Minnesota-based artist Joe Sinness grew up in North Dakota with dreams of a creative life somewhere else.
“In high school, my dream was to be a music video director,” he said while ascending the stairs at the Minneapolis Institute of Art to preview his solo exhibit opening next Thursday. “I grew up in North Dakota and I was like, ‘Nobody could ever do that — it’s too far-fetched!’ ”
Sinness followed his creative impulses, discovering his own version of theatricality and performance manifested through sculpture, photography and drawings. His exhibition “The Flowers” delves into unpacking shame around queer male sexuality, juxtaposing the sort of macho masculinity found in cruising with the more sensitive male side as viewed in portraits.
As an artist, he’s not trying to represent the LGBTQ community at large — just this facet of experience.
“A lot of this work is about unpacking shame and guilt around sex — I also grew up Catholic,” said Sinness. “So it’s a slow process. This is a start.”
The objects arranged in the gallery space are reminiscent of theater props, except this set is a mishmash of queer performativity — a sense that there is always an audience, and that individuals are also an audience for themselves.
“The Flowers” is loaded with references to Hollywood musicals, TV, cult films, amateur gay porn, queer writers and theorists, and objects from his home. The title is a reference to gay existentialist poet, playwright and activist Jean Genet’s 1943 novel “Our Lady of the Flowers,” about one man’s journey through Paris’ underbelly. It also references the final chapter of David Wojnarowicz’s 1991 memoir “Close to the Knives,” written with intensity at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York.
“Wojnarowicz is going through the anxiety of the AIDS crisis and then stopping to focus on the breath: ‘Remember to stop and smell the flowers,’ ” said Sinness. “It’s a reminder — deep breaths; things can be pretty.”
Sinness graduated from St. John’s University in 2002, then completed graduate studies at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
“The AIDS crisis is tied to my work because I came of age in the ’90s,” he said.
This exhibit, presented by the museum’s Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, marks a shift away from feeling as if his work needs to be understood by a straight audience. In the past he’d gotten awkward questions, he said, “like, ‘How do you think people in the Midwest are going to interpret this work?’ Because there’s sexual content. As if people in the Midwest don’t have sex or kinks?”
The assembled works create a sort of cruising utopia that’s set in the present, yet heavily references the histories and trauma of queer life.
Sinness began working with the idea of still life paintings — except instead of fruits and kitchen objects, he might arrange flowers, campy or porn images, and something shiny. In this way, he came to see the still life as theatrical.
Visitors to the show will be greeted by a trough urinal. Above it hangs a spliced-together panorama of gay nightclubbers dressed up as cops as seen in the 1979 Al Pacino film “Cruising,” about a serial killer targeting gay men. The work, titled “Theme,” is about who makes eye contact with whom, reminiscent of the intense study of gazes in the Spanish Golden Age painting “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez.
The portraits in this show, named after various men Sinness photographed, are inspired by Edwin B. Willis, a set designer and decorator who worked on Judy Garland musicals at MGM Studios.
“I had some portrait sessions with some local models, putting them into these sort of fantasy spaces that are references to old Hollywood musicals,” he said. “Instead of there being a leading lady doing a dance routine, it can now finally become the space for queer performance that I feel it was intended to be.”
In “Devin,” Sinness restaged a scene from “Summer Stock,” replacing Garland with a handsome young man with dreamy eyes who employs a sort of “Caravaggio gaze that’s really lusty and cruise-y,” Sinness said. In creating this hybrid space between the macho male aesthetic displayed in “Cruising” and a more sensitive masculinity as seen through portraits, still lifes and works-on-paper, Sinness merges queer past and present, creating another reality altogether.