Deborah Bright’s Art Puts the Sex Back in Sexuality

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

When Deborah Bright began work on her Dream Girls series in 1989, only four years after she came out, she wasn’t just asserting a queer voice in the art world. The photography series, in which she inserts herself into classic film stills alongside leading women and men — her sleek, androgynous image imbuing the stills with queer sexual tension — plays with sexuality, desire, gender roles, and Hollywood’s unspoken queer histories. As the conservative backlash against LGBTQ+ and women’s rights gained ground in United States politics, Bright’s art laid bare a universe of queer desire beneath a facade of heteronormative love in popular culture. 

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

At the center of sexuality in Bright’s visual and conceptual sphere is the allure of sex. The artist has never shied away from the steamy physical side of desire: libidinous energy permeates her imagery and gives it an exciting immediacy. She has followed this brazen path throughout her impressive career as a visual artist, educator, and writer. In addition to publishing numerous essays, she edited the acclaimed anthology The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire (1998), which examines how bodies are represented in photography through a queer lens. And she’s influenced countless younger artists across her decades as a professor at Harvard University, the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, and Pratt University, among other institutions.

Since Bright retired from her position as Pratt’s Chair of Fine Art in 2017, she’s returned to her painting and drawing roots, with pop-colored compositions that seem to manifest free-flowing desire through abstract forms. Look closely, though, and those abstract forms start to look a lot like sex toys. It was a pleasure to talk to Bright by email about queer desire, sex positivity, and what’s next in the latest phase of her wonderfully vibrant and irreverent art.


Hyperallergic: You came out during the AIDS crisis. What made you choose that moment and what was it like coming out then?

Deborah Bright: Did I choose the time or did the time choose me? I was raised in a conservative Christian home during the postwar 1950s–’60s. Yet I knew as a young girl that I had special feelings for particular girlfriends and older women, but like 99.9% of girls my age, I assumed I’d marry a man because there was no visible alternative. The boys I dated were friends more than objects of desire and that continued through college even though I had several intense, nonsexual relationships with women. In 1980, I married a man I’d been living with but five years later, fell into the arms of an out lesbian. Finally! A different outcome! No more marriage, but for the first time I felt like a whole person and it was exhilarating. And yes, I came out right smack dab into the AIDS crisis, but as a newly minted, out-and-proud lesbian, I was more than ready to fight against the social, medical, and religious bigotry that was killing so many. 

H: In 1998 you edited the anthology The Passionate Camera. How did that come about and what was the response to it?

DB: In 1994, I edited an issue of Exposure, the journal of the Society for Photographic Education, on sex-radical photography. This inspired me to want to create a more comprehensive record of sex-radical image-making and writing in the decade after the AIDS crisis transformed queer activism and the NEA scandals caused institutional retrenchment. I also wanted to account for the role of the feminist culture war over pornography that pitted women, both queer and straight, against each other, a war egged on by religious and cultural conservatives who wanted to ban all images of sexual subjects they didn’t approve of, especially queer subjects.  

I took note, too, of how quickly the pushback on the achievements of second-wave feminism was mobilized by the same constituencies that elected Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t at all sure that the limited gains in public visibility and agency that we had achieved by the mid-1990s would be sustained so I wanted to put a book in classrooms and libraries that would ensure those stories were told. 

The Passionate Camera was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in Visual Art and widely welcomed. Though it’s been 26 years since it was published, people still come up to me at museum talks and conferences and thank me for the book, telling me how much it informed and inspired them. Mission accomplished! 

H: You spent years as an educator. Have you seen a lot of changes in younger generations?

DB: Sexual and gender diversity and the capacity to act on the truth of one’s lived experience (for those with social and economic agency) have expanded exponentially over the years since I was doing my best to “make good trouble” as a teacher of photography and critical studies. Social media and the internet have changed everything. … The White conservative backlash against “wokeness” is as much a campaign to roll back the gains of women and racial minorities as it is against equality for queer/trans people. While it echoes what we experienced 35 years ago with the opportunistic attacks on PWAs (People with AIDS) and “Feminazis,” today’s reactionaries have much more political power and are financed by corporate billionaires, the likes of which have already corrupted the Supreme Court. And worse may be yet to come.

H: I love the sex positivity of your work, and it’s focused not just on women’s desire, but also on men (Cool Hand drawing series) and free-flowing desire. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of your art?

DB: Though the new work in drawing and painting seems very different from what interested me as a photographer, there were earlier projects that directly anticipated what I’m doing now. In the early 1990s I began to reexamine certain childhood memories of queer desire before it could be named: watching movies (Dream Girls); playing with toy horses (Being & Riding); and the Cool Hand drawings that you asked about that are on my website but have never been shown publicly. Also, my time as a board member at the Leslie-Lohman Museum deepened my familiarity with queer visual work across all media and genres. I also credit my time at Pratt with putting me back in touch with how much I had always loved drawing and the elemental alchemy of making a mark that is also a symbol.

And what motivates my mark-making? Feelings, desires, wanting to bring something that matters to me into visible form. And yes, my desires are pretty fluid and I openly embrace the different erotic subjectivities that inhabit my brain, from Hothead Paisan to gay cowboys and androgynous comic book heroes. Humor is always important — not taking myself too seriously and letting the playfulness come through. About the sex toys: they are so widely used yet fraught with such heavy social and psychic baggage in Puritan America. Doesn’t everybody have a vibrator? Why does the world act as though we don’t? Some sex toys are works of art in themselves with the prices to match. Why not celebrate objects that can add so much zest and pleasure to life? One of the best things about being older is that you give less of a shit about what other people might think. You just barrel on through with your truth and let the chips fall where they may.

H: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything specific now?

DB: For the past year I’ve been making a series of drawings that are whimsical mashups of Ed Paschke and Betty Parsons. Paschke was a celebrated Chicago Imagist who was a straight man with a very queer and camp sensibility. Parsons was a semi-closeted lesbian who was an abstract painter and sculptor as well as a famous art dealer in the 1950s. Paschke’s upbringing was Polish Catholic working-class while Parsons was from East Coast aristocracy (though her family disinherited her for getting divorced from her alcoholic socialite husband). The two artists were of distinctly different generations and from completely different planets in every respect, including their aesthetics. But it pleases me to marry them in my works. The creative task for me is integrating aspects of such opposing sensibilities into new compositions that still work. I’m not always on the money but the challenge keeps me going!

H: How are you celebrating Pride Month?

DB: My partner, Liz, and I will join a group of good friends at the Dyke March and for a celebratory dinner afterwards. I love wearing my “DYKE” T-shirt, courtesy of the excellent publication WMN: Lesbian Art and Poetry, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. 

Source: Hyperallergic.com

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

No votes yet.
Please wait...
Loading...