This Latinx non-binary artist is honoring their LGBTQ+ ancestors with a sexual Renaissance

This Latinx non-binary artist is honoring their LGBTQ+ ancestors with a sexual Renaissance

You are currently viewing This Latinx non-binary artist is honoring their LGBTQ+ ancestors with a sexual Renaissance
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Michael Espinoza showing off “Polaroid III (unknown)” in their art studio.
Michael Espinoza showing off “Polaroid III (unknown)” in their art studio.

In a wooded park in downtown Portland, Oregon, two scruffy-faced artists in black t-shirts and cut-off jean shorts hold a pop-up ceremony for “queer burials.”

Standing over a makeshift altar — made of a wooden box topped with crystals, a bouquet of white flowers, and four books written by queer authors — the artists point their pink-gloved hands in the shape of a downward triangle.

“This is a sign of resistance,” the non-binary Hispanic artist Michael Espinoza tells the onlookers, before reading sections from each book. This a ritual, Espinoza says, for “binding the sadness of Our queer bodies to the queer literary bodies” of queer artists who lost their lives to persecution, erasure, disease, suicide, closets, and forgetting.

“In many cases, queer ancestors lived and died without the recognition of a community, the ability to realize their identity, full participation in family, and if the worst of cases, persecution and execution,” Espinoza writes on their website.

Espinoza’s artwork combines photography, embroidery, performance art, and other approaches to honor our dead and to “translate” queer bodies “into an offering for the Ancestors by becoming a landscape depicting the future,” they write.

HIV and queerphobia are just two epidemics that have taken countless queer artists from the world. During the COVID pandemic, Espinoza explored the concept “strategies for survival” by making works that reflected themes of community activism, the resilience of queer embodiment, and a distrust of public health institutions. One of these was a small face mask made of black and pink condom wrappers and also a glory hole made out of medical face masks.

“The glory hole has been used as a harm reduction technology limiting the transmission of both HIV and COVID 19,” he wrote. “What are other sexual technologies that have been used to reduce harm?”

Espinoza was recently accepted as a summer artist-in-residence for the Tom of Finland House in Los Angeles and as an artist showcased in the 2024 Oregon Contemporary Artist’s Biennial.

In our conversation, we discussed whether OnlyFans has started a new gay sex renaissance, the queer ancestors that most inspire them, and how art teaches queers how to survive.

Which queer artists excite you the most?

I get a lot of my inspiration from artists who were living queer lives and perished from AIDS-related complications, such as David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Blanchon, Patrick Angus and many more.

If you haven’t heard of some of these artists, look them up; they made queer art when it was even more dangerous than it is now. I am in the process of asking for guidance to learn how to do my work from queer ancestors, and having these artists to name is very important to me.

When you say “what artists excite” me, you’re probably referring to contemporary artists. I am most excited by right now by the photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya. I think I’ve learned a lot from his work about how to see my own body and how to use art as a conduit for community.

I’m also really influenced by other queer fiber artists working today. Sal Salandra’s thread paintings are weird and funny and magnificent, Jordan Nassar makes meticulous embroidery work about his Palestinian identity, I’m really inspired by the work of Aubrey Longley Cook who makes very precise queer pop culture embroideries, and my friend Greg Hatch who is an Ohio felt artist — very sweet and talented.

I’m also really excited by my queer friends with who work in different media: Edgar Fabián Frías, multi media installation & performance artist, the performance artist Pepper Pepper, sculpture artist Molly Alloy, and collage artist Oscar Zamora Gallegos, just to name a few.

What do you make of the fact that more gay and bi men are embracing and commercializing their sexuality on OnlyFans and other platforms? Is it evidence of a liberated gay sex Renaissance or a homogenous reduction of gay male culture to porny cliches?

The inspiration for much of my work is the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS disco era where our community saw a great deal of sexual liberation. There’s been a similar Renaissance happening between the advent of PrEP and … the beginning of [mpox] or up to the start of COVID [where more queer men were using social media more often to share their sexual selves].

The observation that there is a sexual Renaissance happening is apt and I think that it’s empowering to participate in it. I see parallels if we look back into history, particularly in Weimar Germany, Pompeii before the eruption, and so on.

My historical perspective as an artist and as a practitioner of queer sexual liberation is that as a community we will always come together to celebrate our sexual liberation whenever it’s possible. Our ability as a community to take advantage of these opportunities is very important.

I’m interested in the ways that we have organized communities around sex, sexuality, and sex practices, and sought collective liberation. As a corollary, I’m interested in the ways we organize around teaching each other to survive, whether it’s by promoting non-penetrative sexual practices — i.e. bate culture, BDSM etc., — by teaching each other how to practice safer sex with condoms or by teaching each other u=u (undetectable equals untransmittable), or by communicating our HIV- and STI-status to practice informed risk.

I learned safer sex from peers & elders in the context of pursuing sexual pleasure. This is one of our strengths as a community, and while I have a lot of fears about risk, I’m heartened by how we’ve come together to spread information and updates as mpox makes its way through our bodies.

As for porn clichés, I think that we have access to sexual expression that we didn’t have in previous generations. The fact that I carry a porn production studio around with me at all times makes it very tempting to make porn, right? The way that I see, my actual way of seeing, is heavily influenced by the Internet; my existence on the Internet has been heavily influenced by looking at pornographic images.

I don’t think that I could make queer art that was not influenced by porn aesthetics. I feel like I may be participating in a type of cliché, but a cliché today may be an artistic movement in the future. I don’t have any shame about participating in it. I’ve even been toying around with the idea of participating in sex work as an art form.

To explore this I’ve been having conversations with and interactions with sex workers who are, in their way, making novel art forms, using their bodies to produce artistic content. If I accept that sex work is an art form, what does the artwork look like and how do I make it? My ultimate goal is to learn to move past the shame I associate with sex and to empower myself and my community to use my sex and sexuality as a tool for empowerment, making beauty, and communicating the truth of our existence.

I am aware that I’m conventionally attractive to some people, but my sexiness comes from the fact of my existence — as does yours. As such, I wish to see every person I come into contact with as carrying an erotic potential. I wish to engage sexually on some level with every new person I meet until I die.

I’m continuing to make work that pushes the boundaries of what can be considered art and what can be considered porn. I’m comfortable with this tension and I feel the duty as a queer artist to promote the reality of my sexuality first and foremost, especially since the work I produce pertains to my identity.

We queer people are more than just camp and fabulous and good taste and brunch and drugs and bars and rainbows. We have sex. We have sexual practices that are specific to who and how we are. I don’t wish to look away from that.

What would you say to a queer artist who feels like they have nothing to say or that whatever they might put out in the world would just be worthless?

I’m really glad you asked this question because this describes a previous version of me, and I always feel susceptible to feeling this way in the future. I have never met a queer person who did not add value to our community. So this is what I would say: Your validity comes from the fact of your existence. The fact that you exist and have anything at all to express is the reason why you should express yourself.

I experience serious feelings of doubt about whether or not my work belongs in the world, and then I remember my younger self: my proto-queer self who needed to see evidence that they had a future and that they could survive.

Keep making, keep expressing yourself because you never know who needs to hear your specific voice as the reason they must to continue to exist.

Queer people, queer art, and queer voices saved my life and taught me how to survive; You are an important part of my survival and the survival of all queer people now and in the future.

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