Portrait of artist Colin Radcliffe holding one of his new sculptures

Colin Radcliffe opens a solo of new work titled LEFT ON READ at Equity Gallery April 18th

Once again, the arrival of SPRING brings to us the renewed luxuries of longer days and warmer temperatures, and along with it the rebirth of nature. Flowers are growing; animals are emerging from hibernation and transitioning into the birthing season. Since the beginning of civilization, human cultures have also adopted spring ceremonially as a signifier of awakening, resurrection, love, fertility, and sexuality.

With spring love (and desire) on the brain, Equity Gallery is preparing to launch an exhibition of new work by queer power artist Colin Radcliffe titled LEFT ON READ, opening Thursday April 18th and curated by Executive Director Michael Gormley.

Michael Gormley assumed the helm of the storied non-profit art space last fall, and has made distinct choices in the exhibition program this year to show contemporary artists who work in figuration. Notable examples of this can be seen in the recent MODERN PROMETHEUS by painter Hyeseung Marriage-Song and currently in the illustrations of Andrew Cornell Robinson’s work in the current exhibition HARD LINE (on view until April 13th).

For LEFT ON READ, Radcliffe will show ceramic sculpture pieces that “explore the dynamics of young queer relationships today in the context of digital space, particularly from using gay dating apps and social media.” I recently met with Colin in his artist studio in Bushwick to preview his new sculptures and talk about the thinking behind the work.

Instagram examples of work from Colin Radcliffe, LEFT ON READ

Christopher Stout:  This is certainly a lively and specific body of work. As an icebreaker question, which came first: did you have the idea to make art about the online queer dating experience before getting into these apps, or were you involved online and then realized that you had come across the source for your show?

Colin Radcliffe:  Definitely the latter. For a long time I’ve been feeling overly dependent on and attached to my phone. I’ve relied on social media and dating apps to meet new friends and lovers and to see the work of other artists and galleries. The ceramic phones are essentially my public diary. It’s been a way for me to archive my digital relationships as much as a way for me to share things that I’d otherwise be too anxious or shy to vocalize. Every time I open a dating app or use social media on my phone I end up with fresh material to make a new piece whether I intended to or not, so it comes both very frequently and very organically.

Multiple views of the sculpture “Dick Pic” by Colin Radcliffe

CS:  The stories in these pieces present as tragedies in a comedic wrapper. What, if anything, are you saying about yourself or about society? What is this work meant to accomplish?

CR:  Without ever really trying, my work seems to mirror me in its dualism and ambivalence. The work is outwardly playful and vibrant but ultimately delivers my personal heartbreaks, traumas, and failures. Humor opens the door for me to have those conversations while starting the emotional healing process. All of my work is autobiographical. Some pieces are more of a critique on online dating culture, particularly gay dating apps like Grindr or Jack’d, while other pieces are about processing events and relationships I’ve had. There’s one phone with verbatim texts sent to me from someone I had been seeing, he had become possessive very quickly and had broken into my apartment just before I broke it off. I made another ceramic phone to cope with how violated and vulnerable I felt after I was the victim of a “sextortion” attempt. So my work is double-edged, partially about my own catharsis and partially about critiquing the dynamics of queer relationships and technology.

Comparative image illustration stylistic migrations in Colin Radcliffe’s work

CS:  I’d like to explore with you about how your work has changed since we conducted our first studio visit back in 2017 …  currently you are making work about technology instead of nature, your figures have become more human, and most notably the themes have moved from love to sex. The work looks unmistakably like your work, but the subject matter contains a rather profound internal shift. Why?

CR:   It is a significant shift for me. The progression from nature to technology and from love to sex was unexpected but natural. With my work being so directly informed by my personal life, the changes in my work were correlated with my move from a rural environment to an urban one, and an internal shift from a naïve desire for a heteronormative fairytale romance to the reality of 21st century queer relationships. The figures have become more human and more sexually graphic as I’ve become more self-assured and more comfortable being open about my own sexuality and intimate life. The shift has more to do with my confidence blossoming than anything else. Ultimately it was about self-acceptance and giving myself permission to be unapologetically queer. Technology only became a major focus in my work when I realized how reliant I am on it for socializing and meeting other queer people. I don’t often go to historically queer spaces, clubs, or bars to meet potential friends or partners, so I’ve leaned heavily on technology to compensate. Social media and dating apps play a significant part in my life, so now I’m making work about it in relation to the same themes I’ve already been working with, namely love, sex, and intimacy.

Portrait of the artist, Colin Radcliffe during his October 2017 exhibition at Brooklyn Fire Proof, UNINVITED GUESTS

CS:  Interesting. On a related note, can you talk to us about the notable addition of (exaggerated) genitalia in your sculpture pieces and the types of audience feedback this work has received online, at open studios, and in previous shows?

CR:  Until recently, I have been hesitant to allow my work to present as sexually queer or gendered. I was concerned that adding erections to the figures might read as unsophisticated, gratuitously sexual, or that in doing so it might not be intellectual enough to be considered as substantive work. Over time as I’ve become more accepting and loving of who I am as a queer person, my work has in turn become more honest, and because of that honesty, more explicit. I realized that I have sexual agency and that through being open and vulnerable in my work, I’ve actually come into my own as queer person and as a sexual partner, which is directly reflected in the work that I’m making right now.   

The response has been overwhelmingly positive to the figures! Many of my most popular sculptures are the ones that have dicks. People just love dick! At Bushwick Open Studios last September there were a lot of children that came with their parents. I always got a laugh out of the kids running into my studio and getting excited by the figures, only for their parents to frantically shuffle them out the door when they realized that there were erections everywhere.

Multiple examples of Colin Radcliffe’s new mobile phone sculptures

CS:  The naked male body and overt sexuality has been used by queer artists over the last several decades to germinate conversations about various topics: AIDS, death, civil rights, a rejection of middle-class heteronormative culture, etc. What current artists (if any) are you in dialogue with and what conversations are you looking to encourage through your use of male nudity and sexuality?

CR:  I feel so humbled and energized to be able to share in a larger queer narrative with other artists working today. There are three living queer artists I feel most strongly in dialogue with right now: Jody Paulsen, Justin Liam O’Brien, and Louis Fratino. Jody and I, our work stems from similar emotional places and also plays with saturated color, queer tropes, text as image, and male figures. Although the materials we use are very different, Jody uses felt collage while I use clay, which are both considered traditionally feminine or even queer mediums. We had dinner a couple times when Jody was visiting from Cape Town recently, and we talked about the power of infatuation, naivety in love, and our past relationships and how that connects to the work we’re both making. When it comes to themes of male eroticism, love, and intimacy there’s a discourse between the work that Justin, Louis, and I are all making, especially in espousing what queer relationships actually look and feel like today.

If my work generates conversations about social technology as a catalyst for forging queer relationships or creating virtual queer spaces, that would be so exciting to me. Or even if it got people to evaluate their own sexual agency in the context of digital space, that would also be amazing.

Self portrait of the artist, Colin Radcliffe

CS:  I always like to ask artists a final question that allows us to experience a shared investigation. What is something important to you that I should be asking you about this work, and what is the answer?

CR:  We haven’t touched on this yet, but I feel it’s important to ask in what ways my work fits into the larger narratives within the history of queer art. I know the work I’m making wouldn’t be at all possible without the legacy of queer artists and activists who came before me. Although my work isn’t as outwardly political, the sentiments are still similar to those embedded throughout queer art history, like eroticism, sex, and identity. Cultural progress and technology have revolutionized how queers find and foster relationships and community. Past generations would go to physical spaces like The Stonewall, Julius’, or even Central Park to meet and cruise other queers. Today being young and queer is strongly tethered to the technology we rely on to find companionship and sex, primarily through apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d. Gay dating app culture is notoriously transactional, making it easy to find a sexual partner (or partners) but more challenging to find friendship or love. Despite the different dynamics between historically physical queer spaces and contemporary digital queer spaces there are still a lot of parallels in how all queers homosocialize, cruise, and befriend one another.

CS: Thank you for sharing so candidly and deeply about your art. I hope people will utilize this interview as an impetus to see your exhibition at Equity Gallery. Much success to Executive Direct Michael Gormley and you!

Colin Radcliffe, studio portrait during Bushwick Open Studios 2018 at Brooklyn Fire Proof

LEFT ON READ can be seen at Equity Gallery located at 245 Broome Street and is on view Wednesday to Friday 1-7 PM and Saturday 12-6 PM April 18-27.

Christopher Stout is a New York City-based artist showing new abstract queer sculpture in a group exhibition titled “Infinite Rhizome” at Lichtundfire Gallery (175 Rivington), opening April 10th.