What would a Miss Lesbian beauty queen look like? How are spaces for gay people in Britain evolving? How has the internet changed sex? How do the press treat the sexuality of celebrities? How does your gender shape your experience of the world?
The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool has spent two years researching British LGBT history since 1967 – the year of the Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised homosexual acts in England and Wales – and has found many answers to these questions through more than 100 artworks, from films by Steve McQueen and Issac Julien and photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans, Sarah Lucas and Zanele Muholi, Hadrian Pigott’s soap sculptures – and even tarot card reading courtesy of John Walters.
Portrait of Derek Jarman, 1996–1997, by Richard Hamilton. Courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © The artist
1967 was also the year David Hockney’s iconic painting, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, was awarded the John Moores Painting Prize (the work is on show at the Walker). Yet many of the other artists and the meanings of their works (like Hockney’s, his relationship to his subject not being explicitly identified at the time) in this exhibition have been overlooked, and the research reveals huge gaps in what institutes and museums have been presenting and what artists have been making over the past four decades.
‘Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity’ is a landmark exhibition in terms of depth and breadth on LGBT contemporary art, drawn from the Walker’s own collection and the Arts Council Collection. It includes diverse artists, eschewing a single narrative on LGBT experience, but united in exploring non-cis gender and sexuality, and viewing art being one of the few places where all kinds of ideas and free expression can safely exist.
Ultimately, of course, this exhibition does not only address LGBT people, but insists on the relevance of these kinds of questions in the art world, and as part of a successful society. ‘The exhibition also forms part of an even greater ambition for us,’ says curator Charlotte Keenan, ‘to make queer British art and its importance to art history permanently visible within our galleries.’ Significantly, one of the galleries has been left empty, ready to be filled in with the future.