Saints and Sinners brings together 14 LGBTQ+ identifying artists – including Catherine Opie and Peter Hujar – whose work engages with the fractured political climate
“Although visibility helps redress a representational inequality, it does nothing on its own to achieve redistributive justice,” writes Shon Faye in The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice. The wider text is one of three works of non-fiction to directly inform Saints and Sinners, a new exhibition at Guts Gallery in London, curated by director and founder Ell Pennick. “Literature is like a haven. When I read books by queer people, I just feel so safe, understood and validated,” shares Pennick, who was similarly affected by Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House, as well as Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. “Literature goes hand in hand with art. People sometimes forget that and separate it, but it’s so intertwined.”
A year in the making – during which time the curator was consumed by Instagram, finding and adding artists to the line-up as recently as a month ago – the new exhibition brings together 14 LGBTQ+ identifying artists whose work engages with the current fractured political climate, with each piece sparked by a feeling of political dissatisfaction. “It was anger,” Pennick explains, speaking over Zoom the day after installing. “Just pure disgust at the world really, that’s where it came from. I mean transphobia is nothing new, but it’s definitely been heightened in the media, and it’s just disgusting and awful.” Referencing JK Rowling’s harmful commentary as well as the proposed Equality Act review and Keir Starmer’s subsequent support for it (“just so disheartening”), Pennick devised the show as a vehicle for dialogue and a tool for education, with the ultimate objective of celebrating great artists.
“There’s still not been many shows about what is happening at the moment with the queer community, there’s not many people going ‘something’s horrifically wrong here and needs to change’,” continues Pennick. “We’re meant to be so far ahead with LGBTQ+ rights and we’re not, it’s been stunted. Also I’m seeing queer spaces I used to go to shutting down, just one after another.” This frustration led them to consider the scope of their platform and how best to use it. Hoping to engineer a framework of support among queer artists, Saints and Sinners has become one of the gallery’s largest shows to date, championing emerging talent like Ivie Bartlett and Elsa Rouy alongside more established names such as Peter Hujar and Catherine Opie.
Pennick borrowed the show’s name from a 2013 Robert Mapplethorpe anniversary show: “I also thought it was quite funny, and it interlinked with how the media is playing out this story about queer people – it’s either saint or sinner, there’s no middle ground.” In the press notes, they also highlight the artists’ refusal to be silenced in the face of societal neglect, and say they were keen to foreground work from different periods as well as by artists at different career junctures. “I knew of Catherine Opie as a kid, she’s an icon to me, so it’s a big deal for the other artists,” says Pennick. “Then there’s the historical context – if you look at Peter Hujar, who unfortunately died of AIDS, that was a different part of history from now, so it’s really interesting [bringing them together].”
Taking both an intersectional and international approach was another vital element, but Pennick also wanted to unpack the disconnect that can occur between the people that sustain a community and those who are guests. “Of course, you get galleries supporting queer artists, which is amazing, but there’s an issue with straight gallerists putting on shows about queer artists when they’ve not really been in a queer space,” they note, reflecting on the way the art world’s traditionally heteronormative operation has held queer artists back in generations past. “Because I’m queer it’s easier, there’s a mutual understanding, but it’s tricky. Obviously, people mean good, which I completely get, but I guess it’s the feeling – you know the feeling of the community if you’re in it.”
Saints and Sinners at Guts Gallery in London is on show until 7 July 2023. The gallery will host QUEERCIRCLE X GUTS TALK on 29 June.