Targets and Trophies
by Damon Arhos
Whose shoulders do I stand on? The question has crossed my mind so many times. And, in October of 1998, the month that Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked and subsequently died, I was 31 years old — a young man trying to reconcile my own sexual orientation. Now, nearly 20 years later, I look back and know that the impact of his story helped me find the courage to tell mine.
That is why I included an image of Shepard in my recent MFA thesis exhibition at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. The show itself — Targets and Trophies — investigated gay culture as an ongoing target of discrimination and violence. As a studio artist, I wanted to emphasize how horrific events often make things better for others — how the tragedy of someone like Shepard (or Harvey Milk, whose portrait I also painted for the exhibition) also creates hope.
My art practice seeks to expose the destructive nature of prejudice and uses my identity as a gay American as its frame. As an interdisciplinary artist, I create two- and three-dimensional artworks using a range of media. I often incorporate individuals or objects that have a distinct connection to my past, yet intentionally present conflicting narratives of accomplishment and defeat.
These subject matters tap cultural phenomena that speak to many and aim to make connections to authentic life experiences shared by others. Via style, scale, and content, my work asks viewers to examine their convictions — to see how their thoughts and actions affect others. It also asks them to embrace acceptance and inclusion, as so many have experienced the adverse burden of bigotry and hate.
My portrait of Shepard — Matthew Shepard Was A Target — is 8 feet tall by 7 feet wide, made of acrylic paint on canvas with metallic vinyl decals in the background. It is a digitized image that I intentionally painted in grayscale in order to emphasize the gravity of his experience as well as my own sadness for the loss. However, the background is constructed of gold target symbols that brightly shine — a metaphor for the positive influence that Shepard has had on people around the world.
Also included in the exhibition: My own self-portrait — If I Am Myself, Then Will I Be A Target? — stands in contrast with those of Shepard and Milk, with a muted background and colorful form. It is meant to emphasize another question that also frequently poses itself, one that exists as the title for the work. I positioned my own portrait next to the others as a way of addressing an ongoing relationship between challenges of the past and of the present.
Although my thesis exhibition is now done, I hope these portraits remind viewers that the legacy of Shepard’s story and memory always will be with us. I will continue to reference his spirit as I use my art practice to address gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, and human relationships. As I find a way to be honest every day — despite my fears, to stand up for myself and for others — Shepard’s memory helps me find courage. And, for this, I am sincerely grateful.
While growing up in Austin, Texas, Damon Arhos (American, b. 1967) always questioned convention. The interdisciplinary artist consistently tried to align with cultural norms, but often struggled when the stories just did not fit. Back then, Arhos spent a lot of time reconciling perceptions with reality — at that time, an impossible task that fostered introspection and resilience.
Today, living and working in the Washington, DC metro area, Arhos uses his art practice to explore how individual experiences influence gender roles, sexual orientation, and human relationships. With identity at its core, this process seeks to question stereotypes and assumptions that dampen character. Further, it investigates the implications of concurrent affirmation and rejection within disenfranchised communities. Arhos uses scale, humor, and remixed Pop Art references in order to establish — and then alter — the familiar. His interest in portraiture has developed with diverse expressions of the self as well as of historical figures who have overcome inequity.
An MFA in studio art graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Arhos also serves as an educator, teaching undergraduate art students both design principles and art history. The grandson of Greek immigrants, Arhos recurrently investigates the richness of culture, and embraces the idiosyncrasies that make life more alluring.