Childhood is weird. Not exactly a deeply analytical statement, I know, but it’s true. It’s hard to put a finger on childhood–that amorphous, scattershot of memories we form mainly as adults, adding meaning to the various stages of our development. In her book The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, Kathryn Bond Stockton describes the child as “precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were” (5). “It is the act of adults looking back. It is a ghostly, unreachable fancy, making us wonder: Given that we cannot know the contours of children, who they are to themselves, should we stop talking of children altogether?” she explains (5).
To Stockton, the child is akin to a ghost, a period of life that haunts us as adults. This becomes even more significant for queer children as adults (even the adults, these children become) place more emphasis on their bizarre attachments, fluid identities and puzzling contours. But, as she writes, “If you scratch a child, you will find a queer, in the sense of someone “gay” or just plain strange” (1).
In the introduction to The Queer Child, Stockton refers to her source materials as “dark and beautiful renderings, emerging, extending, from novels and films” that depict the vague boundaries, definitions and experiences of queer children. This could also perfectly describe the work of Chilean artist Catalina Schliebener who also takes on this enigmatic queer childhood in her current exhibition Growing Sideways at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division at the Center.
The show is curated by John Chaich, who previous worked with Schliebener in his fantastically literary Queering the BibliObject at the Center for Book Arts and the duo will be launching an extension of the Bureau exhibition at HACHE Gallery in Buenos Aires on March 14. Growing Sideways wraps around the entire bookstore in a singular ring of mixed media collages. At the end of the collages, the artist covers a wall in cloying Pepto-Bismol colored paint emblazoned with black outlined disjointed, disembodied and disparate cartoonish body parts. A pair of shoes swings in midair while a singular hand holds a vaginal-looking sack. It’s like a memory that is fading, leaving only poor Eeyore’s lost tail pinned to the wall.
Even more than the site-specific installation, though, the strength of Schliebener’s show lies with her prolific collages. Over 60 separate works line the walls, transforming the store into a playful exploration of queer childhood. In these collages, Schliebener appropriates found animated imagery from iconic cartoons such as Winnie the Pooh and Cinderella. She combines this with vintage, Norman Rockwell-esque illustrations of idyllic boys and girls with her own wispy and whimsical ink line work.
There’s a palpable fluidity to Schliebener’s collage technique. Rather than just pasting these varied images together, Schliebener reconfigures these recognizable cartoonish figures into nebulous, unstructured amalgamations of body parts. Tigger’s striped tail is joined together with a boy’s face while Cinderella’s bouffant appears out of nowhere. Ribbons, bows and various body parts extend throughout the entire installation, as well as directly on the walls. It’s difficult to tell where one collage stops and the other ends. Instead, the show seems to flow like a river of paper, mixed media and childlike glee.
Of course, harnessing the naïve but rich weight of these animated characters carries subversive potential. I think we often expect artists who appropriate pop cultural imagery to disturb and distort it in some manner like Paul McCarthy’s White Snow. At least I did before attending Schliebener’s exhibition.
But, I was wrong. There are methods of engaging with these cultural artifacts beyond the sophomorically abject (Not that I don’t love ruining those mass-produced ideals). Schliebener, though, employs these pop symbols for her own queer means, which reminds me, on some level, of Jack Halberstam’s pro-mass culture argument in The Queer Art of Failure.
I still, to some degree, side-eye Halberstam’s devotion to Dude Where’s My Car and Chicken Run since it indirectly led to most of my grad school classes consisting of arguments about South Park. But, their belief in the viability of animation to add to queer critique is certainly valid in Schliebener’s case. In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam states, “While many readers may object to the idea that we can locate alternatives in a genre engineered by huge corporations for massive profits and with multiple product tie-ins, I have found that new forms of animation, CGI in particular, have opened up new narrative doors and led to unexpected encounters between the childish and the transformative and the queer” (19-20).
Here, Halberstam could be talking to Schliebener’s work directly. By ripping these characters from their Disney narratives, she opens up new possibilities for queer interpretations and engagement. Both the Disney iconography and the vintage illustrations draw on the viewers’ nostalgia, inspiring reminiscence of their own childhood memories and identifications.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam cites an early version of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which, apparently, included a section on Walt Disney’s films, “that, for him, unleashed a kind of magical consciousness upon its mass audiences and conjured utopic spaces and worlds” (21). Schliebener’s collages, too, hint at these utopian spaces.
While cut and pasted into completely new narratives, Schliebener’s well of Disney-fied childish inspirations have a strange erotic sensibility. While not directly representing the body or sex per se, the layers of collage, ink and imagery create an undeniably sensual touching through the collage technique’s overlapping. This gestures to the indefinable identifications and attachments that typify queer childhood. In a sense, everything is in flux.
When coupled with the copious negative white space in the collages, the works become a reflection of that barely remembered period of childhood before gender and sexual identities are strictly formulated. The gaps in the collage and the ever-flowing parade of childhood identifications, loves, interests and fascinations, represents a space of possibility, freedom and endless potential.
This sense of endlessness is essential. In The Queer Child, Kathryn Bond Stockton speaks of “growing sideways”–an anti-hegemonic, anti-normative means of childhood growth that opposes the given “growing up.” Stockton writes, “Among them is the matter of children’s delay, their supposed gradual growth, their suggested slow unfolding, which, unhelpfully, has been relentlessly figured as vertical movement upward (hence, “growing up”) toward full stature, marriage, work, reproduction and the loss of childishness. Delay, we will see, is tremendously tricky as a conception, as is growth. Both more appropriately call us into notions of the horizontal–what spreads sideways–or sideways and backwards–more than a simple thrust toward height and forward time” (4).
With the horizontal movement in her collages, as well as the horizontal installation of the exhibition, the entire show refers to this sideways manner of growth (not to mention the show’s title). Stockton continues, “Hence growing up may be a short-sighted, limited rendering of human growth, one that oddly would imply an end to growth when full stature (or reproduction) is achieved. By contrast, “growing sideways” suggests that the width of a person’s experience or ideas, their motives or their motions, may pertain at any age, bringing “adults” and “children” into lateral contact of surprising sorts”(11).
With her interpretation of lateral contact, Stockton inadvertently describes the physical relation of Schliebener’s collage materials. By placing these various images, as well as her own draftsmanship, side-by-side, Schliebener’s collages allow for a slippery space where that fluid possibility of queer childhood doesn’t feel quite so distant. By growing sideways, there’s room to draw on childhood’s utopian worlds. There’s no longer that finality of grown-up.
This is sometimes hard to take in since we’ve been programmed to understand childhood as definitive. Call it Peter Pan syndrome, but I call it potentiality. Similarly, there’s an urge to search for a definitive meaning or sexuality in Schliebener’s work. But instead, the viewer gets quick glances, vague references and hazy realizations of sensuality and eroticism. Much like childhood itself, these are passing ghostly moments. It’s a glorious frustration.