In September, Michael Elizabeth Johnson (they/them/theirs) and Tannon Reckling (he/him/his) will have a yet unnamed show at III of Cups, a part of downtown Lincoln’s Parrish Studios in the same location as Lincoln’s sexy Tugboat Gallery. Both recently graduated from the University of Nebraska state college system with art related degrees. The upcoming art show is a culmination of their ongoing collaboration and narrative regarding rural queer youth and its contemporary ties to the internet.
The artists met and bonded over feeling fucked over by their experiences as queer young artists in the American midwest during a graphic design course 4 years ago; later the two held executive positions within SpectrumUNL, the University of Nebraska- Lincoln’s LGBTQA+ student organization. (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual - synonymous with the word queer). Johnson, being raised in rural Iowa, and Reckling, being raised in rural Nebraska, had no connections to Lincoln or Omaha, realistically both the closet and Nebraska's only critical art hubs and demographic of higher LGBT-friendly populations for the two; however, they had access to the internet. The two are thinking about how they developed language and art consumption via the internet, and not any physical cultural institution or gallery, and how this has affected their thinking and making today.
The two grew up in the 2000s, when websites like Deviantart.com, Neopets.com, Runescape.com, and Livejournal.com were in their prime. These websites were places where young people would congregate to raise brightly colored virtual pets, chat on the NeoBoards, post art of their OCs (original characters), or share Sonic the Hedgehog fanfictions (google it). These platforms allowed tweens to journal about their feelings, creative projects, and personal problems to identities they would never met IRL traditionally. This transformation and acquisition of knowledges was documented under the unblinking eye of the internet. These sites were online grounds for the awkward angst of youth and became the place where Johnson and Reckling, like many other young millennials, unintentionally documented their adolescence and discovered, yet not understood, their queerness. Through Deviantart posts and NeoBoards wolf rps (role plays), the artists navigated puberty, intrusive porn, social mores, literary criticism, and contemporary art. Navigating these circumstances created sensibilities about art discourse, making, and social interactions that the two are thinking about in the larger art history canon. Japanese anime and Sonic the Hedgehog may be canon art history when the only access to art history an artist possesses is via the internet and not anywhere in a person’s community and home. The two learned about art from the internet.
Access to the internet lead to access to more information for Johnson and Reckling. This information lead to a better understanding of queerness which was not available to Johnson or Reckling anywhere in person, even if the information came from a online user by the name of wingedangelxXxX34093 or furry_lover1992. This information and normalization of queerness from the internet is common for young people online and makes sense; if you can’t get the support you need from those around you, the internet potentially offers a venue to safely learn about your own health and safety. This sensibility about learning about queerness is also how the two learned about art. Reckling notes a point in the collaboration in which Johnson said, “I will be your mom and you can be my mom,” in regards to the two queer artists supporting each other’s work and wellbeing. This phrase not only is a cute sentiment but also is a nod to the work which possesses a seemingly socialist, open-source information sensibility that operates eerily similar to both common internet culture (gofundme.com, memeic sharing, state police surveillance via citizen social media) and queer culture where potential non-heteronormative, non-patriarchal norms can be established. This utopic romanized way of thinking about the internet isn’t new, but is problematic as we have seen with current discourses involving race-baiting, Russian internet trolls on Facebook and the voluntary/involuntary spreading of misinformation electronically. We are living in the science fiction dystopias we feared, only speculative fictions remain.
The two are thinking about queer performativity theory in regards to rurally located queerness, which for the two was reinforced via the Internet. The internet helped the two learn how to be queer, similar to the commercial trope of a boy watching his father shave in front of the bathroom mirror and in turn learning how to be a man which may help him perform his (toxic) masculinity later in life. What happens when one participates in learning to be queer and their identity via the internet throughout many years of their life? Queerness, defined in popular queer theory, is not only a conceptually unique potential as a necessarily unfixed site of engagement and contestation but also an act of refusing to crystallize in any specific form; queer maintains a relation of resistance to whatever constitutes the normal in regards to race, class, gender, and sexuality (Jagose). The show’s sentiment of queerness and internet/ technology navigation go hand in hand in their nonlinearness. The two are thinking about being queer in the same way that contemporaneous discourses are playing themselves out, with a ambiguous option for navigation rather than a modernist choice of a confident singular answer. Components of the show may be awkward for viewers. They play with tokenizing stereotypes of queer art shows containing genital/ nudity focus or a white athletic male body with makeup. However, they are historical documentations. Through a cultural history, the show not only embodies a online zeitgeist many millennials grew up in, but also history of queer art shows. The artists are examining histories where sexuality and gender identity existed outside a heteronormative spectrum even before they developed the language to be understood by themselves. Queer history, personal and otherwise, is often erased. Queer histories, like information a post-truth era, have become nonlinear and now are capable of being shared, altered, and then reappropriated. The show may be thinking about lineating queer histories.
Johnson’s paintings and animations exalt transgender bodies and sexuality, using internet memes to reject the lineage of discrimination against transgender bodies, queer sexuality, and also power systems of commercial graphic design. Johnson’s drawings project the trauma and pleasures that come with discovering one’s own sexuality, specifically the navigation of pleasure and guilt within a heteronormative, cisgender context. They pair recent erotic drawings with their writings and drawings from middle and high school, contrasting the artist’s celebration of experiencing a healthy, adult sexlife, with the awkward, sexually-charged art of a closeted, Catholic tween going through puberty in the 2000s using the internet as a source of sex information. These decade-old drawings and writings reflect how the young artist attempted to process their own sexuality, gender, and sexual tastes while being unaware of the world of sex, queerness, and kink beyond Deviantart.com and the internet. Johnson has had recent exhibitions at Jonlovesart Gallery, Lincoln, NE, and LIT art gallery, Chattanooga, TN.
Reckling’s 3d work explores communication, documentation, and contact with a recent queer family member who was removed from his family's history. Using a major weight loss as subject, Reckling examines dysphoria, class, abreaction, and electronic catharsis. Reckling is making gallery shows and spaces with open-source software on the internet and also thinking about queer moments. Reckling will be attending the University of Oregon for an MFA in Art and Technology.