2022, Roman Road, London
Bex Massey: The truth is out there, Roman Road (Notting Hill), London, 26 October – 26 November 2022. Courtesy of Roman Road. © Deniz Guzel
Roman Road is delighted to present The truth is out there, a solo exhibition by British artist Bex Massey. Featuring her largest and first autobiographical series, the show teems with reimagined narratives exploring Queer history and identity, mediated through ostensibly fan art paintings.
Taking its title from the tagline of the iconic paranormal television series, The X-Files, The truth is out there presents an intimate and thought-provoking look into the subjection and struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. Documenting and evoking feelings of otherness and alienable rights in her own search for the truth, Massey’s works more specifically aim to examine Section 28 – a reviled law existing from 1988-2003 across Britain that forbade local authorities and schools from promoting homosexuality – and its impact on the Millennial generation. Reappropriating recognisable pop icons and motifs from the 90’s into often surreal and hyperrealistic renderings, the artist takes us back to the memories and retro palettes of her childhood in a bid to instigate a nostalgic and relatable visual language to discuss these issues with levity.
Seemingly at odds with her contemporary subject matter, Massey’s virtuosic brushwork emulates the precision of the Old Masters and her practice is rooted in traditional making techniques. She uses collage, mixed media and optical illusion to create multi-layered narratives through each piece, with some also making subtle yet insightful references to art history. In Plus One (2022), for example, Massey has employed a ‘cut-out’ style redolent of surrealist artist René Magritte, delineating the outline of the figures found in Cupid Wounding Sappho, a drawing by Victorian sculptor John Gibson (bequeathed to the RA Collection in 1866) who was known to channel same-sex passions into his works. Similarly, in ‘Jose Chung’s from outer space’ (2021), Massey pays homage to the esteemed and openly homosexual Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli and his The Birth Of Venus (mid-1480s). Bringing together the past, the peculiar and the personal, Massey’s works meticulously examine the relevance and role of painting as a vehicle for communication and change in the face of popular culture.
If we’re to have truly queer histories, should they run in a straight line? When you consider the oddness, the difference, the sheer abundance of alternative LGBTQ+ lives, then telling them in that nice normal way, A to B to C to D, seems a bit naive. You can say that X happened and so here we are at (Gen) Z, but it begins to feel inadequate. To be queer, or gay, or lesbian, or whichever label you like, surely means picking and choosing from your own bits of history, sifting through hidden or forgotten moments, highlighting subtext, creating a collage rather than a clear timeline. Isn’t that how memory works, anyway?
Take Section 28, for instance. The much-reviled clause which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” (bless) in schools came into effect in 1988, and was eventually rescinded in 2003. That’s a short 15 year gap which you can map out on pink history, easy to locate because of the things which came before (the AIDS crisis; several millennia of on-off aversion to same-sex love) and the stuff which came after: gay marriage, Drag Race, memes of Diane Abbott drinking tinnies of G&T on the London Overground. You know: FREEDOM. And yet. If you’ve lived it – if you were there – was it so clear-cut?
I was five when Section 28 was brought into law and 20 when it was taken out. As a gay man, you might have expected me to have memories of both events, but I have none. As time has gone on I’ve often marvelled at this amnesia, when not being properly ashamed of it. I have no recollection of Section 28 coming into force, no real sense of its ongoing existence as I struggled to come to terms with my sexuality, and no feeling of euphoria, or relief, as myself and my sisters were unshackled to live our best queer lives (admittedly I had left school by then — but still). This was my history, wasn’t it? Hadn’t I cared? Apparently not. If I did blast out Dannii Minogue’s queer magnum opus Neon Nights ecstatically in 2003, it wasn’t with the sense that a battle had just been won. I was too busy trying to ignore the war.
It’s hard to admit it now, but I was happy back then to live in the fuzz. I just wanted to be “normal” – not un-proud, you understand, but eager to be accepted as part of a wider cohort. Not exhaustingly, relentlessly different, just enjoyably individual. Palatably fun. Any anger or shame I had was rigorously smothered. This sometimes feels like a very personal moral failure on my part, until I come to an equally grim conclusion: does this mean Section 28 worked? It feels almost too distressing to think that it may have inhibited my teachers from coming to help at moments of deep distress. Too sad and too shocking to think that such a daft piece of legislation could have such a thick-set effect on my mind. Too depressing to think that I had no strong feelings about it because it succeeded in its aims: it was my “normal”. I would spend years and years, even after it was taken off the books, trying to get to that “normal”, subconsciously adhering to its rules.
All of which brings us to Bex Massey’s new exhibition. The Truth Is Out There. Well – is it? We want it to be, but we’re a little scared of it too. It feels apt that Gillian Anderson’s Scully of The X-Files is the series’ defining motif. First of all because Anderson is, in scientific terms, an absolute OG dykon. Next because The X-Files’ preoccupations with finding aliens are (metaphor alert!) queer catnip. Finally, though, as Massey’s paintings remind us, there’s something about Scully’s eyes, her tense watchfulness, which sums up a certain moment of gay life. Her stare is intrigued, yes, it’s not against pleasure, but it has no chill. It bristles with something, and if you grew up gay in the 1990s you recognise it instantly. It’s guarding itself, as though aware that nothing, yet, is certain. And that it won’t all be solved by snogging David Duchovny.
Massey’s paintings are marvels of rich layers and calm precision. The queer symbols and memories which proliferate remind us again that modern gay identity is an odd assemblage of telly crushes, tabloid headlines, camp flourishes and obviously, now, the internet. Ghosts of Section 28 recur, such as Sue Lawley’s anxious face as LGBTQ protesters storm her news bulletin – but they’re a layer of the picture, not the sole, solid image. It’s there, but what is it? What did it do?
Perhaps the greatest pleasure in Massey’s pictures is how each reveals a clash, a pun, an invitation to think again. Because it’s arguable that one of the main worries about modern queerness is the ease of its legibility. An umbrella term for anything remotely alt, it’s now goes down quicker than a #Pride-branded can of Coca Cola. When really, you should choke on it a little, no? Or is that just a personal preference? Is that me making a desperate belated plea for radicalism after spending decades on the sidelines, hoping that history hadn’t affected me that much at all? Possibly. But then it’s not really for you or me or Massey to dictate what queerness is. All we can do is survey the canvas in front of us, admire the fragments and hope to take our own strange, specific pleasure from it. LOUIS WISE