The title says it all…sort of: Shaun Johnson’s CODES at Queens

CODES is the title of an artwork by Shaun Johnson. This artwork was on view last month at Queens, and was notably the inaugural exhibition for that space. It’s actually unclear if CODES is the title of a singular artwork, or a title for the show, generally speaking. This kind of un-clarity, between subject and object, is a theme in this work; maybe it is better said as subjectivity and objectivity. You know, what we appear to be, versus what we really are. Either way, every approach I had to this show was a question. At the opening, it was, who are all these people? (As in, people depicted in the images present in Shaun’s work). A question of identification. And then at my second encounter, the closing of the show, the question was, is this artwork the same as it was a month ago? I actually asked the gallery attendant, who assured me it had not changed since its original installation. Because that question had a rather satisfying answer, I decided to ask more questions: How did you decide Shaun would show this artwork? Did you pick it out from his studio? I also asked, rather stupidly, is this like his other work? And lastly, and definitely most profoundly (to me), I asked how the show would be taken down. Will it be ripped off the wall and trashed? Will it be saved for another iteration? Will it exist like this, as a discreet artwork, always in the same composition, always titled CODES? Does the materiality of this work, here and now, mean anything at all, or is it just a method for depiction? Is the material of art, generally speaking, material to its meaning? Are we talking about the kind of codes that are symbolic, and secret? Or are we talking about moral codes, rules, principals?

Installation shot of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image courtesy of Queens.

Truthfully I only actually asked the first three of those questions. The gallery attendant, Paul (also a co-founder of the space) informed me that they selected Shaun to make a piece, any piece, not the specific artwork; he said it is similar to Shaun’s other works in that it is a collage, though in his other work, he mainly uses depictions of himself; and lastly, about the show being taken down—he said he didn’t know. Delightful, I thought to myself. I love mysteries! Or maybe it’s secrets that I love. I can’t be sure.

One really beautiful thing about this show, beautiful as in, it was beautiful to me, was that it grew; it expanded. Somehow in my mind, the work was so much smaller, so much less detailed. But when I walked through the door a second time, I found its intricacies fascinating, even overwhelming. What had appeared repetitive and perhaps superficial (though I am in favor of superficiality), now seemed complex, thoughtful, deliberate. Nothing at all had changed. So what was I seeing?

Installation shot of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image courtesy of Queens.
Detail of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image by author, used with permission of Shaun Johnson.

To understand what changed, I ought to describe what stayed the same. This is a small gallery of three walls, probably 150 sq ft, or even less. The entrance to the gallery is a glass store-front. Behind the gallery is a series of studios, which you must walk through to get to the bathroom. In this way it is a bathroom hidden behind an art studio, hidden behind a gallery, hidden behind a storefront. So already there are many layers, and many questions of front-ness and backness; unexplored depth and space. It may seem that Shaun’s work doesn’t really address this spatial aspect of the gallery, but I think it does; in the simplest sense, it gets me thinking about facades; how they can be architectural, sure, but also emotional. How, depending on who we are, or what kind of access we have, we interpret what’s “behind the curtain,” so to speak.

Street view of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image courtesy of Queens.

But getting back to a description of CODES. It’s a collage that touches all three walls, but not in a continuous way; each wall seems to represent a separate “panel” of the artwork. It is made up of black and white print-outs, or copies, of images of, I assume, gay people. Gay entertainers to be exact. And I think, mostly men? Or at least, the men are the famous ones? (A quick look at the Queens website informs me that “The portraits document gay male singers of the 70’s and 80’s, specifically those who were ‘straight’ or didn’t identify as gay.”) The images are all different sizes, and they have different degrees of pixilation. So, some must have been blown-up in size to accommodate the collage, and others must have been shrunk. Maybe some just stayed the same. I think the piece is affixed directly to the wall, with a combination of push-pins and glue. There are little push-pin marks all over the papers, sometimes five or ten in the same general area. There are also random shapes cut out of different images; it’s not just a head or a fist or a razor or a chain that’s being cut out, but also, like, an elongated teardrop shape, or a long, skinny, arbitrary rectangle. There is also a recurring shape that references, I think, tiger stripes? Or maybe it references flames. Someone told me that they thought of those shapes as tears, like tears that a “tiger claw” would make (I love that they said, specifically, tiger claw, and I said, specifically, tiger stripes). Or maybe it’s just a non-referential shape, easy and natural to cut with scissors.

Detail of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image by author, used with permission of Shaun Johnson.
Detail of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image by author, used with permission of Shaun Johnson.

Before I go on, I’d like to say that when I first saw this artwork, I found it to be sort of phallocentric, and also very immediate. The second time I saw it, I found that it was filled with detail. In a sexist way, this detail redeems the artwork’s phallocentric viewpoint for me, because it balances it with some (stereotypical) femininity. That being said, I don’t recall any famous, blown-up female entertainers (and the press release confirms it), but I do remember one medium-sized female face that recalled the Breakfast Club, albeit with its eyes cut out. So I had the feeling that I may not be exactly the right audience for this artwork, since I’m not a gay man. But the more I think of it, it’s actually because I’m a woman who is sensitive to, or at least alert to, artworks which privilege men in a certain way. I can’t levy that as a criticism of this artwork, even with the diminutive and obscured female faces, because it is this difference that is the subject of the work. In CODES, it may seem that powerful men are being worshipped by scores of women; but part of the point is the falseness of that worship, the total misunderstanding of what power and privilege may be, and who has it.

Detail of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image by author, used with permission of Shaun Johnson.

But back to my sense that the artwork grew in size—I think it’s because of the detail I was able to notice upon a closer look. Sort of like, a flower with its petals blooming, or opening? I know, that’s a really weird and cheesy and probably wrong thing to picture, but I do feel that this work somehow expanded organically. It’s not stuck there. It wants to escape the bounds of that place. Could it be, maybe, it’s in the wrong place?

I wonder if there is a distinction to be made between, the “wrong” place, and “out of” place. I remember making collages when I was a kid; mostly they were confined to a piece of paper or a poster board, and a lot of them had text written in different interesting colors and shapes. When I was a little girl, and I must have been really little, because I learned who I was fairly early, I definitely made collages from fashion magazines. They probably had words like “beauty” and “fashion”; and as I said, they were based on a composition of colors and shapes.

Installation shot of  CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image courtesy of Queens.

I think I’m getting it now—something important about this artwork, and rather obvious, in a way. What’s out of place about Shaun’s collage is that it lacks color; for all its flamboyant entertainers, it’s the opposite of vibrant. It’s an anti-collage. It’s a representation of gay people, our people, stripped of their stereotypical “pizazz,” their “queen-y” ness; he’s managed to suck the life out of them, and what’s left is their razor blades, their chains, their flames; maybe, the ugly parts? The violent, self-hating parts? They’re not the aspirational celebrities of a little girl’s, or in this case, boy’s bedroom wall; they represent the reality of their situation: lifeless; symbolic; anemic; blah. Codes, yes, but also shadows; they regain their materiality only as crummy pieces of computer paper, and live, all cut-up and disembodied, pinned to the wall—lifeless, voiceless, misunderstood representations.

Detail of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image by author, used with permission of Shaun Johnson.

Is this a really dark interpretation of this work? Is it too dark? I’m tempted to talk about what the press release says again, but I don’t think it’s relevant to harp on it. When I think of Shaun on Instagram, posing with selfies and flowers in front of the work, I think of it as a joyous thing; and the opening—that was certainly a joyous thing, too. Starting a gallery called Queens, and showing CODES as the inaugural exhibition, is making a strong statement about the type of work that will be shown there; it will celebrate a certain kind of people, our people, even when it’s not; even when the work itself complicates the idea of what an identity is, and what aspects of that identity are celebratory, or even understood. Or, for that matter, visible.

I think there are two ways to approach this work, and I don’t know which is better, but I know which I’m more inclined toward. One approach is that the meaning behind the work, or the intention, you could say, lies within the stories of the lives of the people depicted. This would require me knowing and/or understanding something about these particular people’s lives, which again would start by being able to identify them. All I can tell you is Boy George, the Village People, and Liberace—a mixed bag of gay stories, all with their own tragic parts (except the Village People? I know they’re feuding now, but the brief google search I did on them didn’t reveal anything too striking). To this end, the life-stories of these entertainers fits right in with my dark interpretation of the work. But the other approach, the one I’m more inclined to, has to do with all those little push-pin marks on the collage.

Detail of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image by author, used with permission of Shaun Johnson.

When you see an artwork like CODES, it can be difficult to find something in its materiality to latch onto; it’s one of those kinds of artworks that “anybody could make,” which makes it a little bit unlikeable, not because of the way it’s made, but because I feel this narrows the window of interpretations and pushes toward that first approach, the it’s-their-gay-stories interpretation; you stop seeing it as a thing and see it only as an idea. When I see all the little push-pin marks, this brings me back to Shaun, the artist, and connects me more with his process. I picture him in a studio somewhere, painstakingly moving each bit of the collage, snipping at and reworking each shape, giving everything a lot of love and tenderness; giving everything the kind of consideration that it may look like he missed, when you step back and see his piece as an amalgamation of pure image.

Installation shot of CODES by Shaun Johnson. Image courtesy of Queens.

Perhaps that’s what’s at play here; from a distance there is something shallow, something flat about these lives; the richness—the differentiation—is to be found in the places touched by Shaun’s hands, and thus, by the spirit of his intuition, and perhaps that spirit-ghost of his past. CODES is not a “cutting-edge” artwork, and it’s not meant to be; in fact, it’s something we can do ourselves. With a little paper, scissors, glue, and a willingness to search into our own pasts for our own influences, the gallery can transform from a place of convolution and competition to a place of community and vulnerability; a place of reflection. That’s something we really need, and I’m grateful to Shaun, and Queens, for using their inaugural exhibition to prioritize that kind of exchange.

CODES was on view at Queens in Los Angeles, CA from August 26th to September 24th, 2017. Queens is open Sundays from 12:00pm to 5:00pm during exhibitions. For more information on Shaun Johnson, please visit his website: