The Next Generation: PRIDE and Representation in Art
By Clovis Westlund, QYou Ambassador for the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland
Jared French, a 20th-century American painter, first exhibited Evasion in 1947. Since its acquisition by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2012, moments examining this piece continually punctuate my visits to the museum. With its modest size and stark appearance, French’s illustration of a quiet, enduring shame entrances me as a representation of the universal queer experience.
With a dichotomy between visibility and invisibility, as well as a layered composition, Evasion bears a striking resemblance to prominent Surrealist works, such as René Magritte’s The Menaced Assassin. Unlike the vivid dreamscapes of the Surrealists, Evasion is set within the home — a choice that shows French’s gravitation toward magic realism. However, the proportions, with an elongated wall, narrow hallway, and raised steps, are skewed to create an uneasiness in the viewer. The setting suggests only the mere likeness of a home. French’s composition exhibits the upbringings that LGBTQ+ youth face in unsupportive families; when safety and acceptance necessitates perpetual self-editing and repression, the home is a dangerous place.
Although French’s representation of the queer experience within a heteronormative society is complex, it is clear that his own life fuels the basis of Evasion. As I have read more into mid-20th century psychoanalysis, I have come to see traces of Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development within this piece. The evolution of psychology in the 20th century intertwines with the growing awareness of LGBTQ+ identities. During the 1940s and 1950s, prime years in French’s artistic career, Freudian psychoanalysis reached its peak popularity at a time when the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Freud’s oedipal complex establishes heterosexuality as the norm, with any deviations considered a developmental error. In Evasion, French shows the internal conflict in queer individuals due to the societal acceptance of Freudian ideas. The three subjects in the foreground illustrate this. The genitalia-focused positioning of the middle figure demonstrates French’s focus on the phallic stage of development — the origin of sexual attraction, resentment, and anxiety. The left figure’s position in front of a mirror, opposite the viewer, indicates his own consciousness and the humiliation he feels in his sexuality. Freud wrote that embarrassment is a natural stage of psychosexual development, although the societal affirmation of their sexuality allows children to move forward. This is not the case for queer people, as nonheterosexual identities are often actively discouraged throughout a child’s upbringing; shame can become forever attached to one’s sexuality. In childlike pajamas, the third figure represents denial. While longing to regress to an age before Freud’s Phallic stage, the subject prays toward the wall. By including this detail in Evasion, French exemplifies how mainstream views of sexuality exclude queer people and inhibit their development.
In true magic realism fashion, the artwork prompts the viewer to look within to find personal connection and context. As a queer person, I feel a deep resonance with Jared French’s Evasion, as it bridges systemic oppression with the internalized conflicts of LGBTQ+ people — an important connection to make in understanding the diversity and complexity of queer existences.
Watch Desktop Dialogue: Generations of Queer Art to hear what it means for LGBTQ+ youths to see their community represented in the CMA’s permanent collection. Listen as teens from the Queer Youth Initiative (QYou) at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland discuss a few of their favorite artworks from the new “LGBTQ+ artists after 1900” popular search filter in the CMA’s Collection Online.
Clovis Westlund is a QYou Ambassador for the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, where he mentors his peers in LGBTQ+ topics and is active in the LGBTQ+ community. He enjoys writing on societal and political phenomena, especially regarding the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and power. Clovis is currently studying education policy as a Morrill Distinction Scholar at the Ohio State University.