A Queer Celebration of Filth and Resistance: Eames Armstrong and John Moletress Talk Perversion Therapy

On view at Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, DC, Perversion Therapy subverts the abusive practice of conversion therapy, thus affirming queerness and playfully celebrating deviance, eroticism, and filth. Featuring paintings, performance objects, and multimedia installations, artists Eames Armstrong and John Moletress re-imagine the gallery space as a site of queer resistance.

I first met Eames in graduate school where their performance-based work focused on queer negation and noise. This exhibition offers a change of pace for Eames in which their figure-based paintings explore queerness through humor and domestic deviance.

John’s performance and video work transgresses social and bodily boundaries – a key element of the show. John’s own body acts as a site of resistance, repulsion, and pleasure, which collectively critique social scripts of respectability and conformity.

Perversion Therapy underlines the historical censorship and abuse of queer bodies, while reminding the viewer that our bodies ultimately are our most potent counter-weapons. We must speak up, act up, and resist erasure, for we are reminded of Gran Fury’s famous phrase that silence does indeed equal death.

Eames and John recently spoke with me about Perversion Therapy, the goddess of nonconformity Divine, and the role of queer artists now that our country is led by one of the most anti-LGBTQ presidents in history.

Andy: The work of curating such an exhibition in our current climate, I know, becomes exhausting, so how are you holding up?

Eames: In the immediate wake of the election it was kind of nice actually to have this show to plan and work towards, it gave me purpose when it felt as if the world crumbled. I was grateful for some direction to pull through initial despair. We had a great turnout for the opening, so I'm more invigorated and motivated now, but yes a little exhausted, haha. I feel a beautiful new hope today after the incredible women's marches around the country and beyond.

John: Disoriented. Well enough. The keeping doing occupies the time, although I could use a vacation.

A: How did this project come about and how did it evolve over time?

Eames:  We did a three-hour performance together about a year ago, so this exhibition is completely different in scale. This exhibition went through a number of evolutions and permutations. The initial idea was to expand on work that John is doing exploring notions of “home” in relation to performance practices. After the election it became necessary to respond in some way, and we debated whether we ought to scrap all our work and start over or continue with our initial plan. We found a middle way through, and reframed our work to emphasize our opposition to the incoming anti-queer agenda.  

John: Of course, it went from A to Z as it evolved. We were on separate coasts for most of the time in between, working on multiple projects.

A: The phrase “Filth is my politics” is so iconic for anyone remotely familiar with Divine and John Waters (I think Cry-baby was my first sexual awakening as a youngster), how does that mantra fit into this notion of perversion therapy?

J: I like getting dirty. I never slighted away from playing in mud. Perversion is as messy a subject as therapy. Both co-exist in a space that has fluid rules with no particular arrival. Perversion has been used as a term of persecution; however, it can be reclaimed as a term for play that is consensual and pleasurable.

E: I intend to talk about filth and perversion in a way that recuperates our actions and desires from the negative meanings of those words, very much like the taking back of the term queer. The quotation is from Pink Flamingos, a reporter asks Babs (Divine) about her politics to which she responds “Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth are my politics, filth is my life!” It should go without saying that this is the statement of a fictional character- and shouldn't be taken literally! But it represents an exaggeration of a real position, a big fuck-off to the perpetual reproduction of a stagnant status quo that frantically adheres to values that are passed down and adopted without question. I want to scramble the codes of normativity, but I'm not here to hurt anyone.

We're in a time where the very notion of truth is rapidly losing meaning. It is terribly easy to misconstrue our message by literalizing it and ignoring the huge tongue in our cheek. Art has this important capacity to locate social boundaries by disrupting them, artists like John Waters push on reality through fiction, exposing that what seems un-changeable can become un-fixed and we can re-imagine our world. But increasingly this force for change that art and fiction can provide is being used to manipulate a huge portion of our population to bend truth, cast facts as unreliable, to depict a fantasy future that can be achieved through regressive and hateful politics. It is crucial to continue to speak out and act against gaslighting rhetoric. We have to support one another, and we need to be expansive in our thinking about how to create and preserve systems of support.

A: The show not only critiques the censorships of queer bodies, but also the notion of homonormativity. Beginning in the 90s with a shift away from the politics of AIDS and queer liberation to a politics of respectability with regard to the military, marriage, etc. the queer assimilationist movement has certainly staked its territory. How is Perversion Therapy intervening in such a debate and what makes the show so antithetical to homonormativity?

E: I think you already answered this better than I can! I hope that my paintings can simultaneously push away from cliché or narrow representations of same-sex relationships while also being relatable to folks who do not identify as queer.

J: We’re looking at our own queer bodies as a site for non-conformity and non-assimilation. Ideally, we can move about the world with the fundamental truth that all bodies share the same human rights as free and independent persons. To be frank, I was not shouting for gay marriage because of how hegemonic patriarchal structures define the institution. What I will say, on a hopeful note, about this current people’s Presidential employee is that this travesty has sparked the communal pilot light, on the way to heating a people’s furnace that has the real potential to burn bright and make way for a paradigmatic shift. As an artist, I can be a part of a movement that brushes against expectations by being deviant and playful as fuck. I don’t need to make things that please. I want to make thoughtful work that is as unsimulated as it is theatrical.

A: John, during the opening night you staged three performances, one as a baby, one as a dominatrix, and the last as the recipient of several pies in the face. Could you walk me through your thought-process for those performances?

J: I chose the paraphilia “bible” as a source for actions. The three performances were things I have experienced with clients during sex work.

A: Eames, I had the pleasure of watching your work evolve over time from small drawings on paper to now large acrylics on canvas and wood. What is it that draws you to these ambiguous figures and their portrayal of domestic deviance and queer bliss? There is certainly an aspect of humor present.

E: Definitely humor. As I developed this body of work I had a few loose rules- I was on the right track if it made me laugh, and if I'm bored making it they'll be boring to look at. So I made these visual jokes for myself, and rendered everything kind of fast and loose. They're ultimately about capturing a feeling or mood through human interactions, presenting new or unusual intimacies among bodies, and support systems. Some of them are in non-specific spaces, but the ones in rooms are all domestic. There is a bit of mirroring between a room and a body, with its entrances and exits, insides and outsides, safety and vulnerability.

A: How has this exhibition and this body of work been a process of therapy or release for you? I’m wondering how your practice becomes an escape in a way? How do filth, domestic deviance, and queer eroticism relieve some of that pressure?

J: For me, practice is not escape as much as confrontation. I work towards meeting personal fears, up front and at times, terrifyingly close. Things that defined my youth – Catholic, faggot, fat, mentally ill – drop pins on a map I navigate. Differing between then and now is that I no longer take the routes less populated. I go right down Main Street, or Gay Street depending on the suburb, but rather prefer an Elm Street.

E: In my performance work I explored negativity for quite a while- the possibility of negativity to be in resistance to a positive but false hope in the future rather than working for immediate change in the present- and negativity against normalizing social structures that co-opt and dilute dissent. I'm still working down that path in noise projects, but this painting work came about as a major counterpoint to that thinking. These paintings are meant to be celebratory of a cherished weirdness. So in the context of our national situation, it is joy as a fuck you in the face of a nightmare, celebrate your rage and don't let it crush you.

A: What, in your opinion, can queer artists (be it painters, photographers, performance artists, etc.) do to maintain their creativity and motivation when we are living in a country now run by a sexist, racist, islamophobic, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, and fascist orange man-baby?

J: Disobey. Be the instigator and anarchist. Find your truth.

E: Never stop working! But remember that taking care of yourself is valid work. Support and show marginalized voices, it isn't just about you it is about all of us. Be fucking furious. I think about the final lines of Susan Stryker's lecture-essay, Performing Transgender Rage- “May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.”*

A: Last question, and this may be the most difficult one of them all. Which John Waters movie is your favorite?

J: Pointing to is difficult. If no choice but to choose, I’d say Mondo Trasho.

E: Damn, I think it must be Pink Flamingos. In 2015, Waters made Kiddie Flamingos, a child-friendly remake read by children. It is brilliantly charming. It made me love the first one even more!

*STRYKER, SUSAN   (01/01/1994).  My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix Performing Transgender Rage. GLQ. ,  1 (3), p. 237.

Image Credit: 1) Eames Armstrong, We are in the bathroom!, acrylic on paper, 30"x44", 2016, 2) John Moletress, Performance, Flashpoint Gallery, 2017, 3) Eames Armstrong, I miss then, acrylic on paper, 28"x20", 2016.

On Saturday February 4 at 1:30 pm, Eames and John will be speaking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Third Floor, as part of the Luce Artist Talks. It is free and open to the public.

Andy Johnson is an Art Historian, curator, and currently director of Gallery 102 in Washington, DC. His academic and curatorial practice centers on queer, feminist, and black feminist theories and visual culture. He received his M.A. in Art History from the George Washington University in 2015 and has presented his research at Universities including Rutgers, University of Georgia, U.C Santa Barbara, and GW. 

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