022. Courtesy of Christina Quarles, Pilar Corrias, London, and Hauser & Wirth


Ghada Khunji, Maria, Myself and I from the series ʻThe Dark Ages’, 2016. © Ghada Khunji


How do you describe the queer art landscape today?


Throughout history, there are many examples of artists making work about the queer experience, however, that art has often been erased, excluded or, perhaps, framed in a way that didn’t centre the queerness. Right now, the art world is looking back and finding ways to highlight and celebrate these works.


There is huge interest in many contemporary artists, like Jenna Gribbon and Christina Quarles. They’ve said to me that the queerness in their work, even if pretty explicit, is not always discussed openly. At the same time, if you look at the key commercial galleries, they still often underrepresent queer artists and particularly trans artists. There are a lot of people making the work, but how many of those people are making a living from their work? There’s still a gap.


How did you determine which artists you’d feature? Did you have any selection parameters in mind?


It was not an easy task. I took Stonewall as a loose starting point because the 1969 riots were such a pivotal moment that really changed and informed our understanding of queerness. That’s what gave birth to the global Pride movement, and art and culture followed.


I was determined to make sure that this book looked different from anything that had come before. I wanted it to have lots of female artists, trans artists, artists of colour and artists from all around the world — not just artists of different nationalities that have moved to New York, Los Angeles or London. It was quite a laborious but very joyful process because it involved a lot of discovery.


Beyond figurative painting and photography, I also wanted to include sculpture, film and performance. As the book’s subtitle suggests, for queer people, our journey is not always straightforward, and as such, the art does not always make it into a gallery or a museum. A lot of the vibrant creativity that comes out of the queer community is often found in the club, on the dance floor, on a catwalk, on a podium or in the streets at a protest.


Osinachi, Becoming Sochukwuma, 2019. © Osinachi


You also feature artists from countries where it is not safe to be openly gay. Do you think there is a general misconception about LGBTQIA+ progress?


In many countries, we have these big landmark moments like marriage equality, and we have more queer visibility on television shows. I think that suggests to people that we’re always on an upward trajectory, however, the reality is many other countries are introducing new anti-LGBTQIA+ laws. And even in the United States and Europe, these are really challenging and scary times for the trans community.


Who are some of the artists you were most excited to learn about during your book research?


Nigerian artist Osinachi has made quite a lot of work in a digital format about being queer. The book features Becoming Sochukwuma, which is about this story that relates to Nigeria’s 2014 anti-gay law [people could be incarcerated for same-sex marriage, public displays of affection or for being affiliated with LGBTQIA+ rights groups].


Another artist who I think is super interesting is April Bey. She is from the Bahamas and lives in Los Angeles. She makes work about a fictional prejudice-free planet called Atlantica where nobody feels othered. The only currencies are love and glitter. There are a lot of examples of artists, like April, who are using their work to imagine better worlds.


Charmaine Poh, Jean and Xener from the series ‘How They Love’, 2018. © Charmaine Poh


The 60th International Art Exhibition, Foreigners Everywhere, at this year’s Venice Biennale brings the work of many past and present queer artists to the fore. Were there any works you found particularly striking or inspiring?


It was brilliant to see some of the artists whose work I’ve been looking at for a long time be truly celebrated in the Biennale. A really good example is Charmaine Poh, who is an artist from Singapore that lives in Berlin. She had two videos at the end of the Arsenale. Her work is about queer families and love. While it is activism, it’s also very beautiful and tender. It was also great to see Salman Toor and Jeffrey Gibson, as well as Xiyadie, a Chinese artist who makes these amazing papercuts.


Who are some of the historical queer artists in the book that you think deserve more attention?


British painter Maggi Hambling. She’s a beloved icon in the UK, but I don’t think she’s celebrated enough internationally. Greer Lankton, who passed away and whose estate is represented by Company gallery, is another artist that should have been celebrated more during her time. I’d also add G.B. Jones, who is like the female Tom of Finland.


Maggi Hambling, Wilde and the Wallpaper, 1996–1997. © Maggi Hambling


You mentioned your desire for Queer Art to spark new discourse. What do you hope people will consider further?


There are several household names whose work has not been examined enough through a queer lens. For example, David Hockney’s work has always been explicitly queer, but I wouldn’t say the mainstream art market and establishment have celebrated his queerness enough. Similarly with Francis Bacon and his work about George Dyer’s death, it’s queer romance and heartbreak at its best.


Additionally with Robert Indiana and his LOVE sculpture, since the book came out, many people have said to me, ‘Wow, I’ve seen that image 100 times, and I never knew there was queer love behind it.’ I think it’s very validating for queer people to know that our messages and experiences have been in homes and museums whether people knew it or not.


To highlight just a few more powerful works from the book, let’s play a game of artist rapid fire. Is there an artist or work who made you see queer art differently?


Felix Gonzalez-Torres is really interesting because his minimalist installations are not the figurative representational work that one may, perhaps, associate with queer art. Yet they are deeply powerful, moving and explicit in their intention once you understand the works’ titles.


James Bartolacci, Spectrum Closing Party, 2021. © James Bartolacci/Private Collection


Is there a work that most touched you?


Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993, which is the image where she cut two stick-figure women and a house with two birds in the sky into her back. I remember vividly seeing that piece when I was in my early 20s. I’d only been out a couple of years and was still figuring out my own identity. I was having difficulty with it, and that piece to me just perfectly articulated a sense of longing that I felt and my own desire for domesticity and queer family, but also the feeling of how difficult that journey might be. This piece was the starting point for ‘Dreaming of Home’, the show I curated last year at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art.


What is the work that you found the most heartbreaking?


The Francis Bacon because he made that right after George Dyer died. The story is also about addiction and alcoholism, which is a big topic within the queer community. There are a lot of people struggling to find peace within.


On the opposite end, which piece makes you burst out laughing?


There’s a Jill Posener photograph that resembles a mattress advert saying ‘We can improve your nightlife.’ Someone then spray-painted ‘JOIN LESBIANS UNITED’ on top of it.


Rene Matić, Jenny and Zac Holding Hands, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist and Arcadia Missa, London


Rene Matić, Mia and Cait Snogging I, 2020. Courtesy of the Artist and Arcadia Missa, London


Which artwork made you want to get up and dance?


There are loads, but I would say, James Bartolacci’s Spectrum Closing Party. I love that it’s pictured alongside Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings, because both artists’ bodies of work were memorialising the LGBTQIA+ pubs and bars and venues that we’ve lost in New York and London. Queers are really good at dancing and finding each other and themselves on the dance floor.


Finally, which work makes you feel most proud to be part of this vibrant community?


Rene Matić photographs their community, which is also my community, at parties and clubs. Rene is the youngest artist to be acquired by the Tate, and there is a whole wall of their images on long-term display at Tate Britain. Rene’s works document people that love each other unconditionally, and there is a real joy and celebration — I’m actually going out dancing with every single person on those two pages tonight!


ML Staff. Content/image courtesy of Christies. Click here for the latest Christies auctions



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