Consuming Queerness: An Interview with Xandr Arquin

by Christopher Karr June 11, 2024
Photo of two men posing in front of three mixed media portraits on a wall

Xandr Arquin, “Attendees at You’re Invited,” 2023, photograph

Would you like a ring pop or a Cherry Pepsi? If either floats your boat you need to participate in an exhibit by Xandr Arquin. 

Xandr Arquin is a San Antonio-based artist whom I met during my first semester as a Master’s student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. From early on, I had the chance to observe how Arquin’s art is personal. His installations, which are often mixed-media, borrow from his own queerness and experiences and are derived from the visual language of queer stereotypes, pop culture, and film.

Arquin appropriates camp aesthetics, ranging from neon-colored signs to tacky curtains, to create temporary simulations of the queer experience. He presents audiences with provocative work that challenges one to take a stand, knock, or even sit down — the choice is yours. In the following interview, Arquin talks about how his installations link the rejected and the acceptable in mainstream culture, from social to fine art spaces. 


Christopher Karr (CK): Could you tell me what your work investigates?

Xandr Arquin (XA): My work highlights the limits of types of display. I use storytelling and narration to provide a frame for queer history. I’m highly interested in investigating the line between being completely rejected and completely accepted. So, what are those two spaces where you are rejected or accepted? What type of information and what type of aesthetics do people appreciate that others do or don’t?

True queerness is about finding the beauty in things that are rejected. What’s more rejectable than tacky curtains? What’s more rejectable in an art space than a movie poster? I have a close kinship with pop art because pop art is often rejected in sterile, academic spaces.

CK: I’m thinking now of an artist like Andy Warhol. He was one of the artists that pioneered pop art in fine art spaces. Do you still feel that the art world has a very narrow view of what is allowed in art museums?

XA: Oh, absolutely. There are a lot of Andy Warhol works that are not accepted into museums. There are some in gay clubs that are actually photo frames from gay porn. Those are the types of things that art history does not acknowledge. They try to skirt around homosexuality. It’s more ambiguous, and it’s because they’ve collected his [Warhol’s] works that show an “other” type of reality when the true reality is that he was a very openly gay person. 

But because those types of works — that are in the gay clubs — don’t fit the narrative of the mainstream, they are excluded.

Installation of a neon sign that says "Faggotry" over a victorian couch

Xandr Arquin, “Faggotry, with friends,” 2023, installation

CK: Could you talk about this curtain and your neon sign?

XA: I’m trying to play with that space of new, immersive art installations where you go to be photographed. So, I made a neon sign that says “FAGGOTRY,” because it is a very incendiary term. And, I feel like right now, in a lot of the mainstream culture, there’s a lot of queerness that is consumed by straight people who are not necessarily true allies. They’ll say they are true allies, but when it comes to legislation and very serious queer topics, it’s usually not as recognized, and not as participated in, by the mainstream culture. 

I’ve created this litmus test of a space. How willing are you to participate in gay culture? Are you willing to say faggot with me, a queer man? Are you willing to be seen with a sign that says faggot that I’ve created? 

It’s me being a little prissy at people.

CK: Am I right to say that you are inviting some pushback?

XA: Yeah, I’m poking people a lot. I invite people into a space, but at the same time, I also challenge them. Some people may get close and not want to interact with it. They may document the sign but not want to be seen with it. Whenever I display this artwork, I see how so many people pull out their cameras to take a photo, but then leave afterward.

CK: Which is the point.

XA: Right? People may photograph my work, but they won’t sit down on the couch that I will include in front of it and be photographed with the sign. It’s kind of that idea that people are willing to consume gay culture, but they do not want to be seen consuming it.

CK: And the table in front of the sign has condoms and ring pops. What’s the reasoning behind this artistic choice?

XA: I wanted to communicate headspaces — pun intended — that do not just discuss social class, but also manufacturing and ideas of experience, whether they are artificial or authentic. The ring pops were my main mode of portraying this idea. I find it fascinating that ring pops are these jewels that you can wear, but they’re also edible, and they’re certainly not high-class jewels. Ring pops are not fruits, either — they are simply fruit-flavored. 

There’s so much simulacra in this candy that’s typical of our childhoods. We never really change, do we? I saw these flavored condoms, and when you think about it, flavored condoms are another simulation that we’ve created. We never grow out of the need to be in a simulation.

I want people who reflect on my artwork to realize that it’s all a simulation. What you see isn’t the gay experience, just a simulation of the experience that you view for moments and then dismiss.

CK: The Feast combines different simulacra that you present to people with Faggotry. Why is this?

XA: The experience that I’ve had with academia was really frustrating. I got to see how blatantly artificial it was, especially with art history. The story that art history tells is in powerful people’s control. It was not until near the end of my Master of Fine Arts degree that I understood this, and I understand it even more now as a working professional. I want to account for my new position of power, as someone with an MFA who starts to have authority in the art realm. I now get to exhibit in art galleries and create my own realm. I uplift all of the things that I was told were not valuable, including corner stores and cheap, fruit-flavored candies. I see these things as precious, and for that reason, I put these condoms, ring pops, and a Cherry Pepsi soda on a literal pedestal. This is the artwork that I want to lead with for my future shows. 

Installation of a glory hole

Xandr Arquin, “Head Mistress’ Ivory Tower,” 2023, installation

CK: Your imagery is provocative. Have there been times when you were able to connect with audiences who felt uncomfortable at first?

XA: Yes! For example, a few of my students came to my thesis show, and they brought their boyfriends along. I could tell that their boyfriends were uncomfortable with the lights and the wooden stall, but I couldn’t dwell on that. Allowing myself to be comfortable with straight people being uncomfortable with my artwork is a necessary part of my practice. 

So, what did I do? I blew up some condoms from the table and started to toss them like balloons; my students and their boyfriends joined in and tossed the balloons, too. I was able to ease their comfort, which was nice. Imagine what would have happened had I gotten outraged at these guys being uncomfortable in a gay space. I never would have been able to truly share my art with them. I took the sexuality out of the condoms because they are just rubber and air; what’s rubber and air if not a balloon?

Installation view of a row of mixed media portraits on a wall

Xandr Arquin, “Roulette Prints,” 2023, light box

CK: When you look closely your posters say phrases such as “coming soon” in this bright yellow. What is coming soon?

XA: To start with just the formal elements, I’m inspired by everyday, working-class culture. The movie theater really is my space of transcendental experiences. I was very inspired by the hallways with movie posters, so I decided to photograph portraits of people with this extreme, colored lighting. This references Giallo movies. 

These photos play into queer portraiture as well because they have lots of colors, which plays into the rainbow. And I have them fake-pose screaming, like the Scream Queen movie posters. So, the framing is the same as movie poster ratios. I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed with the movie posters, so there’s not a lot of text. But the text that I’m including are these taglines that reference movies that say things such as “coming soon,” or “coming to a theater near you.”

But I’ve taken them out of context and put them on what I’ll call these “queer-anxiety portraits” that reappropriate the meaning of “coming soon.” 

So, what does “coming soon” mean in a queer space? Is it the next AIDS epidemic, or is it the next excellent drag queen? There’s always something to be excited about, but there’s also something to be worried about. And that’s what these prints talk about. 

installation of remnants of detritus

Xandr Arquin, “Rasquache Remnants,” 2023, installation

CK: Xandr, something that cannot go unmentioned is that your artwork sheds light on the issue of homelessness in the queer community. Can you discuss why you reveal this problem?

XA: What happens is that I bring the humanity into the room. Art spaces are this fantasy, they’re transcendental. What I do is turn fantasy into reality, and the reality is that our culture has this construct of time that doesn’t exist when you’re homeless. I’ve experienced homelessness briefly, and I recall that the time for breakfast and lunch and time to sleep and all of that was whenever. I was homeless in my early teens alongside my family, and  I am fortunate that it was a brief period where it did not affect my overall livelihood. And unfortunately, homelessness is an issue that is especially prevalent in the queer community, and I want to bring this into the gallery space.

Going into academia, I had this headspace where I felt that I needed to be saved. Everything that academia taught me is a construct. I realized that I was being molded into this assimilative idea of what a refined artist is. With my art, I toss the idea of the “refined artist” and my “refined art” into a pile. 

Academia throws people away, so I decided that I needed to throw academia away. I would like every artist who feels the same way I do to give themselves the option to dispose of academia as quickly as academia would dispose of them.

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