The below article was previously printed in an anthology of essays titled Cultures of the Maker: An Anthology of Subjectivities, Dis/abilities, and Desires, 2013. This book was created in conjunction with the San Francisco Art Institute and Creative Growth, an art center in Oakland for adults with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities.
Two curious figures with faces painted like Venetian masks occupy a bedroom that is delicately rendered in watery green pinstripes. The fanciful quality of their costumes is offset by the fact that they are only half dressed. Mirroring one another in their long flowing white hair, slim waists, arm tattoos, and shirtless nudity, they sit atop the matching tuxedo tails they have recently shed. In the midst of a capricious game of cards, most likely strip poker, they stare out at the viewer, expanding the space of the interior to envelope me, drawing me into their effervescent world. The setting of the room seems at once an ordinary bedroom and a fantastic theater in a rich, imaginary world. I feel privy to be a voyeur in the space of their bedroom, and my desire to join them is echoed by the left figure, who, with open pants, invites me in with a jaunty head tilt and exaggerated jester smile. At the same time, however, I feel hesitant to invade. The other more stoic-faced figure, possibly surprised at my intrusion, covers voluptuous breasts with a fan of cards. The bedroom is culturally coded as a private space, and the world that this painting opens up is one of unabashed erotic play.
Aurie Ramirez, the Philippines-born artist of this whimsical watercolor world, has a distinct and sophisticated style that brings to life a particular and peculiar cast of characters and settings littered with formalwear, pinstripes, and painted faces, repeated ad infinitum. The flat files of Creative Growth overflow with her watercolor and ink works. Many of her paintings are almost identical iterations representing an intense devotion to her subject matter, which stems from an amalgamation of popular culture references, including 18th-century dandyism, Venetian masquerade, glam rock, and macabre gothic costuming.
Sexual acts and erotic pleasures are recurring themes in Ramirez’s art, and the foregrounding of sex in Untitled, from 2000 (fig. 1), is a playful and productive gesturing to the intersection of sex and disability. Often infantilized, disabled bodies are rarely seen as desiring subjects or objects of sexual desire in the cultural imagination. More often than not, disability is disassociated from ideas of sexual activity, reserving sex and sexiness for abled bodies. When persons with disabilities are understood in the context of sexuality, they are typically regarded as not in control of their own bodies and restricted in both sexual expression and access to sexual experiences, particularly in the context of institutionalization. Often people with disabilities are subject to intense surveillance due to their being regarded as needing protection from themselves and others and/or regarded as displaying inappropriate sexualized behaviors in public.1 As social science researchers Daniel Goodley and Rebecca Lawthorn assert, the disabled-and-sexed body is in many ways seen as an oxymoron.2 Simultaneously associated with both infantilized asexuality and over-sexualized “perversion,” they are represented as lacking and in excess.
Additionally, notions of the “carnivalesque” continue to loom large in contemporary culture’s understanding of disabled bodies and sex. Just as disabled-and-sexualized bodies are culturally coded as both lack and excess, they are also both invisible and highly visible. The non-normative disabled body is at once disavowed and spectacularly fetishized — on sideshow display for public fascination, yet denied agency and subjecthood.3 Recently, critical disability studies scholars have begun problematizing these assumptions and querying what it would look like to consider the intersections of sexuality and disability as potentiality and possibility, rather than sexual lack or excess. Instead of thinking of disabled-and-sexed bodies in terms of deficiency and limit, what if the real limitation was acknowledged as the narrow scope of normative ableist conceptions of sex and sexuality? Similarly, rather than fetishized spectacular objects, what if the gawking stare directed at the “carnivalesque” could be repositioned as an interactive gaze,4 in which extraordinary disabled bodies exercising powerful agency and subjecthood participate?
The “carnival” in Aurie Ramirez’s work does not permit the usual derogatory associations with disability; instead, it is spun into enchanting displays of color, delicate wavering line, and a fascinating array of characters, costumes, and environments. Ramirez’s works do not shy away from the carnivalesque; the sideshow spectacle connotation is conjured and then usurped. Untitled transforms the gawking stare aimed at the fetish object into a desiring gaze exchange that opens up space for an intersubjective interaction between viewer and the work’s desiring subjects. In looking at Untitled, I am made conscious of my own body. As I gaze at them, the figures look back at me with Olympia-like agency and audacity. They involve me in their private, erotically playful space, but the alluring invitation of the left figure and the hesitation of the figure on the right generate a push and pull tension that makes me self-conscious of my participation and voyeurism. This creates a complex relationship with the artwork, and one that relates the bodies of the figures to my own body, and their desires to my desires. The costuming, makeup, and décor form an appropriation of the “carnivalesque” that enhances the desirability of the scene. In Ramirez’s works, the carnival is the material from which alluring, imaginative alternative worlds are constructed.
In their twinned dandy attire and makeup, these figures are anything but normative in their performance of gender and sexuality. If penis and breasts are read as the definitive markers of gender rather than as merely body parts, and sexuality is comprehended as hitched to gender, then the viewer might assume this is a heterosexual coupling of a man and a woman. However, the matching long hair, mask-like makeup, slim body types, and dandy attire resist this reading. Dandyism has long been taken up by academia as central to the cultural history of homosexuality. Representing fervent care for appearance, style, and manners, dandyism is hard-earned beauty with cool reserve. Historical personalities such as Oscar Wilde and visual culture representations like the dandies in Paul Cadmus’s 1930’s realist paintings figure the correlation of homosexuality with dandyism. The well-groomed and dapper dandies of Ramirez’s works don identical black top hats, immaculate tuxedo coats, and dainty gloves. Culturally constructed, gender and sexuality are better understood as nuanced spectrums of fluid and unstable identities enacted through performance, as colorful and variant as Ramirez’s watery rainbow palette. The figure on the left’s graceful, reclining posture with crossed legs, fanciful garb, blushing cheeks, and petite waist are rendered no less feminine/effeminate than those of the second person. Their masked faces produce a uniform front, which further highlights the gender performance in which they are implicated.
A normative representation of gender or sexuality is rare, if not completely absent, amongst Ramirez’s works. Her other characters, such as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and KISS-inspired glam rock stars, do not easily fit into stable, heteronormative classifications of gender and sexuality. Rather, her dripping-sex rock stars and extravagant dandies subvert normative gender roles with a juicy indulgence in aesthetic that verges on decadence. Furthermore, Ramirez’s works are a tribute to the multiplicity of erotic desires and pleasures that exists. In Untitled, the invitation produced by the gazing out of the picture plane indicates that sex and sexual acts need not be limited to just two. The left figure beckons while the right figure reluctantly pauses. Sexual desires and practices vary from person to person and can change over time. However, norms of sex are socially constructed and inscribed, and often these leave little room for the many different sexual desires of individual subjectivities.
Just as identifications of gender and sexuality are indeterminate, so also is ability. To assume that this is a depiction of able-bodied characters and, further, to reflect this back on the artist as representing her desire to be abled-bodied and to participate in abled-body sex acts is an assumptive, hegemonic, privileged and able-bodied viewpoint. This is partly an issue of signification. Disability is often visually signified through the physical “support” — wheelchairs, braces, crutches, and canes, such as the internationally recognized symbol for public accessibility of a stick figure in a wheelchair. In this way, disability is represented as a physical impairment affecting the movement of the body and requiring a support object rather than encompassing the full spectrum of disabilities, including those that affect the body less visibly as with individuals who are non-neurotypical, have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/Environmental Illness (MCS/EI), or are hearing-impaired, to name a few examples. The term “disability” encompasses a wide range of physical and cognitive functional differences, and how a person experiences a disability is subjective, contingent upon personal variances such as experience, age, gender, sexuality, class, and race. Additionally, what constitutes disability by law and medical professionals, and how others interpret and police disabilities are constantly in flux. A person might evaluate the disability of someone who parks in an accessible parking space: Does the person look disabled? Is the person disabled enough to “deserve” the parking space? The symbol of the physical support acts as a tangible stand-in for “disability,” while the wider spectrum of disability lacks comparable symbols.
Even recent critical disability studies texts on the intersections of disability and sex, such as Margrit Shildrick’s Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity, and Sexuality and editors Robert McRuer and Anna Morrow’s anthology Sex and Disability, figure disability on their front covers as a crutch and/or a wheelchair. A consequence of this is that critical disability studies is forging productive work at the intersections of sex and disability, but aesthetically this intersection is visually legible as a limited portion of the broad category of disability. Reducing disability to those that include a visual support may perpetuate ideas that sex is only available to those who can think like an able-bodied person, process desire and make decisions like an able-bodied person, but not for those who do not. If different disabilities are differently legible, then what are the aesthetics of disabilities that have no “support”?
In Untitled, the carnival acts as an entry point into scenes of light-hearted sexual play. Though, perhaps, there is the danger of an ableist, normative reading of this work, critically-distanced looking gets tangled up in voyeurism, participation, and longing. Looking becomes something more erotic and interactive. With this invitation, gender, ability, sexual preferences and practices are opened up, and embodiments of differences are something to be celebrated. Ramirez, in her beautiful rendering in flowing, subtle watercolors and ink, creates an imaginary world where erotic desires play out in a theatrical boudoir scene. In this world, everyone is allowed to be a desiring subject or a desired object. After all, in the game of strip poker, there are no losers.
1 Daniel Goodley and Rebecca Lawthorn “Disability, Deleuze, and Sex,” in Deleuze and Sex, ed. Frida Beckman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 90.
2 In using the term “disabled-and-sexed body,” I am following Daniel Goodley and Rebecca Lawthorn in order to indicate the intersections of disability and sexuality — how the two are acting together — and the embodiment of these two things, which are culturally coded as unrelated. This, however, is not to say that there is a disabled body that is not sexed or that sexuality cannot be expressed as asexuality. See their article “Disability, Deleuze, and Sex,” in Deleuze and Sex, ed. Frida Beckman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 89-105.
3 See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. Sharon L. Snyder (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002), 56-75.
4 For further reading on the “stare” in relation to photographs of disabled bodies see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, ibid. Garland-Thomson theorizes the visual rhetorics of the unmitigated stare at photographs of disabled bodies as an intense form of looking that absolves the viewer of responsibility, produces disability as absolute difference, and manifests the power relations between subject and object.