It was in service of this last imperative that I recently spent an evening with the artist Christine Dean. I was there to hear her story, one amongst many that make up the fabric of Sydney’s queer history. There are innumerable threads running through Dean’s life, distinct yet wound together like rope. To understand her art is to understand her life— sexuality, gender, art history, gay and trans politics, particular eras and places all come into vibrant relation. For Dean, as for most practicing artists, art is life and life is art. Listening to her story, one piece of a history I count as my own, I was struck with a sense of lineage; the continuity of queer lives and chosen families. For Dean, this lineage is both personal and epochal. “One of the exciting things about being transgender now is that it’s like being gay thirty years ago,” she tells me. “Being gay in 1983 when I came out, it was a culture in formation. And the transgender scene is a culture in formation. It’s this sort of seminal moment—this germane moment in the history of a culture and it’s a nice place to be, particularly if you’re some sort of cultural theorist.” And cultural theorist Dean is; her art is both a patchwork history of queer culture in Australia and an exercise in formalism. “The problem with queer and gay art is that it’s almost too subjective,” she muses. “Gay men just want to paint penises all the time. I used to go around and count how many penises they could fit in a painting, it was wild. It becomes like a fetish more than art.” In an effort to move beyond what she saw as a siloing of queer art practice, Dean turned to art history and formalism to provide a framework.
In the 1990s, she was involved in a Sydney artist run space on Erskine Street called CBD Gallery and got into conceptual abstraction and monochromatic painting. “1990 was an interesting time in Australian art. All that bad 1980s painting, which was market driven, fell by the wayside... The pink monochrome became my sort of emblem,” she reflects. “I’d boiled down an entire art practice and an entire sort of artistic sensibility into a singular entity, and that’s what I wanted to do as an artist. The pink monochrome said it all for me.” In 2010 Dean completed her doctorate on the history of pink monochrome. Looking back on this time, she mostly remembers her mounting struggle to come to terms with her identity. “That period was just this feeling of aching gender dysphoria. The funny thing is with gender dysphoria is it follows you like a shadow. I thought I could escape it or outrun it or side-step it in some way through critical thinking but as I got older it got stronger and stronger. As Barbara Kruger said ‘YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND’—well, my monochromes were a battleground. I was trying to reconcile the masculine and the feminine energies.” In some works, Dean seeks this reconciliation in quotes drawn from her expansive collection of pulp fiction set in Kings Cross. One painting, for example, includes the quote: “96 Kings Cross lifts the roof on the sex cauldron of lesbianism, drugs, wife swapping and every conceivable vice in a notoriously shocking apartment block.” In other works, the masculinity of the monochrome played against the femininity of the painting’s surface, often ephemera from her life: doilies from
Australian art, culture, etc.