Above: Nick May, Vonnie and Jo (2021),
Oil on canvas, 72 x 60". Courtesy of the artist.
Oil on canvas, 72 x 60". Courtesy of the artist.
At Tube Factory in Indianapolis, Fag Family, an exhibition of portraits by painter Nick May, seeks to celebrate the unique personalities of their closest friends. Consisting mainly of life-size double portraits the exhibition presents a series of Queer individuals posing in their homes surrounded by objects that connect the audience to the individuals on a personal and familial level.
Throughout Fag Family, May has staged their couples sitting up or draped across furniture, directing them so that their gazes focus outside the canvas on the viewer. Depicted in a painterly realism, May’s technique combines areas of thick and sometimes harsh brushwork that obscures the painting’s depth, flattening the space between figure and environment. Simultaneously, May employs a unique, forced perspective for many of the works, positioning the figures so that their feet nearly protrude from the lower edges of the painting as their bodies are forced back in space. Throughout the series, it is clear that each of the individuals were diligent in controlling how they wanted to be represented––through their choices of outfit, environment, and makeup.
In one such work, Nick and Astrid, 2021, the pair captured are centered in the painting’s composition. Thick navy boots donned by the figure on the viewer’s right jump out from the bottom corner while the pair’s bodies sink together into the center of the bed they rest on. While the figure on the right, head tilted downward, glares up at us, their partner on the left leans back more casually, their head tilted to the side in a curious outward gaze. The styling of the couple—one in thick combat boots and a messy button up shirt with whiskering make-up, paired with the others shiny black boots, dress, and bright pink headscarf suggests the contrasting personalities of the pair—an effect reinforced by the mirrored positioning of their bodies. Behind them, a deep red comforter, and fuzzy pink pillow reinforce the pair's mixing of styles; a gesture that recognizes their awareness of being seen but asserts that they are doing so under the terms they allow.
In Vonnie and Jo, 2021, two figures lounge across a floor-bed amongst an array of blankets and pillows. A figure in a bright blue dress enforces a diagonal across the painting, their heeled animal print boots jutting into the bottom left corner. The figure’s angled body pulls the viewer into the canvas to greet familiar characters submerged amongst the figures. In the back left, a stuffed Ernie (from Sesame Street) draws our attention to a half-hidden dog asleep in the background, while a bright pink Care Bear with a rainbow across its belly pulls our attention back to the front. On a shelf behind the figures, personal items including an orange dildo hint at the intimacy of the couple’s relationship while Vonnie and Jo, look out at the viewer expectantly as we take in their surroundings. From the position of the viewer, the portraits offer an intimate look into the personal lives of the sitters. However, in taking control over their appearance and surroundings the represented pairs control the narrative of which they are presented, allowing them to celebrate the aspects of themselves they feel most represent them without being defined by outside voices. This aspect of control is reinforced by the outward gaze of each of the portraits, a move that balances the power between subject and audience.
May’s choice to depict their subjects in styled attire, surrounded in an atmosphere that defines them comfortably positions May’s portraits within the historical canon of portraiture while also breaking from the historical boundaries that members of the LGBTQ community have often been placed within art. As May notes in their artist statement, portrait painting has historically been reserved for the white, rich, and wealthy, and was used as a tool by the wealthy and powerful to define the image of themselves they wanted presented but also to serve as a way of showcasing their social status. In the United States, the course of portrait painting shifted in the 18th century from a European focus on idealization and extravagance to match the American ideals of individualism with artists like John Singleton Copley who focused on the merits of individual personality. Later artists would continue this simplification of the portrait to a conservative extreme, nearly eliminating personality in favor of piety. May builds into this historical narrative by deliberately highlighting the unique attributes of each of his sitters but also in his reliance on the severity of their expressions. While their clothing and habitat hint at their character, as described, their stern expressions seek to attempt a degree of stoicism, but also allude to their rightful weariness of the audience.
When queer individuals were depicted in art it was often done discretely or with the intention of appealing to the male gaze and it is this history of inaccurate and discreet representation that is one of the key motivations for May’s series. As May notes in their statement: “Queer Individuals have been erased from that history…my goal with these portraits is to subvert that ugly history by capturing my fellow queer friends with all the luxuriance and beauty of oil painting.” Within Fag Family, May prioritizes the visibility of their queer friends, documenting their existence, their style and personality, in effect celebrating their lives and preserving their memory through the portrait. At the same time, May does so in a way that does not allow the viewer to question their identity or objectify their bodies. Instead the portraits are created as a finalized image of the self. Like the portraits of the wealthy and powerful before them, these are testaments to who the figures are without question or judgement.
- Jonathan Katz, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, in association with the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Books, Washington DC, 2010, pg. 11-23
- Jonathan Katz, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture p. 13
- Nick May
- Tube Factory
Jessica Oberdick (she/her) is an independent curator and writer whose research focuses on themes of identity and social perception. She currently works as the Exhibitions Assistant at the University of Louisville.
Manny and Avery (2021), Oil on canvas, 42 x 60". Courtesy of the artist.
Zak and Harlan (2021), Oil on canvas, 72 x 60". Courtesy of the artist.