Drawing to mark space—to tag, to proclaim, to territorialize,
to chronicle, to affirm, to celebrate, and to perform.
How might drawing be used to contest spatial injustice, violence, and fear within contemporary North American cities? Consider three artists/activists, Coco Guzman, Jeffrey Cheung, and Syrus Marcus Ware, who all make drawn marks to represent the human form. Each of these artists uses drawing to symbolize and represent very particular bodies—queer and trans bodies, Black and brown bodies. Respectively, these drawings occupy the public washroom, the urban streetscape, and the state art institution. To understand how their drawings contest experiences of spatial inequality for racialized and gender diverse citizens, I consider D.B. Dowd’s concept of the graphic in conversation with Diana Taylor’s notion of the repertoire. To further this analysis, I bring in John Berger’s ruminations on drawing and Honor Ford-Smith’s interpretation of matter out-of-place. Drawings are graphic marks of symbolic communication. Drawings can also mark public space as embodied repertoire. Guzman, Cheung, and Ware situate their drawings to perform acts of resistance and survivance, empowerment and resilience. These drawn bodies mark presence in public spaces that are typically exclusionary and/or dangerous to bodies like those of the artists. By locating their drawings within particular urban settings, these artists contest and resignify their own embodied experiences as matter out-of-place in the contemporary city.
Honor Ford-Smith uses the concept matter out-of-place to understand how violent histories such as plantation enslavement in the Americas extend into the present day to geographically shape urban life for Black people. Ford-Smith notes, “there is a spatial aspect to the enduring presence of this violent legacy—both transnational and local—[in] what it does to certain bodies”. (1) The term matter out-of-place was coined by anthropologist Mary Douglas in 1966. She identified that matter, such as human bodies, could arbitrarily be deemed good or bad—in the right place or in the wrong place—based on socially constructed values. Ford-Smith paraphrases Douglas:
The meaning attributed to dirt is connected to the categorical classifications ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ and the distinctions maintained between them . . . what is considered clean or dirty in any particular society has to do with the boundaries that maintain the classifications that hold a society in place . . . Rupturing [such] categories can be dangerous because in rupturing the distinctions that rest on them, they also seem to threaten stability and so called moral purity. Dirt in such a schema is more than a waste object to be discarded; it can also be a metaphor for the way some humans are seen. (2)
Ford-Smith suggests that when certain bodies cross particular spatial boundaries, they embody matter out-of-place and consequently, through their mere presence, challenge dominant notions of who belongs where. (3) This spatial transgression into forbidden space may result in forms of assault on a body. The artists considered here each have lived experience of being deemed as matter out-of-place based on their transgression of social boundaries categorized by race, gender, and/or sexuality. I suggest these artists use drawing, each in quite different forms, to occupy these forbidden spaces. The drawings of these artists enact a repertoire that speaks back to inequity and marginalization as matter out-of-place within urban settings.
To illustrate, consider a much earlier work, Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being project from the early 1970s, as an example of an artist who used drawing to transgress spatialized boundaries. Early in her art career, Piper observed that once it became known she was a Black woman, she was subsequently excluded from certain high-profile New York art galleries. (4) As an artist who was Black and female, Piper was matter out-of-place in the predominantly white and male commercial art world of the time. Cherise Smith notes that this exclusion led Piper to shift her art practice to a focus on her body and subject-object relations. (5) Piper’s The Mythic Being project consisted of her drag performance on New York city streets in conjunction with a series of graphic ad-works she ran in the gallery section of The Village Voice from 1973-1975. (6) The drawings Piper published were collages—a cut-out photographic representation of her alter-ego positioned next to hand-drawn text within a cartoon thought-balloon, all enclosed inside a rectangular border to connote a comics panel. In the panel, Piper’s figure is shown in male drag as the Mythic Being, wearing a moustache and Afro wig. The cartoon thought-balloon reveals intimate personal reflections quoted from Piper’s own teenage diary. Piper disseminated this drawing motif by purchasing newspaper ad space seventeen times, repeating the persona with new diary entries in each iteration. The use of the comics form inserted into the gallery ad space enables Piper’s drawings to function as performance. The cartoon persona has transgressed the gallery space of the newspaper. Without seeking approval, the Mythic Being bypasses curatorial jurisdiction to voice personal experience directly to a public art-consuming audience.
Piper’s use of the graphic ad-works within The Mythic Being project illustrates how the symbolic representation of drawing might be situated to perform experiences of inequity and exclusion. Diana Taylor distinguishes between the archive and the repertoire, noting the contrasting way each holds or transfers memory and knowledge:
‘Archival’ memory exists as documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, CDs, all those items supposedly resistant to change . . . The repertoire, on the other hand, enacts embodied memory; performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing–in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge. (7)
Curiously, Taylor does not explicitly state where drawings fit in to either form of episteme! Since drawings are a static, tactile object they might easily classify within the archive. In contrast, John Berger claims “there is a deep kinship between drawing, song, and dance”, (8) which suggests that drawings bring a liveliness to the depicted subject. Drawings, particularly drawings that depict the human body, sometimes seem to take on an ephemeral presence. Diana Taylor notes, “the repertoire requires presence: people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by ‘being there,’ being a part of the transmission”. (9) The drawn form of Piper’s Mythic Being ad-works asserts an embodied presence within the newspaper page, the persona persists week after week, extending agency over the exclusive space. The drawings perform mixed up signs of maleness and femaleness. The appropriation of the comics panel for publication in the gallery ad space subverts the high-brow New York art scene. (10) By repeating this drawn embodiment in print, Piper speaks directly to a public audience about exclusionary boundaries upheld by the art establishment. Taylor asserts that “performances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity”. (11) Piper’s drawn ad-works perform a repertoire that transfers knowledge about living as a gendered and racialized artist. In so doing, Piper’s Mythic Being ad-works contest the problem of being matter out-of-place at the time of her emergence in the New York art scene.
The manner in which Adrian Piper positions her Mythic Being ad-works enables her drawings to perform a repertoire that contests exclusion. Drawings, as static symbolic representation, may contribute to an archive of remembered experience. Does the quality of mimesis in drawings of human bodies allow them to stand in for actual embodied enactments? Might drawings of bodies staged in certain contexts perform knowledge in the manner of repertoire? Diana Taylor suggests the archive and the repertoire “are linked and mutually sustaining models that humans have developed to think about the transmission of knowledge”. (12) I suggest that the ways in which drawing is utilized by artists Guzman, Cheung, and Ware extends the archival into performed repertoire. Their drawings not only leave a record of life lived as matter out-of-place, but also actively perform in time and space. Their drawings proclaim and resignify belonging for themselves and their communities in spaces that disavow their being.
Coco Guzman is an artist who works in Canada and Spain. Guzman’s project Genderpoo, has been an ongoing installation set up in both galleries and public washrooms since 2008. Genderpoo started as Guzman’s response to often being “violently questioned” when trying to use the public washroom as a genderqueer person. (13) As a direct challenge to the binary symbols indicating the men’s or ladies’ toilet, Guzman drew a new sign—a mermaid with a moustache—to represent one variant of queer gender The Moustached Mermaid now leads installations of Genderpoo, and is one of dozens of invented iconographic signs that collectively work to complicate the presumption of a simple gender binary.
Guzman’s drawing style reduces the complex form of the human body to mechanically made shapes constructed from evenly weighted lines suggestive of vector-based digital graphics. In Stick Figures: Drawing as Human Practice, D.B. Dowd states, “the idea of the graphic points to something shared by all persons: the use of symbolic drawing to communicate”. (14) Dowd proposes the term glyph, “to capture linear symbolic drawing as means for asserting primary form”. (15) The conventional symbols found on public washroom door signage function as such glyphs claiming male and female as normative primary forms. These glyphs signify a binary that insists on the segregation of bodies and subsequently situates genderqueer bodies as matter out-of-place.
Guzman’s drawing style plays with this glyphic mode of representation to destabilize gender binary as an essential primary form. Dowd explains:
A mode must be matched to the surface it activates. The spatial aspect of the glyphic, associated with pictographs and alphabetic characters, is tabular. It involves the presentation of arrays and displays, flat as a page, opaque as a rock. In its purest form, the glyphic refuses depth; instead if throws up a single but infinite plane of meaning. (16)
Guzman uses the glyphic form to challenge the glyph’s own inherent singularity of meaning. By displaying an array of glyphs that depict the human body in many varied and diverse forms, Genderpoo suggests that the primary forms that gender may take are infinite. The glyphic symbols perform queer gender within the public washroom settings of their installation. Guzman explains that Genderpoo “is about the symbolism of communities and identities that are normally invisible”. (17) At some installations, the viewing public is invited to draw their own symbols to signify their lived experience of gender. Through displaying an array of drawn signs, Guzman offers a multiplicity of symbolic possibilities, subverting the oppressive binary of the glyphic marks that polarize gender into either male or female.
In 2019, Guzman installed Ver O No Ver (To See Or Not To See), a combination of the Genderpoo series and their on-site mural-like drawings in the public washroom of gallery Arsenal Habana at the XIII Havanna Bienale in Cuba. This public washroom was pasted with the glyphic signs and further embellished with large free-form drawings superimposed over the walls, floor and fixtures in the bathroom. Life-size black line drawings depict a semi-nude figure reclining in a bathtub. A moustached figure with breasts looks out from a mirror over the sink. A pile of crumpled clothing is drawn onto the floor tiles. Various objects—a toothbrush, eyeglasses, shampoo—are drawn over the sink and across the backsplash wall. Black outlines drawn onto the toilet bowl and extending across the floor delineate human legs and feet; a bellybutton embellishes the raised toilet seat. These life-sized line drawings sprawl freely over the three-dimensional contours of the distressed porcelain surfaces in the washroom in stark contrast to the grid of glyphic signs pasted on the surrounding walls.
In this installation for Arsenal Habana, Guzman’s drawings perform as repertoire within the contentious space of the public washroom. The large figure drawings of a genderqueer body occupy the public washroom. The array of glyphic signs on the walls continue to resist the essentialization of gender as a primary form that is binary. This is the only public toilet within the Arsenal Habana gallery. To use the washroom, patrons must share the space with the life-sized drawings of the genderqueer body. These figure drawings look out and elicit looking at, which leads to the question, is the viewer meant to feel self-conscious or uncomfortable at the intimation of being watched while using the toilet? The drawn figures seem unperturbed, oblivious to potential other bodies within their private space. The drawings’ embodied presence queers the space of the public washroom. As a repertoire, Guzman’s drawings activate knowledge of being seen, being conspicuous. The drawings bring into focus this experience of being matter out-of-place. These drawings, both figurative and glyphic, tag and territorialize dangerous public space while simultaneously affirming and imagining a public washroom for the genderqueer body.
Jeffrey Cheung, an artist and activist living and working in Oakland, California, uses drawing to affirm queer sexuality within the urban street space of skateboarding culture. As a teenager coming to terms with being gay, Cheung dropped out of skateboarding for a while because of the homophobic attitudes he encountered. (18) He was matter out-of-place as a gay youth within the “macho-bro” world of skateboarding. (19) With his partner Gabriel Ramirez, Cheung started Unity Press and Skateboards, a platform from which they organize skateboarding meet-ups for queer and trans youth and youth of colour. Unity offers free Risograph printing and skate deck give-aways for youth in these communities. Jack Halberstam points out that “queer subcultures . . . tend to form in relation to place” that they “are not simply spin-offs from some distinct youth culture like punk”. (20) Cheung’s drawings are integral to identifying these queer subcultural events as inclusive spaces for marginalized youth. Cheung says, “I think queer representation, visibility, resources, and space is very important and I think we are trying to provide those things”. (21)
Cheung makes figurative drawings of queer gendered bodies engaged in contortionist gestures of polyamorous love-making. There is an urgency to Cheung’s way of drawing bodies. The proportions of his figures are distorted, elongated, sometimes overlapping to the point of troubled legibility. These bodies are naked and sexualized, displaying breasts, bums, anuses, penises, and testicles, sometimes all at once, often with wildly textured hairy legs and sprouting furry armpits. His drawings are inked in a single coloured line or painted in many colours; bodies are brown, pink, white, orange, blue, red, yellow. Sometimes the dried brush stroke leaves visible evidence of his seemingly hurried technique. Cheung’s colourful polyamorous figures fill a myriad of compositional spaces to adorn t-shirts, stickers, flyers, and skateboard decks. Alive with energy, his figures appear to have spontaneously cloned themselves, run amok to populate every surface available in the urban landscape. These bodies relish in unabashed pleasure and resist cultural mores that would otherwise shame the non-normative displays of sexual gratification they revel in. Disseminated through printed merch such as hoodies, skateboards, and Risograph printed flyers, Cheung’s graphically jubilant figures tag both streets and skaters with Unity’s message of inclusion for queer, trans, and BIPOC youth. D.B. Dowd notes that the process of distributing graphic materials through print media is historically linked to knowledge access; “the act of drawing—harnessed to reproduction through platemaking and printing technologies—has served a different agenda: the acquisition and transmission of knowledge”. (22) Cheung observes that, “seeing queer representation in art and in life is very empowering and is very impactful”. (23) For queer youth and youth of colour, seeing Cheung’s figures on city walls and the bodies of other skaters transmits knowledge of affirmative belonging.
The manner in which Cheung’s drawings inhabit public space activates drawing as repertoire for queer belonging. Taylor understands repertoire as knowledge “transmitted through performance, orality, activism, and other embodied and everyday uses of space by subaltern subjects and communities”. (24) Cheung’s drawings occupy the urban street space where they act as signifiers of community-sanctioned safe zones for LGBTQ youth and youth of colour. The ubiquitous repetition of identifiable motifs within Cheung’s drawings—clone-like genderqueer figures, patterns of interlocking naked bodies, blissfully smiling faces—builds a graphic presence within the urban street environment. These identifiable visual motifs mark urban street space with tags of non-conforming gender and sexuality. Cheung’s drawing style brands his vision of queer community for youth—one that is inclusive and self-organized based on care and mentorship. Cheung’s drawings work as flags in a repertoire of social communication for, and within, a specific group of young marginalized bodies.
I would like to consider a third and final set of drawings made by Toronto-based artist, activist and scholar Syrus Marcus Ware, whose drawings perform a repertoire of empowerment against matter out-of-place. In his Activist Portrait Series, Ware employs a different graphic strategy from Guzman’s glyphs and Cheung’s motifs. Ware draws larger-than-life, vividly realistic graphite portraits of specific individuals from contemporary political movements such as Black Lives Matter. A series of eight of these large portraits was shown at the Art Gallery of York University and the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2017. To make these portraits, Ware uses graphite pencil on paper to render subtle value gradation and textures. He painstakingly shades and highlights the faces, clothing, and gestures of his subjects, providing an accurate likeness of each individual person. The drawings are physically demanding to create, requiring a ladder to reach the full height of the paper, and taking several days to complete.
Ware’s gesture to draw fellow activists in order to highlight their work fits into what Claire Gilman calls “the documentary turn in recent art, [where] drawing has rediscovered its original function of bringing the world into view”. (25) Historically the contributions and roles of people of colour have been minimized if not outright erased. Similarly, artists of colour have been disproportionately excluded from state art institutions. Black artists and Black subjects have been matter out-of-place on the most prestigious and sanctioned of gallery walls. Gilman suggests that the durational process to make carefully drawn reproductions offers “some value in the time spent, as if careful attention of other people’s actions is a form of commitment, one that might redefine the nature of political expression and art’s role in it”. (26) For Ware, the sustained act of drawing allows a close encounter with the people depicted. The time and perseverance required to execute these drawings facilitates an intimate and meditative process for Ware. He says making the drawings allows him to deeply consider the activist work his subjects have carried out, “as a way to get to know someone, to spend some time with them”. (27) John Berger suggests the act of drawing brings about a communion with whatever object or person is being drawn. When drawing, Berger notes, “each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become”. (28) Drawing sets up a correspondence with the object under study, affording an intimate relationship between artist and subject. The studied attention evident in Ware’s drawings brings his subjects into close proximity with visiting gallery patrons. The drawings contest that activist labour is matter out-of-place within the bounds of the art gallery.
The grand scale of Ware’s drawings proclaims a sense of importance and significance for his subjects. Ware says, “there’s something nice about flipping that record and having portraits of unlikely people, drawn with reverence and a scale that really honours the large effect they’re having in my life or in the world”. (29) Diana Taylor notes that activists may employ large scale representations such as giant puppets, enlarged photographs, and huge placards to theatrically perform collective experiences of violence as well as to express cultural agency. (30) Drawing portraits on a majestic scale inserts these activist figures into the canon of officially sanctioned portraiture. Ware’s large portraits take up space—a lot of gallery wall space—and in doing so demand a place within the state institutional gallery. Ware says:
I began exploring portraiture and painting also as a way of painting my community into art history, and as a way to document my reality. I have been drawn to portraiture to render invisible lives visible: trans activists, political heroes, people with disabilities painted large in a style and medium previously reserved for dignitaries, and wealthy patrons. The artistic tradition of painting is impacted in reinforcing systemic structures such as class hierarchies, racism and defining which humans are valuable. My work attempts to interrupt this process by re-entering the frame around ‘unintelligible bodies’, those on the margins. (31)
Ware’s large-scale, detailed, and realistic drawings of Black and brown bodies resist the exclusionary habits of predominantly white curators and historians who more often bypass and overlook people of colour.
Ware further magnifies and elevates his subjects through the aesthetics of tonal realism. D.B. Dowd observes that, unlike a colour painting which immerses the viewer in illusionistic reality, a drawing constructed of only achromatic greys requires a mental process that discerns and compares the contrasting values in order to perceive the image. (32) “Light and dark, totally or only substantially drained of colour, can be used to deliver visual experiences that embody the faculty of discrimination”. (33) This cognitive process of evaluating the graphic qualities of the image, Dowd suggests, constructs a “morally oriented work”. (34) Ware renders the bodies of his activist subjects with subtle variations in black, white, and grey, imbuing them, literally, with value. This stripped-down tonality of his drawings infuses Ware’s subjects with his discernment of their high regard and his subsequent claim for their recognition. By animating these activists through graphic likenesses, Ware claims space for his drawings and consequently the political realities they embody. The achromatic graphic scale of Wa