For two decades a-n member, curator, creative consultant and writer Gemma Rolls-Bentley‘s curatorial practice has amplified the work of female and queer artists, providing a platform for art that explores LGBTQIA+ identity. She curated the Brighton Beacon Collection, the largest permanent display of queer art in the UK, and earlier this year curated ‘A Million Candles: Illuminating Queer Love & Life’ at the London Art Fair.

Gemma is also a creative consultant and advisor for numerous brands, organisations, and cultural projects, in addition to teaching at numerous institutions including the Royal College of Art, the Glasgow School of Art, and Goldsmiths.

This month she is embarking on a short tour in support of her debut book, ‘Queer Art; From Canvas to Club and the Spaces Between‘, which celebrates the richness and diversity of queer creativity by featuring the work of 200 artists making work between the late 1960s and the present day. Here she speaks to us about how the book came to fruition, how she selected the artists, her hopes for the wider impact of the publication beyond the art community, and the need for ‘creative health’.

What is the aim of Queer Art: From Canvas to Club, and the Spaces Between and how did the book come about?

I wrote ‘Queer Art’ because I passionately believe that art has the power to change the way we think, to start a conversation, to help us consider someone else’s ideas or begin to imagine a better future. 

I wanted to write a book that anyone could read, whether they already knew about art or not. I wanted a book that showed LGBTQIA+ people that art plays an important role in capturing, expressing and shaping our identity. It’s so important to see ourselves reflected in art and culture, whoever you are. Seeing art that feels like it speaks to us can be validating and can foster a sense of belonging.

I also wanted to write a book for people outside of the queer community to learn about our experiences, to see a range of nuanced perspectives and to experience the vivid joy and creativity that’s so central to queer life. 

Over the last decade I’ve increasingly been working with queer artists in my curatorial practice and other art projects. As a result of my work I’ve had several people – other curators, museum staff, collectors and art lovers more generally – ask me to recommend a book that provides an accessible introduction to queer art. I couldn’t find a book that considered queer art within the context of the current moment or that felt super accessible to everyone. 

A lot has happened in the last 50 years, since the Stonewall riots gave birth to the global pride movement, but particularly in the past 10 years as the queer art movement has continued to gain momentum. ‘Queer Art’ isn’t a chronological history, it’s arranged in three acts – queer spaces, queer bodies and queer power. The art is curated by different themes and viewed through a variety of lenses that are relevant to anyone – home, intimacy, love etc. Ideas that anyone can connect with.

Jess T. Dugan, SueZie, 51, and Cheryl, 55, Valrico, FL from ‘To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults’, Jess T. Dugan, 2015. © Jess T. Dugan

The book features almost 200 artworks. How did you select the artists to be included?

I have included art in the book that reflects on the queer experience, either explicitly or implicitly. Because I had limited space to work with (in which I managed to squeeze almost 200 artworks!) I have primarily focussed on artists who identify as LGBTQIA+, but there are a few examples of artists who have become part of the community as allies. For example Chantal Regnault whose photograph Iconic Mother Avis Pendavis and Daughter Evie, House of Chanel Ball, Marc Ballroom New York 1990 (1990) is a beautiful image of the bond and love shared by a mother and daughter brought together as chosen family through the Harlem ballroom scene of the early 90s.

Most artists in the book identify as LGBTQIA+, some are prominent artists who may or may not be typically viewed through a queer lens, such as Robert Indiana or David Hockney, who I wanted to almost ‘reclaim’ for the queer community. There is power in seeing ourselves reflected in the work of leading artists such as these. There is also an opportunity for people outside of the community to gain a bit more understanding into the queer experience by viewing artists like Indiana and Hockney through a queer lens, realising that we’ve always been there and appreciating the contributions of queers through history. 

Christina Quarles, Try n’ Pull tha Rains in on Me, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 x 5.1 cm (84 x 72 x 2 in)

Do you have any personal highlights from the selections?

So many! I’m in love with every work in the book! Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait Cutting is a special piece for me. It’s a work I’ve loved since I saw it in the early 2000s. It moved me then and still does now because it does an incredible job of communicating the longing, pain and determination that can be part of the queer experience. I curated an exhibition at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Art in New York in 2023 called ‘Dreaming of Home’ that took it’s starting point from this piece of Cathy’s.

A special moment for me was visiting the painter Christina Quarles when she was on a residency in Somerset in the UK. She was making a new painting called Try n’ Pull tha Rains in on Me and whilst she painted, we had a long conversation about the importance of artists exploring their queerness in their work. Since first seeing her work in person at the South London Gallery, I have felt connected to her practice, and I see myself and my people in her paintings. This particular piece has a huge rainbow running across the canvas whilst several figures tenderly share space and dissolve into one another. When Christina and I spoke about which of her paintings to include in the book this was the obvious choice, and I’m delighted to share it with the world – it’s so joyful and vibrant.

Laurence Philomene, Bedroom Candles from the series ‘Puberty’, 2020. © Laurence Philomène

How else do you feel the work of LGBTQIA+ artists could be amplified?

It’s so important that traditional art spaces such as galleries and museums support and exhibit queer art. A lot of the work in the book comes from spaces outside of the mainstream art world because that’s where queer creativity has existed and thrived, in the club, on a dance floor or stage, or outside in the street at a protest. In recent years we have seen arts institutions begin to step up and programme queer work but there’s still a long way to go, particularly in the commercial side of the art world.

I also think the wider queer community has a key role to play in amplifying the art that speaks to our identities and experiences. That support can take many different formats – buying work (because all artists need to make a living), championing artists on social media or giving a platform to queer artists where ever possible. 

You also curated the ‘Brighton Beacon Collection’. How important has Brighton been to LGBTQIA+ artists?

Brighton has been a queer hub for LGBTQIA+ people for decades. In fact, the historic records of queer and trans people in Brighton date as far back as the Napoleonic war. I keep joking that the sailors came, so the gays came, and they stayed. But on a more serious note, it’s important for queer people to establish communities and create homes in environments that feel safe and nurturing. Brighton has absolutely been that place for British queers, and still is. It’s one of the only places I spend time that I’d feel comfortable holding my wife’s hand in the street. I called the collection I built the ‘Brighton Beacon Collection’ to respond to the city’s key role in British queer life. The collection has 50 artists in it, from globally recognised stars such as Catherine Opie and Wolfgang Tilmans, to earlier career and emerging artists who studied or spent time in Brighton, such as Michaela Yearwood Dan and Jake Grewal, to local Brighton artists and activists such as Fox Fisher and the Museum of Transology. 

Slava Mogutin, Anton Smoking from the series ‘Lost Boys’, 2000. © Slava Mogutin

You also co-chair the board of Queercircle. How does the charity support the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community?

The charity works at the intersection of art, activism, health and wellbeing, which feels increasingly necessary in the UK’s current climate. Since the organisation’s inception, director Ashley Joiner and his brilliant team have worked really thoughtfully to understand and respond to the LGBTQIA+ community’s needs. Research is conducted through workshops, open forums and building long term meaningful relationships with a range of organisations working closely with marginalised communities. Our programmes are developed in response to the findings and are very much community driven.

Last year Queercircle produced the Queer Creative Health Report and commissioned Meg John Barker to design a zine in response. Creative health is anything that brings creativity and the arts together with health – such as art therapies, creatively expressing our health experiences, bringing art into healthcare settings or making health practices accessible through creativity. Queer people experience worse health struggles than others and health systems are not often safe enough for queer, and other marginalised people, to access. Off the back of the report’s findings, Queercircle launched the Queer Creative Health Network who meet regularly to support each other, share ideas and resources, and work collaboratively to imagine how creative practices might positively impact the health of our communities.

Queer Art: From Canvas to Club and the Spaces Between is out on now through Frances Lincoln Publishing, priced £25.

Upcoming book tour dates:

13 June – The Whitworth, Manchester

14 June – Imaginary Wines, Todmorden

20 June – Neue House, New York

23 June – The Naughty Pine, Fire Island

27 June – Pallant House, Chichester

16 July – 180 The Strand, London

17 August – Edinburgh Art Festival

Top image: Gemma Rolls-Bentley. Photo: Christa Holka