Art is a Battleground: The Work of Homo Riot
Homo Riot’s work is woven into the fabric of Los Angeles gay culture. His presence in the city is pervasive, from galleries to the streets, from clubs to the lips of the gay community. If you are a gay man in LA, you know who or what Homo Riot is. But the artist’s interests don’t lie in popularity, he is an artist with a message.
Homo Riot grew up in Florida, studied art in New York and eventually settled in Los Angeles. A common enough journey for an artist in America. But the journey of a young gay man navigating an America that had learned gay men were a very real faction of society, but hadn’t learned that gay sexuality shouldn’t bind their freedoms or discredit their humanity, is a vastly different journey than the majority of Americans. However, his journey is relatable to many and personal experience is the foundation of Homo Riot’s work. He builds upon it with a comprehensive knowledge of gay political and cultural history and a clarity for storytelling through collage, crafting relics of his youth with gay nostalgia, historical references and pent up aggression. His collage work points to both a modern day craftsman and a southern born folk artist.
Craftsmanship aside, the initial take-away from his work is the message. He illustrates gay lifestyle without fear, without apology and with sexual aplomb. His message rings loud and clear: we are men, we are sexual and we are staking our claim. His street art does just that, inherent in it’s execution, his street work is tied to the lineage of graffiti more than most street artists of the time. His characters mark his presence, and the presence of the gay community, throughout the city and lay claim to the streets for their own: a “homo” was here, that “homo” is here to stay. However, it is a claim that encompsases more than gay rights today.
“I want to remind people that their notions of sexuality and morality are not universal and in a truly free society there is no censorship.”
A visit to the artist’s studio this past month revealed a new “sense of self” in his work, bold and loosely approached paintings, larger scales, and directed anger at our country’s new administration. Ten foot tall paintings of rioting “homos” amid war-torn cityscapes nod to historical political protest posters and hold a hint of Raymond Pettibon influence. His new work is still most certainly punk, but the paintings are boiled down to their essence. There is no divulging of an artist’s reverie here, there is simply a message, painted deftly and unrelentless in it’s focused delivery.
He reserves personal indulgence for the collage work which delivers on personal reflection, but is in every way universally applicable. He abandons his graphic driven image repetition and character centric work for a homemade quilt-like execution. Patches of emotional softness invigorated with sexualized male imagery. This new line of execution presents materials that retain their original form offering an inviting landscape through texture and color. The treasure chest quality to the work harkens to memories past, dreams for the future, sexual encounters, sexual yearnings, life lessons learned, twinges of regret – it is shared self-exploration.
This is the work of an artist who has faced his fears and whether he has overcome them or not, his new work is riff with diversity of personal inspection: the characters humanistic and varied, the storyline broad and explorative, personal and collective. His new explorations are dichotomous: on one side is the personal preparation for self-completeness in order to fight the battles ahead, on the other is the battleground.
JB: When I think about your work, I think raw and rough, punk, a little bit dirty – physically dirty, like the paper’s wrinkled and that’s ok and often times intentional. But also there is an element of sexuality in that sense of being dirty. Like “dirty sex.” Do you agree with that?
Homo Riot: Yes. The “dirty” part is the part I’ve always been attracted to. My early sexual experiences were all in dirty places like public restrooms and dark alleys. I just find raunchy sex more interesting. Loving, caring “clean” sex is great, but for some reason, that doesn’t inspire my art.
JB: It occurs to me as you say that that as a straight female, sexuality is pervasive in my world and always has been. When I was growing up I desired to be sexual, and the culture of that time, specifically media culture, said that’s okay, even promoted it. I grew up with those Budweiser ads with rows of girls in tiny bikinis, and David Lee Roth videos like California Girls, and literally boobs everywhere – no nipples mind you – but my female sexuality was pervasively promoted. But as a gay man growing up in the same time period with the same culture, your sexuality wasn’t okay. I’m a straight woman, I think about penises. You’re a gay man, you think about penises. But for me it was always accepted, even expected, and for you it was the opposite.
HR: That’s right. I’ve always thought it was the height of hypocrisy that it’s completely acceptable to sexualize women in our culture. It’s okay to plaster barely concealed tits and asses on billboards and tv ads, but the same images of a man’s body would be scandalous. As a kid, I couldn’t tell anybody what I wanted to see. That is where Homo Riot has helped me psychologically. It has been very therapeutic. It still is. It’s about making work I want to see and confronting my inner homophobia. It is sexual, it has that element to it. There’s an aggression and hostility and something that makes you a little fearful of it. All of the Homo Riot thing was about confronting my own uncomfortability. It’s like: “Oh this makes me uncomfortable, so this is going to make somebody else uncomfortable.” Then I have to do it.
JB: That’s the whole point, right?
HR: It is about putting homosexuality in the face of people like…my dad. I mean, if I can look at something and think, “Oh my god, if my dad saw this he would be so repulsed or turned off” and then I’m like, “Okay that’s it.”
JB: And you combine all the elements you mention – sexuality, hostility, uncomfortability and aggression – with the use of masks in your work. The idea of unknown agitators of religious right “normalcy” is scary and sexy and intriguing – and of course with a nod to Kiss…
HR: Yeah – when I was about eight or nine years old I had a best friend who had older brothers. They were really butch and sexy hot older teenage guys and they had lifesize Kiss posters in their bedrooms. And I was an only child, my parents weren’t listening to Kiss, and I didn’t know what Kiss even was. And the masks came to epitomize this sort of sexy, rebel-like, hot teenage boy essence. It was intimidating to me and it was strong, but it was also like, “Oh my god, they are wearing platform shoes and makeup.” So there were a lot of things wrapped up in that imagery for me. When I first started doing Homo Riot, I just wanted something that expressed rock and roll and aggression, but still could be seen as gay or gay friendly.
JB: And now there aren’t as many masks in your new work – at least not yet. The feeling I get as a viewer of your new work is that the time for masks has passed. The time for being a collective movement of masked gay men bringing sexuality to the streets has passed. Now we are individuals and we will show you our faces because we want there to be no confusion as to who we are as we beat you down, Trump supporters.
HR: This new work is different in many ways. It’s less a reaction to homophobes and more about my rage at Trump and trumpanzees. I marched in the Women’s March and the Resist Marches in LA and watched the coverage of other marches across the country. I was so engaged and moved seeing masses of people expressing their anger and frustration. At the same time there are protests in cities all around the world. There’s a movement of people rejecting the corruption and corporatization of governments. Fighting the power structure, and taking to the streets. I wanted to illustrate that.
The new pieces are large pieces and they focus on young guys, young protesters expressing rage against the backdrop of dystopian crumbling cityscapes. They speak to the power in the collective rage that is bubbling up all over the world.
JB: Today there is a tendency of acceptance by mainstream media of an effeminate gay stereotype. But stereotypes become the accepted norms where ignorance is involved, but your work certainly doesn’t play into that “conspiracy” of sorts. Your work is full of male aggression – in no way effeminate.
HR: Well that’s what I idealize. I’m not particularly effeminate. And I’m not into effeminate men. That’s not what turns me on. I have a lot of very effeminate friends, but I don’t want to have sex with them. I just appreciate them. I like my characters to be hyper-masculine and because I think, like you’re saying, gay men are seen as soft.
JB: I think because to mainstream America, a soft gay man is not scary or threatening to their “social morals.” It’s like, oh let’s just make this gay male character on Will and Grace funny and effeminate because people will accept that.
HR: Yes, And if you think about the gay characters who were recognized in pop culture even before Sean in Will and Grace, like Paul Lynde in Bewitched or Charles Nelson Reilly, they were crazy, clown-like characters, and there’s nothing sexual about them. There’s nothing threatening. Nobody’s imagining that they have sex. But my thing is about masculine, unafraid, aggressive and hostile gay men. Don’t fuck with these guys, they will fucking hammer you.
JB: Art may be the only outlet where a really true to life depiction of gay culture is able to filter into the mainstream.
HR: Yeah, I would say so. Through pop culture and art. When I was growing up there were only effeminate men who I saw and knew were gay. These were the church organist or the guy who cut my mom’s hair or the man who planned weddings and did floral arranging. I didn’t want to be them. But I didn’t see strong virile men who were also gay, so I didn’t know how I fit into this identity. As I got older and understood that there were men who were fearless and strong and alpha male and also gay, I was pissed off that I didn’t have that image to look up to as a kid. All I had were the Paul Lyndes and hairdressers of the world to illustrate what a gay man was. This is like the main reason why my imagery is 99% butch and aggressive. I want to see this type of gay man. I want the world to know that these gay men exist. And I want young boys in small towns with gay band directors and florists to know that that’s not all there is.
“…the closet is not an imaginary thing. It’s a very real thing.”
JB: And social media, well the internet in general, has made the availability of role models so much more accessible to the youth than it was when you were in those formative years seeking a role model. On the other hand, with the overabundance of media, and the technology that accompanies it, we are able to filter what we are exposed to in ways we couldn’t before. So people, like the puritan right, can just ignore realities of their choosing. But that’s not the case with art and even more so with street art.
HR: Yeah and I hope it continues to be. I think street art, well, it’s not dead but it’s definitely been going through a decline. But people are always going to be in the street, there’s always going to be commercial advertising in the street and I think street art is a balance to that. Most major metropolitan cities understand the appeal of street art, so I’m hopeful that cities will not be so intent on buffing everything out. And that there will be a resurgence around street art. There are a lot of street artists still working and putting stuff out, pushing the envelope, but as far as gay art and exposing the general public to that, street art is one way to do that because people’s filters aren’t up.
JB: Homo Riot is primarily known as a gay artist, but you have always referred to yourself as a queer artist. What does the term queer mean to you?
HR: So, I am a homosexual and I have sex with men. But I think I identify more as queer than gay. And it’s no judgment on someone who would consider themselves strictly gay and not queer. But I think unity is super important. And I think we all fall under the umbrella of queer. It’s just more inclusive. And there’s nothing really stereotypical about it. It’s also about embracing derogatory terms. Like when you’d hear, “Oh he’s queer.” That’s seen as “bad” thing. But queer is beautiful.
JB: Do you feel like because of who you are and the work you do in support of the gay and queer community that you can embrace and help bring a voice to other outcast factions of society – like the trans community?
HR: Yes. I really feel like the next incarnation coming out of my work is going to be more trans focused. You and I were just talking about this really masculine work I am making now, and maybe I’m getting through that. I’ve addressed my own inner homophobia, and I’ve addressed this idea of masculine aggression, and I need to embrace the feminine side of that. But I don’t know how it will come out. I mean the Trump thing – I’ve been obsessed with that since the election. So I’ve been – my work has been focused on that lately. And I think all the artists I know have been.
JB: I have been witness to that for sure. In light of the Trump administration, do you feel it’s important to maintain that definition as a gay artist, or as a queer artist or a trans artist – retaining that sense of community rather than just being an artist in an art community?
HR: I think as long as I live it will be really important. We have already seen that whatever progress we made, somebody is trying to tear it down. If Trump wasn’t so fucking incompetent and such a buffoon…I mean if Mike Pence was President and Jeff Sessions was Attorney General, we would be on the way to religious fascism – I don’t even know what that looks like, but it’s BAD.
JB: Yeah, as scary as it is now, that would be worse. I’m curious, how exactly has this election affected your work?
HR: Well in some ways it’s actually been pretty cool and great. If Hillary Clinton was president this wouldn’t be happening.
[Note to reader: Homo Riot’s use of the word “this” above and below refers to his studio where we are surround by the artist’s recent work: anti-trump, activist-driven, aggression filled art.]
HR: I don’t know what I would be feeling, but I would not be feeling this. And I think so many people are creating art, and finding voice, and becoming activists, and accessing this thing that we weren’t really participating in before. So many people just lulled into complacency before, and so in many ways this situation is good. It’s creating this kind of activist culture and it’s great for art. There’s a lot of cool art that is really Trump-centric.
But it’s bad terrible terrible terrible for America. And the world. We just fucking pissed our perceived authority away. But whatever. Maybe that’s a lesson we needed. This is all about unintended consequences. And you know, so they elected Trump and the unintended consequence is that everyone else gets really motivated. And we’ve never looked back. Fuck them.
JB: Yeah really, fuck them. Changing gears a bit…while your art not overtly humorous, knowing you as a person I feel there is an underlying humor, or maybe a better term would be lightheartedness. For instance you once showed a larger than life-size human fist (a dildo like one would purchase from their favorite sex shop) completely covered in gold leaf as the title piece to your show Fist Pump. I remember when you first showed it to me I had such a straight face and you just laughed. I thought, “Oh wow, I guess this is funny,” but initially I didn’t know how to react. It was huge! I think most people take your work very seriously and your topics are inherently serious. Is there an intended sense of lightheartedness that gets overlooked?
HR: Maybe that’s true. I’m a funny guy so it makes sense that that would come out in the work somehow. I know my art seems very message driven, and I’ve been talking here about the content and its intended message, but often times I’m making art through intuition. I’m not mapping it out for maximum impact. Sometimes I make a piece and only after a period of time do I even understand what drove me to select this or that image.
JB: But the impact is considered?
HR: Yeah. It’s pulling things out and wondering what kind of response does it get from other people, or judging it somehow. It’s a sliding scale of approvability: ok this person approves it, this person approves it, that person does not, and that person is way off over there and they will call the cops. So I try to just play with what affects people and what presses buttons.
JB: You seem to have a similar philosophy when it comes to your gallery shows, specifically your installation pieces. You often go beyond an installation even, and create immersive presentations that induce a visceral experience for the viewer. Your art alone already induces so many emotions, why take this extra step in presentation?
HR: Well I think it’s from my own experience going into galleries. A lot of times when I go into a gallery, I am kind of put-off by the art, sometimes because of the way it’s shown. I think there is this kind of sterile and quiet thing that happens, especially in a small gallery – I just feel awkward in those spaces sometimes. So I like this idea that there is some other kind of energy happening in the space that allows people to be a little more casual, and encourages people to talk more or interact with something.
JB: Your gallery exhibitions certainly point towards performance art and I know that you have included performance art in your shows. What about it appeals to you?
HR: When I first saw performance art, it was so shocking and I didn’t know what to think of it at all. The more I got to know about performance art, and the more I got to know people who are performance artists, I realized that most of all they really want the viewer to become an active participant, or to not be afraid of getting up close. It’s such a departure from art that hangs on a wall.
And performance art, for me, always pushed boundaries. We are each of us doing our own performance art everyday, but these artists are – they put their lives into this work – there is such a devotion. So I have a lot of respect for performance artists. And I just love bringing that into my shows because I don’t want anyone to feel static in a room or inhibited to speak. I just want it to be really kinetic and I want something happening in the space that encourages movement and noise and energy.
JB: Would you ever create a performance piece for yourself?
HR: Yes. sure. But there is such a broad understanding of what performance art is. I did a piece earlier this year for an event called Night on Broadway here in LA. I took a 30 foot long piece of paper and I just wrote “homo” over and over and over again. And it lasted the whole day from like noon to 10pm. For me that was a performance piece because I was doing it in front of people, and it pushed my endurance – which I think is often times an important part of performance art, and I had to be fully committed to it to complete the piece by the end of the night. I really enjoyed doing that.
JB: You are such a community oriented artist, but two very famous “leaders” in your community, Gilbert and George, stole your work and then sold it as their own. What was your reaction to this?
HR: Yeah. [pause] So I went through a whole series of feelings about that.
JB: Yeah, I would imagine.
HR: At first I was awestruck. I mean it’s Gilbert and George. They are, to me, the most famous gay art duo. They are taken so seriously by everybody, they’ve been around and they have just a huge body of work. To imagine that they had incorporated something of mine into their work, I was mostly just really flattered and excited about it. But then when I told some friends, they got really angry. Like you need to call them out, they stole your intellectual property, you need to call an attorney. But I thought about it and there are things in my own work that are derivative of other people’s work. And I’ve never copied directly or so flagrantly as Gilbert and George did, but I mean look at Richard Prince. His recent work is a complete ripoff of someone’s instagram. But he did it first. And he can sell it to a gallery or a collector in a way that it is his art. So I just decided to take the path that I am just flattered by it. That it’s my image and I know it, and anyone who sees it on the street is going to know it’s my image. I’m not scared that suddenly someone will associate it with Gilbert and George and I’m going to lose my identity. But you know I did run into Gilbert.
JB: No! You did?!
HR: So I was in London about three months ago, in Shoreditch. And I had previously laid stickers all over Shoreditch and that’s where Gilbert and George had seen the image, that’s how they had gotten it. So I’m in Shoreditch and I am putting work up. I have my gloves on and I’ve got my brush and bucket of goop, and I’m like, “Oh my god there’s Gilbert right there!” So I just go right up to him. And I pull a sticker out and I go, “Have you seen this before?” He was like “fuck” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “This is me – this is mine.” And he got scared. You could tell he was freaked out.
JB: Ha! You scared Gilbert!
HR: And he said, “Well we really liked that image, that’s why we used it.” And I said, “Alright.” I made him take a picture with me. And I gave him some more stickers.
JB: I love that he admitted fault without you having to say anything.
HR: He knew. He knew he was busted.
JB: As he should. So switching gears here, kind of…let’s talk about porn. You include it in your work often and it’s an extreme choice. Did you start doing that to entice a reaction from the Mormons and the religious right?
HR: My association with porn takes root in my youth where pornography was relegated to the dirty bookstore, or maybe you got a videotape or something, and your dad had Playboys in the back of his closet. It was hidden and it was shocking to see it, because you just didn’t see it out in the open. But now I don’t think anything is shocking. If I wanted to shock someone I guess I would use fisting images and that would really shock people. But just two men naked embracing each other is only shocking to the puritan right.
HR: The kind of porn I use, typically, is vintage porn. It’s not particularly graphic, it’s just the body. Sometimes it’s an erect penis, but it’s just a naked body. Nowadays there’s no limit to the amount of pornography you can see. So there is an aspect to that that people are now just desensitized to. I don’t think the images I use or have used are even really that disturbing to anybody at this point because it’s ubiquitous on everybody’s cell phone and ipad. Little children are looking at it, old people are looking at it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t even look at it as being shocking anymore. But I’m also a big proponent of being sex positive. I think we are too moralistic, but it’s like pseudo-moralistic, it’s not even real. We put all these labels and taboos around sexuality and nudity, and it’s crazy. I like fighting against that.
Did you know that the term pornograhy was invented during the Victorian Age?
JB: I had no idea. That seems like a strange pairing.
HR: The Victorians discovered Pompeii, and when they discovered it, it was a major event. It was a major discovery like the pyramids and King Tut’s tomb. But the archeologists and intellectuals at that time didn’t want it to be shown to the general public because what they found in Pompeii were all these depictions of sex and debauchery on the walls and phallic statues everywhere. So the public didn’t really know about it. These wealthy white men who were the scientific and educated elite in Victorian England took these sexual artifacts back to England and hid them away in secret museums. Only members of the ruling class were allowed to view them. They were afraid if the general public found out it would destroy the moral decency of the average man, and the whole of society, and social class would disintegrate. This was such an inhibited culture. I mean it was scandalous to see a woman’s ankle during the Victorian Age.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if the sexual freedom and liberty of Pompeii had not been extinguished? And that’s another reason why I do what I do. I want to remind people that their notions of sexuality and morality are not universal and in a truly free society there is no censorship. Free the nip, free the peen.
“But I’m also a big proponent of being sex positive. I think we are too moralistic, but it’s like pseudo-moralistic, it’s not even real.”
JB: Is it important to you to reference the history of sexual culture, specifically gay sexual culture in your work?
HR: I don’t think about my work doing that, but it is very important to me. A couple of years ago there was a popular theory going around in intellectual homosexual studies groups that millennial gay men would become so used to society’s accepting them that they would – like everybody’s out and everything’s okay and we’re getting married and adopting babies – that they would forget how difficult it used to be for people, in like the 1950’s for instance, to be gay. How dangerous it was and how undergound it had to be. This assimilation would breed complacency and if there were ever a threat to acceptance again, we would be unprepared to fight it. There was also a fear that the assimilation of gays and lesbians into straight society would kind of kill gay culture, and we would forget our history and loose our connection to each other. Like an indigenous tribe that loses its language. It’s already happened to an extent. I don’t think “gaydar” is something that young kids develop anymore.
But there has always been a time where gay men and lesbians have been persecuted and have had to hide. Because the closet is not an imaginary thing. It’s a very real thing. I do think it is really important to keep reminding young gay men what it was like and how fortunate they are. And that that can be taken away really quickly. Now with this new administration, you see how quickly things can be reversed. And how certain activities and social groups can fall out of favor – that could happen to gay people again really quickly, really easily.
JB: Your work approaches this sort of “lesson” maintanence in a way that is foundation building yet simultaneously ground-breaking. Like using porn, but vintage porn. Like using masks, but Kiss make-up masks. And your terminology, like the word “Homo.” You referred to the stigma of “labels and taboos” regarding sexuality earlier and that certainly exists surrounding the word “Homo.” But you’ve transformed its definition through new adaptations. You use it as a casual sign off, repetition for a performance piece, you sign your work with it. What about that word makes it so significant to you and your practice?
HR: I do have an affinity for it. I like it better than gay. It’s more blunt. Because it’s an abbreviation or shortening of “homosexual,” there’s something kind of more direct, yet plain. Something kind of street about it. When I was 15 years old, if someone called me a homo – well people did call me a homo – that makes you want to hide under a table or something. It caused shame and feelings of damaged self-confidence. It made you feel separate and apart. So there is a major part of it that is just taking back that word and that moniker. I sign everything just “Homo.”
JB: You’ve made it universal, like for one and for all – for you and all of your community. You’ve made it endearing for me as your friend. I often hashtag “my favorite homo,” but I remember there was a time period where I thought, “Oh that’s probably not appropriate.”
JB: Well, because I’m not a homo.
HR: But you don’t think that anymore?
JB: Yeah, I don’t feel that way anymore. It wasn’t because you would be upset by my using it, but more because there were derogatory attachments to that word and I didn’t want it to be misinterpreted. But now I do see it as a term of endearment, directly because of your work. And I am sure a lot of other people feel that way, too, because you really have become a strong and unique voice in the gay community in LA. How do you feel about taking on the role of a leader or spokesperson?
HR: I can’t say I ever really think much about it. I hope when people see my work they associate me with LA. I love LA. And obviously I want to be seen as an artist who’s creating queer positive art. And I love that people all over the world have seen my work and can identify it and will tag me on instagram when they see it. You know, that feel goods. I’m not asking to be a spokesperson for a cause. I mean I would be proud to be a spokesperson for queer rights if anyone asked me to. Unless it was Trump. As long as Trump wasn’t trying to put me into his cabinet as the queer rights spokesperson.
JB: Ha! Speaking of, I see you are making a Trump mask. What are your plans for such a masterpiece?
HR: One thing I’m going to have to do is make it a different color because I started out with that orange color because he was really orange in the beginning. And now he’s in a different color phase, like kind of a tan color, but more brown than that spray tan orange. Maybe he’s just actually getting sun? Or he’s gotten a new self tanner that works a little better. So I’ve got to change the color and I’ve got to make that white around his eyes – I mean why does he have that white around his eyes?
JB: Maybe he opted for a tanning bed over the spray tanner now that he’s president?
HR: Yeah, a tanning bed and he wears those goggles. [laughs] But I don’t know, I just feel like I wanted a mask because if something happens I might need one. I’ve got the Trump mask. I’m ready for it.
JB: Just to have in your arsenal.
HR: Right, to hit the street with it or something.
JB: So do you think someday we will be able to tour the presidential tanning room?
HR: I hope not. They can blow that fucking thing up.