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Steve Compton is an artist and the curator of "I Can't Put My Finger On It,"an exhibition at San Francisco's 509 Cultural Center/Luggage Store Gallery. We met in his apartment high above the Castro to look at slides, and talk about
creativity, identity and sexuality....


BH: You've selected a dozen extremely diverse artists for your exhibition, "I Can't Put My Finger On It." Would you agree that much of their work focuses on identity and the "construction" of identity?

SC: All the artists in this exhibition could be considered "outsiders" and they have had to define themselves in order to survive psychically and spiritually. The first artist that comes to mind is Loren Cameron, a female to male transsexual. His photographic portraits and self-portraits literally show us the construction of a male identity. Besides photography, his medium is his own body. In changing many of the insignia that previously identified him as a woman, he has sculpted himself into someone totally different.

BH: A dramatic demonstration that the identity we were assigned at birth--blue for boys, pink for girls--isn't fixed. But is the sexual identity of the artist a legitimate area of inquiry?

SC: Yes, I believe it is. Artists' biographies have been popular reading material since Vasari's Lives of the Artists was first published in the 16th century. We really want to know the details of artists' lives because the forces that have shaped their identity also direct their creative process and the way we understand it.

BH: Awareness of the artist's sexual identity allows us to consider other levels of meaning in their work.

 

SC: Right. And it gives us a different perspective that takes us beyond our own assumptions. Much of the art we see in the world's museums reflects the heterosexual male's desires. This "male gaze" has produced countless images of the female nude, touted as the quintessence of beauty. But if the artist has a different gender or orientation, the gaze shifts, offering other possibilities based on different standards. It changes the balance of power in the relationship between artist, subject and viewer. For example, one of Renoir's favorite models was the painter Valadon. It is interesting to look at the way Renoir depicted her and then see how she depicted herself in her own work.

BH: What about the relation between sex and creativity?

SC: It seems to me that a good deal of human creativity is tied to problem solving: new problems need creative solutions. Freud connects the creative impulse to sexuality by saying that creativity extends from a traumatic childhood experience of sexual origin. According to Freud, the creative person substitutes a forbidden knowledge with a permissible curiosity. After witnessing sexual intimacy or experiencing sexual urges, the child/artist is given to explore new forms of representation.

So much of our cultural experience is about denying the body. Traditional Western cosmology teaches that an integral approach to the mind, body and spirit is anathema. Rather, the goal is to separate yourself from the body and through that process come into your spiritual life "pure" and "untainted."

Stephanie Wilger is an artist who challenges this view. She says that the search for a spiritual life starts at the hips. For her, all meaning emanates from the body, a thing to celebrate. After all, we experience the world through our senses--our bodies.

BH: There is a subculture of gay men that takes this to an extreme, focusing on the body to the exclusion of most everything else, relating with their bodies to a world that consists of other bodies.

SC: But I question whether they're relating to their bodies or denying their bodies and obsessing on an ideal? There's a presumption that a certain look will guarantee acceptance and security. For them life is not about real bodies with wrinkles or zits: it's the bronzed, buffed, young love god.

BH: A category which none of the artists fit into...

SC: No, nor does the majority of humanity.

BH: Well, I don't know... walking around Chelsea or the Castro on a sunny Saturday you have to wonder... or for that matter, watching TV or looking at billboards, you get a very different impression.

SC: It is the body as commodity. We've created an ideal and we sometimes sacrifice our reality to it.

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