Andrew Graham, Daren Young—Tough Love

Complexities of Social Justice
Part II

December 18, 2008 - February 6, 2009

Andrew Graham, Daren Young—Tough Love

Your sexual preference is not a choice; your sexual identity is not a choice. I tried to deny my sexual identity for years and tried to ‘fix it’ and ‘become normal,’ but it doesn’t work that way.
Bruce Bastian, On Point, NPR, 12/1/08

Homosexuality and its acceptance have doomed most of the world to eternal damnation.
Fred Phelps, Sr., It Could Get Ugly, The Winnipeg Sun, 8/8/2008

Omnia vincit Amor. [Love conquers all.]
Virgil, Eclogue X, Eclogues, circa 44 BC

The second of three art exhibitions exploring themes of social justice, tough love examines gay rights, samesex marriage and specific anti-gay rhetoric through the eyes of two emerging artists, Daren Young and Andrew Graham (‘99). Juxtaposing their work contributes to the ongoing dialogue about LGBTQ politics, first amendment rights and issues of equality. Coupling Young's and Graham's particular works offer a glimpse at two marginalized groups advocating for opposing shifts in thought. While far from being an attempt to tackle the whole argument, tough love nevertheless acts as a portrait and a contemporary snapshot of our cultural dilemma around alternative lifestyles and rights—or the lack thereof—regarding the interpretation of some of our most cherished laws, ideals and institutions. One the surface, tough love is a juxtaposition of seemingly diametrically opposed artistic and moralistic points of view—one artist’s work pro-LGBTQ rights, the other artist’s against such rights. However, tough love is not so much about identifying one side or the other as much as it is about urging us to go beyond superficial judgment to take a closer look at the deep rooted feelings, longings, and the trappings and emotional blockades that engulf same gender love.

The work of Daren Young (Salt Lake City, Utah) explores issues of “normalcy” from homosexual and heterosexual points of view. In particular, his drawings series Snapshots from My Youth: Pivotal Moments from 1969 to 1978—a series of well-crafted children’s book-like illustrations presented as Polaroids from a scrapbook—evocatively provides the personal insight of his struggle to acknowledge his sexuality. Concomitantly, his provocative multimedia documentary style installation, You’re Invited: A Virtual Wedding, focuses on eight same-gender couples who share there experiences about the pros and cons of same sex marriage through documentary interviews, while his “snapshot” drawings of each couple symbolically retains their testimony. Few artists blend stand alone drawing with moving video images, but Young’s leaves a lasting and haunting impression. Young has only recently turned to art as a vehicle for his activism and has already established himself as a key player in the ongoing drama of queer politics in his home state. The Thompson Gallery would have been very pleased to exhibit Young’s actual drawings, however, his solo exhibition Homo/evocative—which runs during the same dates as the present show—is the first major focus on his work in his hometown and we salute this concurrent event by providing “virtual copies” of his work for tough love.

An informed look is required to get past the surface messages imbedded in Graham’s paintings—painted replicas of the placards, which Fred Phelps and his ministry at the Westboro Baptist Church, [WBC] Topeka, Kansas, use during there now infamous and notorious anti-gay protests at various events, which include gay pride gatherings, military funerals, Christian and political gatherings. Graham’s work does not so much give credence to the actions and doings of the Phelps family and ministry as much as it points to it. Graham wants to insure it is duly considered and discussed, but is reticent to speak up about his own politics or “which side he is on”—preferring a more neutral position that forces viewers to make up their own minds. Graham wants his sign paintings to “raise questions about organized religion,” which in his view is in great need of reform in many sects, citing the WBC as a potent example. Graham follows the WBC’s events and is quite literally becoming a WBC aficionado with an aim to keep a watchful eye and report back what he finds. Graham’s work is complicated to consider as it not only exposes some gray areas of the first amendment—as evidenced by the WBC’s didactics and their tactics of picketing just about everyone—but also because of the subtle irony in the work. “Taking sides” is furthermore exacerbated in light of the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” and Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius’ bill signed into law establishing a 150-foot no-picketing buffer zone around funerals—both these legislative acts are government responses to hinder the WBC. In this context, Graham’s paintings oscillate between the rights of free speech versus the wholesale apocalypse and hatred promoted by the WBC’s imagery. Impeccably painted, the ugly messages require adopting the WBC’s attitudes in order to understand their precise meaning.

Thus, the place where Young’s and Graham’s art intersect is one that points to the heart of their matter, so to speak—the exhibition’s namesake. Graham captured the essence with these words:

‘Tough’ can be seen as 'difficult to understand'—considering homosexuality, or any sexuality—it can also be seen? as ‘strong,' 'resilient,' 'able to withstand,' and in that sense, talks about the power of truth. A ‘tough love’ would be a love that has struggled enormously and yet has survived. A ‘tough love' would also be the Phelps family's love of their God, and religion in general. There is also of course the term as it applies to parents and their kids, or teachers and their students and so on, as it is used to refer to a technique of 'behavior modification.' This 'cruel to be kind' way of thinking is at the core of the WBC's reasoning, both in how they see themselves and in how they perceive their God. They picket funerals and terrorize people to 'save souls' just as ‘God sends hurricanes and flies planes into buildings to do the same.’ In terms of the current equal rights climate with California's Prop. 8 amendment and such, the law takes on this authoritative role, looking after it's citizens by punishing them. Love is the behavior these laws attempt to modify. A ‘tough love’ then starts to look identical to hate. Maybe they are one in the same?

Indeed, we use the phrase “tough love” when we find ourselves acting out of a complex situation of balancing perceived, positive ideals with known negative actions, and when we are compelled to do “the hard thing,” or “the right thing” precisely because of intense feelings of devotion, despite the hardship that such actions cause. When you add the notion of social justice to this kind of emotionally charged thinking, the complexity compounds and splinters even more. Ultimately, tough love questions the morality behind the clash of cultural versus private “pursuits of happiness.”

Todd Bartel
Gallery Director, Curator
Thompson Gallery

The Cambridge School of Weston is a progressive high school for day and boarding students in grades 9–12 and PG. CSW's mission is to provide a progressive education that emphasizes deep learning, meaningful relationships, and a dynamic program that inspires students to discover who they are and what their contribution is to their school, their community and the world.