5 Questions with Christian Miguel Gutierrez

The artist.
The artist.

BORN in Texas, Christian Miguel Gutierrez arrived to Savannah by way of Charleston to attend SCAD and pursue a painting degree. The pandemic hindered his plan to move to Chicago post-graduation, but it’s a good change of plans: Gutierrez loves the creativity and transience inherent in Savannah, and he’s inspired by the talent he sees here.

Gutierrez’s work blends painterly and sculptural elements in a way that reflects on his own feelings of being in limbo, particularly with his sexuality and his ethnicity. As a queer Mexican-American man, Gutierrez doesn’t feel fully part of either identity. That feeling comes through in the work he creates, both in concept and process.

We spoke with Gutierrez last week.

1. Have you always been interested in art?

I’d say that I’ve always been artistic, ever since I was really young. It was something I always imagined myself doing. The way that manifested changed throughout my life. I think, as a young artist, you’re trying to be realistic with how you can put those talents to use. But when I was getting my bachelor’s, I got engulfed in the world of fine art and I realized that I’m not someone that can really play well with people telling me what to do all the time. I figured out very quickly that working for clients predominantly was something I wouldn’t be happy doing.

I started to mold myself and my practice around things I wanted to express and pushing my own envelope and my own boundaries. That brought me here: studying painting and sculpture and making it work.

2. How do you find your source materials?

Within all of my work, I’m very interested in topics like gender, sexuality and masculinity, and my relationship to those things, my own queer experience. I was thinking a lot about masculinity and gender when I was making [the “Knuckleball” collage series] and where I fit in along those lines. I was also thinking about systems of the patriarchy and my own family’s relationship to the patriarchy.

In a lot of my work, I play into archetype. It’s sort of campy, but it’s also very real archetypes that I have always had to face. I was thinking a lot about body builders. It’s a hypermasculine figure that in queer circles is this idealized, desirable figure, but it’s also a desirable and evocative figure in straight culture as well.

3. Does your upbringing in the South affect your work?

It has a lot to do with it. I grew up most of my life, as I think a lot of queer people in the South did, very afraid, very scared to be yourself, which is the very sad truth about being queer in the South. There are still so many obstacles you have to face.

In some ways, I love the South, especially Texas. I have such romantic and nostalgic memories of Texas, but there are also some very sad and repressed memories there as well, which I think come through in the work. I talk a lot about the cowboy, who’s this Western crusader that’s been whitewashed through history. They’re these very lone men out on the frontier. In some ways, it relates to my own queer experience.

I think my relationship with my ethnicity also takes a big toll. The work is about being in a limbo space in between, and I think that’s inherently queer. Queer people don’t necessarily fit in this perceived binary of male and female, straight or gay. I try to reflect that with materials and genre and presentation. If there’s something that’s painterly that seems sculptural, or something sculptural that has the qualities of a painting, I feel like that can embody or project the queer experience.

But it’s not just of the queer experience to me, because I also feel that way when I talk about my own ethnicity and race. I’m an American person, but I’m brown and I’m of Mexican descent. My ancestors come from Mexico, but it’s also Texas, so that history gets complicated as well. Were we here when America bought Texas? Were we here before that? We don’t really know.

Both my parents and most of my family are all fluent in Spanish, but they made a decision when I was young not to teach me the language. They felt this pressure to assimilate, and they thought if I spoke English as my native tongue, I would fit in with the white dominant culture that was around me.

Throughout my whole life, I’ve had a very peculiar relationship with my ethnicity. On one hand, I feel like I belong in that and that’s where my family is from. But on the other hand, I feel very distant from it, almost like I’m a poser. Not only does that limbo come into play when I talk about queerness, but also when I talk about race and other aspects of my life. I feel like I’ve been in this in-between state.

4. How do you reconcile that in your life and your art?

When you’re a young person, you can feel ostracized and alone. As I’ve grown into myself, I’ve just accepted it, like any other flaw you may perceive that you have. There is a uniqueness in my perspective and my identity that is still valid, and it’s still how I believe my reality to be true. I’ve come to greatly appreciate those obstacles and that in-between space as a part of who I am.

“Candybody” is about the queer experience. I had this picture of this smiling boy, and I saw myself in this kid. He’s smiling, but there’s something about the history of the photo. The empty space around him feels a little lonely, perhaps. I don’t know who this kid is or what he’s become, but in that moment of making, I saw so much of myself in this random image of a child.

I created a cement frame around the panel to really push home that feeling of entrapment. Maybe this kid feels trapped in his identity. There are so many different meanings I started to project onto this photo, which was the process of that piece. It’s not just a painting, it’s an object. I feel so often that queer people are accessorized by heteronormative society in different ways. Lesbian women are extremely fetishized by straight men the same way gay men are accessorized by straight women. Making this painting into an object, into a solid presence, was a way to communicate that idea as well.

5. What are you working on now?

A lot of my plans did get put on hold because of corona, and now I’ve been engulfed with the protests and keeping up with that. But a few friends of mine and I are starting an independent art publication, so I’ve been working on that. I’m going to be part of an exhibition with Abrir Galería.

Now I’m working on a project using the Schwule Museum’s database of vintage pornography. The Schwule Museum is the first gay museum, and they started collecting vintage pornography. As we later found out, it was very important to keep it as it shows the culture from the 60s and 70s that has been lost after the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. We lost a lot of that history, and this pornography is one of the only outlets we have that gives us a glimpse into queer culture and history.

I feel very privileged to have grown up in a culture where it’s unpopular to be homophobic, at least in America. Not saying there’s not still a ton of work that needs to be done, especially for our trans brothers and sisters and people with alternative gender variances, but I think there’s something to say for how much we have come in such a short amount of time.