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Art & Art History

Bless This Mess

Tuesday, January 18, 2011–Saturday, March 12, 2011

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Mixing dreams, facts, and emotions in works in drawing, embroidery, installation, and performance, four artists examine queer bodies in and outside of messy systems. Shuttling across inside and outside, they become beautifully entangled in the queer chaos of it all.

Bless This Mess is presented concurrently with Ambiguity Is My Weapon.



Bless This Mess is supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago; and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.


Edie Fake

The Cabin Inn, 2010
Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 14 x 17 in.

Friendship and Freedom, 2010
Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 14 x 17 in.

Kris Studios, 2011
Pen, ink, and gouache on paper, 14 x 17 in.

The Sappho, 2010
Pen, ink, and gouache on paper, 14 x 17 in.

Stay Dead, 2007
Ink on paper, 24 x 18 in.

Threshold of My Closet, 2010
Ink on paper, 14 x 17 in.

The Virgo Out, 2010
Ink and gouache on paper, 14 x 17 in.

The Why Not Club, 2010
Ink and gouache on paper, 14 x 17 in.

Forced Into Femininity

Forced Into Femininity

Blind Asylum, a song cycle, 2011
Performance and installation of performance remnants

Robin Hustle

Chair, 2006
Pen on paper

A Cleaning Job at the Chicago Board of Trade, 2006
Pen on paper

Fluent in French, Russian, and Greek, 2006
Pen on paper

For Benjamin, 2003
Pen on paper

Garter Belt, 2008
Mixed media

Haitian Riddle, 2004
Embroidery on cotton

Love of Woman for Woman Should Increase Terror, 2010
Pen on paper

The Most Luxurious Pubic Hair, 2005
Gouache and weave on frame

Strangers, Lovers, 2010
Gouache on wood

Untitled, 2010
Pen on paper

The Weave Extends, 2010
Pen on paper

Lee Relvas

Oil Spill #1 (Ancient Seeps Into Future), 2011
Embroidery: cotton thread on satin

Oil Spill #2 (You Make Me Feel Plenty), 2010
Embroidery: cotton thread on satin

Oil Spill #3 (Exhaust Yourself), 2010
Embroidery: cotton thread on satin


Demeo, Mia. “Bless This Mess.”, Feb. 12, 2011.

Stabler, Albert. “Bless This Mess.” Chicago Reader, Mar. 12, 2011.


Edie Fake Head ShotEdie Fake (born 1980) has lived in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Baltimore. His drawings have been included in Hot and Cold, Creative Time Comics, and LTTR. Secret Acres released his first book, Gaylord Phoenix, in late 2010. Fake was one of the first recipients of Printed Matter ’s Awards for Artists and was also a recipient of a 2010 Critical Fierceness Grant from Chances Dances. He currently lives in Chicago where he works as a minicomics sommelier for Quimby ’s Books. Fake graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2002.

Jail Flanagan Head ShotJail Flanagan (born 1979) is a Chicago-based artist and member of Forced into Femininity and formerly of The Coughs.

Robin Hustle Head ShotRobin Hustle (born 1984) is an artist and writer living in Chicago.

Lee Relvas Head ShotLee Relvas, previously known as Dewayne Slightweight, has performed and exhibited work at Art in General, New York; John Connelly Presents, New York; Sculpture Center, New York; Orchard, New York; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions; ISpace, Chicago; Green Lantern, Chicago; and the Co-Prosperity Sphere, Chicago. His work has been featured in The New York Times, ARTnews, the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, and Proximity magazine. Relvas is the recipient of a Critical Fierceness Grant and a sonic artist residency at the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago.


Aay Preston-Myint: Let ’s start with the old gay vs. queer question. In the art world, I think it ’s safe to say that for quite a while now, it ’s been good to be gay. House and disco are in revival, bear porn is amok, etc. These are all good things, though we as a queer community have a lot more to talk about…what distinctions do you make between gay and queer, what are you interested in bringing to the table, and/or do you prefer to stay on the outside?

Robin Hustle: I have a drawing called “Love of Woman for Woman Should Increase Terror,” after a line by Djuna Barnes. The “terror” the drawing refers to is personal, the terror that accompanies seeing yourself in new ways and exposing new understandings of yourself to others, but I also read that line as an essential aspect of queerness. Queerness is criminal, sexual, and messy. The re-appropriation of “queer” by mainstream gay culture has stripped the word of its meaning, but I ’m not willing to let go of it just yet.

Edie Fake: Semiotically, I think that expanding the meanings of both “gay” and “queer” is core in expanding the stories, feelings, and issues that art and activity made under these banners. Self-defi nition—saying that you feel kinship to an identity, but also bringing the messy conglomerate of your whole self into that discussion—is key. I identify strongly as a transsexual, and also, at the same time, I would never deny my womanhood, or a gayness or a queerness, for that matter. These labels/words are only truly alive and important when they ’re messy, when they ’re spilling over and creating networks. I want my identity and kinship to “gay” to help with the expansion of what “gay” can be, not just a celebration of some concocted idea about all that it already is.

Lee Relvas: Queerness is to me a shifty, fleshy envelope that is defi ned by its ability to hold many contradictory ideas, practices, and identities. Male and female, the loneliness of singular skins and the joy of temporarily borrowing each other ’s bodies, the scarcity and abundance of resources as we come across them in our daily lives, despair of a dying planet and the hope of becoming older and wiser and making change—I know they exist simultaneously, and queerness allows me to hold them all in my arms and make sense of them without forcing me to make false boundaries or categories.

Jail Flanagan: I guess I don ’t really identify with the terms queer or gay. For one thing, being a trans woman who is into other women, I ’m not sure if people would even consider me gay or queer. At one time, I identifi ed with the word queer but I ’ve developed a knee-jerk dislike towards it. I feel like it has taken on this hipster orthodoxy that seems the antithesis of what at one time queer meant.

In terms of art, one of the problems with contemporary art for me ( and this is not a very original observation) is that everything seems to come through this lens of critical disengagement, which adds a certain “who cares” quality. Life is pretty uninteresting already, why would I want to look at something that “explores issues of time.” I want to be immersed in someone else ’s fantasy or reality and be blubbering or laughing at it. I ’d like to see more work that is fun and sincere.

AP-M: As a side note to the first question, a lot of success stories in art, no matter for whom, are highly focused on the individual and the market. Someone once asked me in a studio visit if there was anything inherently collaborative about contemporary queer practice and aesthetics. I ’d be interested to know if you think so and why, especially being involved in more collaborative, network-based fi elds like (self-)publishing, music, and performance.

JF: I don ’t think there is. For instance, music is dominated by a bunch of gear nerds who fanatically hoard their fancy equipment.

RH: My friends, my city, and the people I have sex with could all be said to be collaborators. Choosing to work outside of the market requires a community of people who do the same. That said, plenty of contemporary queer artists work within the art world, on its terms.

LR: Queerness and feminism and anti-capitalism and DIY culture have really always been indistinguishable for me, and all of those concepts say that art is communication and art is participation. I love the self-sustaining economy of tour, where without forcing anyone to pay you somehow get enough money for tomorrow ’s gas, I love the hand-to-hand action of trading comics and artist books. And I love being together in any kind of room with any number of people and anything at all can be a performance, something to share. Everyone should make comics if they want to, play in bands; everyone can talk back in ways that are direct and subtle, obvious and mystical, explicit, and coded.

EF: I think the root of my own queer art is about feeding the histories, persons, and activities that in turn feed me. By doing so I find I ’m integrating myself into symbiotic systems not just of art, but of being alive. I love art practices that are accountable for what they do and respectful of what made them what they are and are deeply connected to sharing and collaborating. That kind of practice can thwart the destruction that happens when the art world recognizes only an individual, and not what that individual is part of. While that ’s not innately “queer”, “feminist,” or “anti-capitalist,” I want to say it is part of all those things for me.

AP-M: Meanwhile, in the national discourse and world at large, we ’re entering a time when queerness is again becoming highly visible, perhaps comparable to say, the Stonewall era, or the AIDS crisis (which is actually still ongoing). But the stakes have changed—in many ways, the old struggles remain unfinished, while the mainstream queer (is that an oxymoron?) agenda focuses on assimilationist arenas. What is lacking from the current discourse on queerness, what do we desire from this new visibility, or do we reject it altogether?

RH: Is queerness becoming highly visible? I ’d say it ’s vanishing into the mainstream gay agenda, and if it ’s going to be meaningful at all it will be through connections with other communities. Non-heterosexuality doesn ’t mean we have anything in common with someone whose priorities are marriage and the right to join the military. Health care for all should be a priority; this should have been a natural progression from all the anger and advocacy surrounding the AIDS crisis. Attacking the hysteria around child pornography that results in teenagers being arrested for taking pictures of themselves should be high on the queer agenda. The horrors of the free market, ideological warfare against immigrants, these are the real queer issues to me.

JF: I feel like there ’s a big reality gap; like you ’re safe as long as you ’re in your little bubble, but outside of that, good luck. When are we going to address the ignorance and stupidity that our society considers it ’s birthright, and the lack of safety for most of us?

EF: We should fight the fights that mean the most to us, that we feel the strongest about, and that we can do the most for. We should talk to people about why we feel, think and fight so strongly for the things we care about—what it is that fills our hearts with love and fury. Marriage, television and the military are not my fights. There are reasons for paying attention to those things, but because of where I stand now, I could never fully put my energy behind those struggles.

LR: What ’s always interested me about queerness is not the sex-positivity but the friend-positivity. That is to say, being disallowed from marriage and children (at least legally) has made the kinship structures of queerness flower in ways that are delightful to me—friends being your primary partners in life rather than a singular romantic partner, sex as camaraderie and communication, forgetting about reproductive cycles and exploring being old and elderly with as much interest as people seem to have with childhood. So the idea that marriage, the military, gay ministrel shows on TV are making gayness visible is awful to me. It actually makes the things I love invisible. It ’s a compression of many different kinds of relationships into the oppressive legal structures of marriage and military service, which are not rights at all, but an often crude instrument to privatize wealth (in the case of marriage) and a means to back monolithic American power and force with real mortal bodies (in the case of the military).

AP-M: There ’s a term a friend of mine used to describe the political affect of radicals in our generation: saudade, which translates roughly (from Portuguese) to a deep longing for something which can never be attained. In a lot of the work in this show, there ’s a longing and a reverence for a past that we ’re too young to have really known. Even though things were (arguably) more difficult for queers in the past, there ’s a certain romance we keep with regards to these old cruising spots, closeted literary magazines, and film reels of direct action. Is this a paralyzed emotional reaction to complacency, or a soft, subtle call to arms? How can this longing be productive, and how can it be dangerous? What will queer life be like when we no longer have our secrets?

RH: I have an emotional response to history, but it ’s rarely romantic and I wouldn ’t call it saudade.

LR: I ’ll add that our notion of queerness has a lot to do with the idea of this huge family tree, or mushroom network, if you like (historians delving under eaves and branches to discover alternate kinship structures throughout human civilization) and that we as queers today, despite having no bloodlines, no matriarchal or patriarchal lines are somehow extensions of a living family tree. That ’s the important part of history: that you aren ’t born into queerness but somehow it calls to you and you respond. And through that call and response you participate in the tree ’s living network. That doesn ’t feel nostalgic to me at all, but current and active.

EF: I ’m in awe of gay history, of everything that ’s been done and built, and everything amazing people have gotten away with through the years. I ’m making art based on the past, but I ’m not wistful for the past—I feel like the past empowers me, rather than immobilizes me. It ’s part of a vast well of ideas that I can draw upon—in the present. I love secrets, but I don ’t mind losing them. Openness can be just as mystical. I think the thing to hang onto is that we can build things and make things happen in our own time, and if we keep doing that we don ’t fall into the traps of saudade, instead we become the heiresses to a living history.

JF: Forced into Femininity does have a certain nostalgic element of drawing on this style of literary erotica for repressed trannies, these uptight sexual fantasies that are kind of hilarious but also deeply deranged. That was what I wanted to do in the beginning, but I changed it to be more about ranting about stuff because that ’s the only way I can write songs.

What will queer life be like when we no longer have our secrets? Indeed, it will be a terrifying chapter in history when all minds are stripped bare and the softest whisper of the unconscious is shouted from the rooftops.

AP-M: I started thinking about names and aliases (e.g., Forced into Femininity), and fluidity of identity, and thought back to this Bikini Kill video where Kathleen Hanna begins, “A lot of times because of the media and stuff, people get forced into being reactionary, like I find myself living to be the opposite of media perception or something like that….It ’s really fucked up because it fucks with your creativity, because you end up always having to answer questions that are based on lies.” In many ways not much has changed. What lies are we reacting to, and what truths as queer people are we seeking in 2011? How is this linked to the way we present our bodies/selves, and our art?

JF: I was musing on the fluidity of identity the other day too, weird! I guess I don ’t really get what Kathleen is going on about here. I don ’t think that anyone is forced to be reactionary. No matter how many questions based on lies people ask you, there ’s always a way to think of a better lie.

RH: The project I ’m working on right now is a rewrite (in drawings and text) of Émile Zola ’s Nana, which is basically a lie about prostitution, sickness, and work that ’s been repeated ad nauseam since 1880. Women ’s bodies, queer bodies, sick bodies are all acceptable when they are grotesque, but I ’m concerned about a lack of bodies that are joyful and critical. The art market has subsumed feminist critique of the male gaze into a capitalist understanding of women ’s bodies as passé, and they ’ve basically been disappeared. The bodies I draw are engaged with their world, transformed by it, and transformative. I think it ’s just as important to respond to dangerous or problematic ideas in the culture at large as it is to engage in utopian thinking.

EF: There will always be lies and misrepresentation, the fault of shallow information and straight up conflicting agendas. I suppose a recent shift is that in the past 15 years the Internet makes both generating misinformed content and refuting it a lot easier.

Not having to spend your time reacting to lies gives you the time and energy to work towards your intentions, sort of the utopic thrust Robin talks about. Of course, we also do need to respond to problematic ideas/actions, and we need to be accountable for our own work. Responding to the world—rather than having to be always antagonized or defensive—should always be done. We have to in order to figure out things we don ’t understand; and we have to be fair and ethical about it. We need to be suspicious of any format that is trying to suffocate or hide things we care about in a tangle of lies and misinformation, to crush people, organizations, histories and establishments.

LR: Something that prevents me from being reactionary (I think!) is that everything I make I consider direct communication to someone I know and love. Yes, it ’s important to respond to mass culture and faulty perceptions, but I ’m not very good at this and don ’t find much inspiration in it. But a coded love letter, a dreamed future, an argument song, a gift painting of where you and I will live when we ’re old—all these things have consequences and help me find my own always shifting truths.

EF: At first, I had no idea how to respond to a question about “truth”. Now, thinking a little, maybe the “truth we seek” is the freedom to really move and respond and shape and improve the wellness of our communities. To help them grow and keep them vital to ourselves and others.

AP-M: Looking outward, what ’s not queer about your work? Or better said, what does your work fold into queerness that is incorrectly assumed to be outside of it? For instance, what ’s queer about the oil spill, or Chicago architectural history, or psychedelia?

LR: I think I kind of answered this one with the first question! Or did I?….

JF: The oil spill? Maybe the way it crosses borders, or challenges our notion of what a healthy water supply could be. Chicago architechtural history? I like the Marina Towers, and those beehive buildings by Chinatown.

RH: Language, prostitution, movement across borders, sickness and health all feel queer to me.

EF: I ’m echoing Robin. It ’s part of the spill-over I talked about earlier, pulling the disparate parts of myself together and saying my queerness is reshaped by where I put my energy. Everyone who is naming their perspective “queer” is also shaping it. How we deal with toxic nightmares, old buildings, trippy shapes, everything— it can all be Totally Gay because it ’s what we ’re claiming and part of what we ’re building together.

Fake, Edie; Jail Flanagan; Robin Hustle; Lee Relvas. Interview with Aay Preston-Myint.
This interview was distributed in the gallery during the run of the exhibition.


Postcard: Ambiguity Is My Weapon, Bless This Mess

Poster: Ambiguity Is My Weapon, Bless This Mess – Events

Poster: Bless This Mess – Performances