Interview with Exhibiting Artist Paul Baker Prindle

“Not so long ago, living openly as a LGTBQI person was not an option for many people in the United States.  Today’s queer culture has changed significantly and we’ve seen the lasting legacy of Stonewall, Harvey Milk, and the Civil Rights Movements.  With this progression, LGTBQI people have gained a level of visibility and freedom that was inaccessible to previous generations. Additionally, the lack of positive queer representation is still a relevant issue today.

Most people are uncomfortable with the idea of labels because they are frequently associated with stereotypes and tend to create more limitations rather than the freedom to access different ‘selves.’ In this interview with Paul Baker Prindle, exhibiting in Queer Cultural Center’s ReMix: ReFraming Appropriation  now through June 26th, Prindle tells us how he is liberated by the identities he embraces and how his images can motivate people to evaluate their modes of thinking and consider their own identities. More of Prindle’s work can be seen at www.paulbakerprindle.com.” – Erica Gomez, SOMArts Curatorial Intern

As an artist, how do you navigate through the challenges of maintaining a sense of autonomy, while still putting forth your many “selves” in your work as an artist and in the community? Do you ever feel that your work is eclipsed by identities such as sexual orientation, gender, race, age, etc.? Do you feel that you are pigeonholed because of these identities?

As I make art, I do not think I am particularly interested in maintaining a sense of autonomy. That concern is mostly irrelevant to me. I feel quite liberated by the identities I embrace. In my mind, I’ve never felt like any of my identities, or anyone else’s for that matter, have clear and formed boundaries. I don’t feel like my identities have constrained me, quite the opposite actually. I feel that exploring Jewishness, gayness, and queerness has given me more to make art about that I could ever dream of having time to do. So much of my work is about exploring identity and tracing out how identities come to mean for individuals.

As a young man, finally figuring out that I could call myself gay was one of the most meaningful and powerful moments of my life. Being part of the many gay and queer communities that exist is a privilege. I treasure the richness of our cultural, political, intellectual, sexual, and activist histories and find them to be deeply empowering. I do hope that as radical sex becomes more mainstream (I’d reference the ease with which my college art students talk about oral and anal sex, BDSM, etc. as evidence, as well Dan Savage’s large readership), and terms like gay and queer and trans take on newer meanings, we will remember how useful those terms were to us in different times and places. I still think they are meaningful.

I also hope that we remember that at the end of the day it isn’t the label that matters. Ten years ago when it was still illegal in our state to fuck my boyfriend, I was never particularly concerned with the meaning or constraints of identity. I just did what I did, radical or not. Gay, queer, or whatever. Today, nothing has changed. I do what I do, label or no label, radical or not radical. I live my life, I make my art and I proudly call myself gay or queer when I feel like it.

In your artist statement, you write, “Each site I visited was an unsettling disappointment, bearing few if any clues to the value of the life that ended there.” When you began this body of work, what were your initial expectations for each site? Overall, how have your feelings changed from the start of the series to present?

When I began this work, I had expected the work to function much as it does. I am an artist that thinks things out for a very long time before I start the work. For me, the work is usually and largely a product of research and development. I had made a discovery in my personal life about the cruelty of time and the emptiness of a site washed over by history. I don’t like to make work that talks about my own life so much, so I turned to this subject matter to share my ideas about time, trauma, and memory with people. I might have made work that looks at another type of trauma just as easily perhaps, but the concepts I wrestle with would have been the same.

What I didn’t expect was that the work would take on an activist life of its own. Growing up in Lutheran country in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I was acutely aware of how dangerous it was to be gay outside of a big city (even in cities there are pockets/moments of danger). I naively thought everyone understood that it was at times very unsafe to be gay, bi, queer, or trans. Fortunately, I hadn’t internalized the threats against my life, the bullying, the calls for God’s wrath to rained down upon me, because I always, truly felt blessed to have the desires and perspectives I had.

If anything terrifies me about making art, it is the possibility that my art might speak for the people I call my own. I don’t want my voice to be confused as everyone’s voice. As I exhibit work where I live or give artist talks, I am amazed at how unaware my viewerships are of the realities of homophobic and transphobic violence. I am amazed. How do more people not know that our nation is obsessed with regulating sex to the final consequence? That we bless murder of LGBTQI individuals every time we acquit murderers by accepting their gay panic defense strategies. When I show my work to people who don’t know about this violence, whether I like it or not, I am speaking for LGBTQI people.

I’ve learned from making this work that in all sorts of unexpected places, there is work to be done in changing people’s minds about LGBTQI people. And I’ve learned that after considering my images, some individuals are moved to evaluate their ways of thinking. I didn’t think work that I make, could do such a thing. Over the years, as I’ve made this work, I’ve thought more and more about the power of art to inspire change. I did not set out to change anything and I remain humble about the magnitude of the change my images have inspired.

What kind of dialogue do you hope to stimulate as people view these works from your series Memento Mori?

As an artist I hope to inspire people to talk with me and others about what it is a photograph can do, what kind of content if can hold, in what ways photographs fail, and what purpose and use photographs have in our lives. I’m interested in how written text can work with visual text to produce meaning. I’d love for people to think about the difference between image and photograph- especially with my photographs of very famous sites. I want to get people to talk about the sites of memory, the history and life cycle of trauma, and I want people to think about the role of trauma in affecting the development of identity. As a Jew and a gay man, I have a lot of ideas about the relationships between trauma, memory, and identity. Above all, I hope for my viewers to have an experience of the photograph that helps them uncover their role in making the image meaningful.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I’m making photographs of society matrons. My grandmother was a bit of a socialite and I’ve always thought of her as the first drag queen I ever met. Though I’m not sure she’d identify that way. I’m really interested in the various social clubs her generation belonged to. She was very active in Eastern Star and I’m interested in their secret ways and rites, their formal gowns, and their philanthropy. I’m making portraits of the women of her generation. She’s 96, so there aren’t many of these women still around. These social groups she belonged to are dying out and their members are taking social traditions to the grave in ways that are interesting to me as a gay man living in a post-gay world.

I’m also making some very large piles of human leg bones cast in porcelain that are installed in pools of honey. This work is about material and poetry, but also about memory and trauma as well. It’s an opportunity to think about some of the issues that come up in my murder site work from another perspective. Each body of work I make is generally quite different in appearance. I’m mostly interested in resolving or at least learning from the questions I have, rather than developing a certain style. –

About the Interviewer:

Erica Gomez is currently a Curatorial Intern at SOMArts Cultural Center and has a B.A. from Metropolitan State University, Denver, Colorado, in Art History, Theory and Criticism. She has been accepted into the California College of the Arts Visual and Critical Studies Graduate Program and will begin in the Fall of 2012.

For more information about internships at SOMArts, please click here.

Pictured: Matthew Shepard. Laramie, WY, 2009, Henry Northington. Richmond, VA, 2010, and Alexis King, Philadelphia, 2008 by artist Paul Baker Prindle.