Giving them away

I am giving away these 20 remaining paintings to anyone queer in the UK who wants one. Here are the main reasons why:

Getting them seen

Stewart complained constantly about his frustrations in getting his art seen out in the world. He had at least one show during the course of our friendship, but struggled to find outlets for his work, sometimes resorting to the local photo developers to put his images on some coffee mugs. Stewart said that he couldn’t get on with computers, by which he also meant the internet. I helped him sell a painting through my online life, and showed some of his cartoons on my website, but I held back from being more involved. I knew that he would be really pissed off if it didn’t work out and I also recognised that selling his work online could turn into a massive job for me, which at the time I wasn’t willing to take on. I didn’t want to sacrifice my friendship, which is what I think would have happened, but I have regrets that I couldn’t help more when he was alive.

So the first reason for giving away Stewart’s paintings is to build an audience for his work, to get it on display, for it to be seen and hopefully loved.

Queer cultural heritage, lineage, genealogy, inheritance and kinship

Stewart was gay, but rarely used that word to describe himself. I thought of him as queer but, like many of his generation, this was not a concept he wanted or was able to reclaim. Stewart was really out, and also, from my point of view, fairly closeted. It’s hard to describe this, and represents a profound generational difference between us. Between ourselves we spoke very frankly, and I’ve no doubt he did so with other friends. He had had, and continued to have, significant, loving relationships with men. But in those places where his personal life overspilled into a public life, his sexuality was sometimes much more muted and sometimes hidden.

I see it as my role, as a queer who has benefitted greatly from the struggles of those like Stewart who came before me, to bring some queerness to his story. I understand that I risk upsetting people who knew him who might not want him to be remembered as gay, or who might feel that this should not be a public subject. I am taking this risk because Stewart had decided to speak publicly about his sexuality in the Before Stonewall project, and understood that there were wider social implications surrounding those he loved. I also feel that my friendship with Stewart is my own story to tell in my own language, and that it is a story from which others may benefit.

Queer people often have complicated relationships to family. I’m not so interested in remaking a concept of family to make up for the absences in the straight world but, in spreading the paintings around queer community, I would like to remind people of our intergenerational interconnectedness. As queers are often age-segregated this gets lost very easily. I think of Stewart’s life and paintings as a community resource. It is my deep desire that people know of Stewart and feel connected to him as an artist and as a queer ancestor. In thinking of him in this way, I imagine queers as his kin, and the paintings as our inheritance. I dream of these paintings becoming objects that get inherited through queer networks over time, tying people together as queer kin through art and cultural work.

Not playing by the rules of the art world

After Stewart died, his paintings were taken to an expert and found to have negligible financial value, primarily because he wasn’t a ‘name’ from the art world. In giving away the paintings to people who really like them, I want to critique art world values of art as a commodity and status symbol. It may be that this project has the unfortunate effect of turning these paintings into commodities and status symbols, I hope that doesn’t happen. What I would like is to reinstate paintings as objects that give intense pleasure; as symbols of friendship and community; as beautiful, skilled work that transcends monetary value.

I don’t have enough space on my own walls for them


A long note about public and private ownership of the paintings

The issue of public and private ownership of the paintings has been central to this project.

GB Jones offered the following comments, which I found very useful and enabled me to reflect more deeply on the tensions between archiving and giving away the paintings. She allowed me to share them here:

“I’m looking at 5 or 6 paintings, including ‘The Red Tower,’ ‘Down the Steps,’ ‘The White Tower,’ ‘Trees on a Lake,’ and perhaps others, as belonging to a vanished idiom in gay art. Correct me if you feel I’m wrong, but don’t these particular paintings all seem pregnant with possibility? Don’t they all seem to employ that once familiar gay device, ‘the subtext’, to suggest that the paintings are not quite what they seem? Not simply landscapes, but sites where people once hooked up, could hook up, or will hook up? Past or present cruising sites, secretly coded as landscapes. And the lone gentleman in each of these paintings appears to be searching – for something or someone.

‘The Walk in the Park’ would seem to be the happy ending to the story. My interpretation is founded in an appreciation of older LGBT and queer art work where, unlike today, it was important that the queer/LGBT content be veiled/discrete/oblique, hidden or coded, as a subtext. I would go so far to say that even if Stewart Irwin had every intention of painting a landscape, being a gay man informed his perspective and made him aware of any location’s potential double use as a trysting spot.

In my opinion, this group of paintings are important examples of this type of work, and for that reason I would suggest most kindly that it would be advantageous to Mr. Irwin’s future admirers that they not be separated but kept together as a group, so that they can be understood as belonging to a era of LGBT art which no long exists in Europe or North America, although it certainly may in Russia, and other repressive and dangerous environments.

If I may suggest, Charlotte, the Leslie Lohman Gay and Lesbian Museum has a commitment to art such as this, understands the historical importance of such work, and would welcome Mr. Irwin’s paintings without question. They have an outstanding collection, including much erotic art that would not find a home elsewhere. I would be happy to arrange something with them for you if you felt this would be something you’d be interested in.

Perhaps there is an equivalent museum in Britain that would better serve your purposes, and of course that would be best. If not, as much as I appreciate that you wish to bring his work into the community, I do feel that a deeper understanding of these particular landscapes comes with their being kept together, to be seen as an important and historical body of work.”

GB’s suggestions about archiving the work came at a time when I felt that it was too late to take that route with the work. I agree with her and welcome her sensitive observations that these paintings form a collection that has significance in terms of queer art history. Initially I talked with Stewart’s executor about donating them to an archive. This fits with my own views about art preservation. However, I was also concerned about archives and access. The would be cared for in perpetuity, but for whom? Who are the people that access archives? How often would they be seen and enjoyed?

Stewart’s affairs were neatly in order when he died. My girlfriend reminded me that he had not made provisions for his paintings and that this possibly indicates that he didn’t really mind what happened to them. I decided to do what I have done with the paintings because of Stewart’s stated wishes when he was alive to have his work seen and loved. The paintings that constitute this project are the leftovers in many ways, most of Stewart’s work is already in the private ownership of his friends and family.

I’m still not sure that this is the ‘right’ thing to do. I underestimated how much a part ambivalence would play into the process of giving away the paintings, not because I don’t want people to have them, but because I want Stewart to have been known as an artist more broadly, and that perhaps archiving, or offering the paintings to experts, would have done that. I’m not sure how much of that desire is mine, or if it’s what Stewart would have wanted. He was often dismissive about his own work, was that sincere or was he being politely self-effacing?

As I’ve continued to reflect, I’ve felt that neither archiving nor private ownership provides an ideal in this situation, both mean that audiences are limited, or mediated. I made the choice to memorialise the collection as a website, and disseminate the paintings amongst queers who made a case for cherishing them and a promise to pass them on to other queers. I’ve ensured that discussions about what happens to Stewart’s paintings in the future have taken place with the paintings’ new owners, and public ownership is one possibility there. This is a different kind of keeping, and one which addresses my own needs around grief and loss.

I guess the final message is: if you make things, if you are queer, make good plans for what happens to it when you are no longer around, and try and think of the bigger picture, recognise the value of what you do.