True to Self: Gender Treason

akikoFrom a position of authority treason is betrayal; an attack on the establishment, a strike against the old ways. But, treason can also be the start of something greater; the spark of revolution or the beginning of a great shift. Gender Treason, a show of 12 large scale portraits and accompanying interviews by artist/activist Ryan Wilks, seeks to visualize just such a shift, a shift in consciousness. Wilks defines gender treason as, “the bravest act of defying culturally imposed stereotypes surrounding sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in order to honor one’s own definition of self.”(x) After a year’s worth of work, a very successful kickstarter campaign and an inspiration grant from ArtsKC, Gender Treason will premiere this summer at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in Kansas City, Missouri. A portion of the proceeds from painting sales will be donated to various LGBTQIA focused charities in the area.

The inspiration for Gender Treason came with the double edged sword of progression and outrage following the supreme court’s ruling on marraige equality passed in 2015. Seeing the ruling as a tremendous step forward for the queer community and a sign of shifting attitudes and understanding of gender and sexuality, Wilks saw an opportunity ripe for new introductions. He felt, “compelled to commemorate this historical awakening in collective consciousness and to cultivate a platform for queer persons within Kansa City to share their largely unheard stories, one at a time, while people are more receptive than ever.”(x)

Untitled design

Gay Fat, 48×56, oil on canvas

This isn’t Wilks first foray into activism, in 2014 he organized a protest group via facebook in response to the passing of house bill 2453 which allowed businesses to legally refuse services to any patrons, queer or otherwise on the grounds of religious freedom. The page he and friend Jen Harris launched quickly gained the support of 10,000 people. “We made our voices heard. And it was that moment…that I realized that my art needed to have an activist quality to it.”(x)

The works and accompanying interviews seek to focus on giving a candid look into what it is to be queer in the bible belt of the midwest. Wilks describes the stories he’s collected as exceedingly normal. “Our human experience is not vastly different than anyone else’s, we’re just people.”(x) The final projects will be equal parts education and entertainment. The process has been a learning experience for Wilks as well who had to seek out his subjects, “even as gay man there’s so much I don’t know about my own culture. So as much as this is a learning opportunity for everyone living in Kansas City, gay or straight, it’s definitely a learning opportunity for me.”(x)

Beating Face, 56x63, oil on canvas

Beating Face, 56×63, oil on canvas

Formally speaking the work is imposing, but not threatening, sensual but not sexualized. Wilks’ subjects are vibrant and full of life. Colors leak out in technicolor halos reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud’s food paintings with a definite pop-art edge. Many of the portraits are painted nude but don’t feel over-exposed. Though special attention has been given to the slick contours of their faces and bodies, they retain a sense of personality and identity that is crucial for the pieces to function as teaching tools giving insight to their respective experiences.The paintings would be incomplete without the interviews that will be presented side by side as vinyl wall text. A literary element was always part of the plan for Wilks to give a more complete and personal account of the people he has painted. Details of paintings and interview excerpts have been posted online via Wilks’ facebook page and website but for the full effect guests will have to catch the show when it opens July 1st.

ALSO BY AKIKO:

APPROCHING THE BODY: IN SHAME AND JOY

FABARTS HISTORY: ALMA THOMAS

FABART ON VIEW: THE MENIL COLLECTION

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Akiko Surai, the Contributing Editor of Contemporary Art, is a visual artist and correspondent living in Southern California. Keep up with Akiko here.


 

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