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The Uncanny and Queerness in Art, and why Dexter Dalwood's ears must be burning every day!

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

How familiar are you with the term Uncanny? What does it say to you?

The Uncanny was defined by Siegmund Freud in 1916 as that which is known but not familiar. i.e you recognise something, but it has an element about it that is slightly odd. In this blog want to focus on the uncanny, the queerness in art. When I look at artworks, those that attract me the most are those that have a quality of ‘otherness’ about them. Something intriguing, something is familiar but something, that which is often undefinable, is slightly out of the ordinary.

Take for example the artist Dexter Dalwood who made uncanny paintings about major political events or spaces marked by some traumatic history or incident. They’re usually imagined and constructed interiors, devoid of people, that Dalwood has initially collaged together, literally cutting and pasting from the pages of magazines and art history books. His subsequent paintings then keep the abrupt edges evident in the collage, resulting in a slightly unnerving quality.

Bryant Park, New York, USA
Dexter Dalwood, Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse. 2000, Oil on Canvas, 214 x 258 cm

This could be said to be true of his painting Kurt Cobain’s Greenhouse (2000). The first impression is of an almost pleasant interior until it becomes apparent from the title, what has occurred in the space! ( for those who may not be aware, Cobain committed suicide in the greenhouse).

Dalwood says he is “compelled to make something new by taking something I find interesting, cutting it up and putting it back together again”.

I can so relate to this as I also do something similar in my own work. I am interested in Greek Mythology and the renaissance paintings of Rubens ( for his more realistic depictions of his female forms). I like to collage the women from some of his paintings and place them in constructed modern interiors within the context of a greek myth Eg They Do references Hilaeira in Rubens The Rape of the Daughters Leucippus, and the figures in the paintings, through being fused with a modern aesthetic, have an uncanny demeanour

Fun Fact- I called my gorgeous dog Dexter (Dalwood ). Many times a day I can be heard saying such things as– Dexter Dalwood you are so naughty! Dexy Dalwood shall we go for a walk? That’s a good boy Dexy Dalwood. Where’s your teddy Dexter Dalwood? Where would I be without you Dexter Dalwood. There is probably something uncanny in that itself!

To me , the uncanny in art is present when I get a feeling of uncertainty, an ambiguity. I am drawn to art that contains these elements. An artwork can be the most sincere representation of the subject matter and fantastically well painted . But it will rarely fully appeal to me without the presence of a level of ambiguity.

Susan Patterson. Woman collaged in fabric on stretched canvas with paint. Mixed Media
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #470, 2008

I have been a long admirer of the work of the photographer Cindy Sherman for this very reason. In her later work she portrays herself as a seemingly famous person in front of an added backdrop of a strange landscape. Such as here in her portrait Untitled # 470. The image is awkward, faintly disconcerting and perhaps slightly ridiculous. The women in her work seem ill at ease in their costumes But I find her work also evokes empathy and seems familiar. In other words, uncanny.

The uncanny also manifests itself in art as a queerness. Entering the English language in the 16th century, queer originally meant ‘strange’, ‘odd’, ‘peculiar’ or ‘eccentric’. It would be used to refer to something suspicious or ‘not quite right’, or to a person with mild derangement or who exhibits socially inappropriate behaviour. For example, the Northern English expression "there's nowt so queer as folk", meaning "there is nothing as strange as people". Other meanings of queer include a feeling of unwellness or something that is questionable or suspicious. In the 1922 comic monologue ‘My Word, You Do Look Queer’ the word is taken to mean ‘unwell’. There is also the expression ‘in Queer Street’ which usually means someone in financial trouble.

From the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. For the purposes of this blog, I am focusing on queerness in art rather than queer art although the two converge in many instances.

Such is the case with the artist Hannah Gluckstein, to be known as Gluck, whose painting Medallion I was immediately intrigued by when I first saw it.

Hannah Gluckstein, Medallion, 1936

It appears to be a portrait of two people, but their expressions have an air about them, not easily defined, defiant perhaps ( I love a defiant woman ha!) There is that uncertainty about it, that ambiguity. Further research reveals that the painting is a double portrait of Gluck and her lover Nesta Obermer , painted as a public declaration of love and commitment after they had made an appearance together at a concert. “Now it is out,” she wrote to Nesta, “and to the rest of the Universe I call Beware! Beware! We are not to be trifled with.”

The significance of Medallion was not openly discussed when Gluck painted it in 1936. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence. There was no acceptable vocabulary for being lesbian or transgendered. Gluck was acclaimed as a society painter of landscapes, portraits and flowers, not as a gender-questioning subversive.

What I particularly love about this painting, aside from the uncanny and the queerness of it, is that it contains a narrative, something I strive for in my own work. It can be implied, and left to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

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