Drawn Together

With their queer artists' collective Boys Be Good, Christopher Cunetto and Jason Edward Tucker are finding that there's strength and artistry in numbers

Interview by Randy Shulman
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on May 17, 2012, 2:45am | Comments

An interesting thing happened when Christopher Cunetto met Jason Edward Tucker. One could almost call it a Big Bang for the D.C. queer artistic community, but that might be a bit of an overstatement.

It was more like a Big Bang followed by a slow, thoughtful burn.

Boys be Good

Boys be Good: Tucker & Cunetto

(Photo by Todd Franson)

The two artists – one who concocts delicate, sumptuously detailed works using an array of colored pencils, the other who deploys a camera to convey images that are by turns startling, disturbing and erotic – formed an instant bond. And from that bond grew the notion to bring others of a similar mind into their world to form, in essence, a collective.

And so, these two young, gay artists (Cunetto is 24, Tucker 21), drawn together by a simple act of fate (the loaning of a camera), in 2010 started Boys Be Good, a queer artists' collective now on the brink of its third, most ambitious, exhibition yet.

Opening on June 5 at the lesbian-owned Arts@1830 Gallery at 1830 14th St. NW, Debitum Naturae will feature works by Cunetto and Tucker, as well as Nicholas Abriola, Armando Lopez Bircann, Cassidy Duhon, Andrew Fogle, Pussy Noir, Rene Medrano and Daniel Rampulla. An accompanying 'zine is being designed by Shawn Moriarty, and a night of performance is planned for June 19, with a portion of the proceeds from the suggested $15 donation going to the It Gets Better Project.

"We started thinking about growth and decay," explains the Missouri-born Cunetto, a tall, slim fellow with an impossibly thick pompadour and a light coating of blond facial scruff. "Debitum naturae means the debt of nature. Conceptually, it refers to the greatest gift you can get from nature is the gift of life. So the duration of your existence is the repayment of this debt – the debt of nature. It's a nice poetic container for the idea of growth and decay."

How does that relate to a queer context? The San Francisco-raised Tucker, a tall, handsome, gentle-yet-passionately-voiced young man, alludes to the AIDS crisis.

"I find it really interesting that we're choosing this sort of theme and the responses that we've gotten because all the artists in our group are in their 20s," he says, quietly. "I didn't live at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, so I don't really have a connection to that generation and that sense of loss. And I feel as though there's quite a bit of a disconnect within the gay community between older generations and younger generations." He's hoping the show will help to bridge that gap.

"As a collective," Cunetto adds, "the gesture of taking these moments, distilling the humanness of them and bringing them into the present, is something that we're really invested in, because the artwork is about preserving a legacy and connecting to things that are more universal than politics or pundits would have you believe them to be."

Itself far from decay, Boys Be Good – which not long ago launched a website (boysbegood.com) – is in a potent stage of growth and emergence. While some queer artists' organizations, such as the Triangle Artists Group, still operate in a limited capacity, and others, such as Ganymede, have ceased to exist, Boys Be Good seems perfectly poised to bring queer arts back to a renaissance state within the D.C. community. Currently, its membership – and perspective – are limited to younger gay men, something Cunetto and Tucker don't see as a flaw. And while neither rules out an eventual expansion in the core membership, the growth, they insist, should be slow, steady, deliberate.

''The thing that is remarkable to me," Cunetto marvels, "and that I take a great amount of pride and joy in, is that the artists we work with are incredible. They are engaged in making culture and artwork and experiences that are meaningful." He pauses. "It's incredibly edifying that we get to work with a group that's so committed."

Indeed. Let's hear it for the boys.

Boys be Good: Tucker

(Photo by Todd Franson)

METRO WEEKLY: Let's start with you, Christopher. What was it that drew you to art?

CHRISTOPHER CUNETTO: My family is Italian – we're from St. Louis – and my grandfather has an Italian restaurant. There was a chef that would always talk to me when I'd go in. So he was one of my first subjects – I would draw him all the time. His head was one big circle, his body was one big circle, his arms were like baby ferns. So it started out with people. And it started out with my parents giving me the room to do that.

In eighth grade when I entered the public school system, one of my first teachers, Mrs. Brown, pulled me aside after my first semester in her class and said, ''You know, you're really good at [drawing], and I see a talent in you. And if you wanted to, you could do this for a living. You need to commit yourself to it.'' She was the first person in a position of authority to tell me, "You can make a life out of this.'' That was a hugely pivotal moment. And so I spent the next few years of high school developing my portfolio. I applied to art schools and attended the Corcoran [College of Art and Design], and now I'm here.

MW: What about you Jason?

JASON EDWARD TUCKER: I came from a background that was completely supportive in the arts in my upbringing. I got my first camera when I was 6 or 7 years old as a birthday present, and it became a sort of fascination – not only just with a camera, but this idea that I could create something, and actually go into an occupation with it. Not that I've ever really thought of it as an occupation. It's just something I love to do and it turned out to be something where I could actually do the job. I continuously fell for the fact that I would be an artist. Telling my parents that I wanted to go to art school was difficult at first. They wanted me to go to a liberal arts college, that sort of direction. I had to do a white lie that I wanted to be a photojournalism major in order to go to Corcoran, which within three weeks of starting, I changed to a fine art degree.

CUNETTO: Clever.

TUCKER: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's really where I started.

Boys be Good: Cunetto

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Somehow you two met. How did that happen?

CUNETTO: I needed a camera for a project that I was working on, and I knew of Jason so I sent him a Facebook message and I said, ''Can you [loan] me a camera, please? Pretty please?''

TUCKER: I [loaned] him a camera.

CUNETTO: Which I actually never ended up using –

TUCKER: He had it for six months.

CUNETTO: But we got together and ended up talking about our experiences and the things we wanted to accomplish –

TUCKER: And our art.

CUNETTO: And our art. And our work and the things we were thinking about working on. From my perspective, it was a really organic relationship from the start. It's one of those times, which I think is rare, when you meet someone and instantly hit it off in a way that is uncommon and uncommonly good.

TUCKER: Our work comes from completely different backgrounds in terms of aesthetics. But we were able to sort of hone in on this idea of queer identity – not necessarily from depicting ourselves in our work, but depicting a type of voice for queer identity through what we'd been creating. That's where we really connected.

MW: And Boys Be Good sprang from this friendship?

TUCKER: Yes. The idea was the idea of a collective. It was like, "Let's make this happen, let's make this happen." And from there it grew, because we have a lot of connections through a lot of queer artists that are working in this city, especially through the Corcoran.

CUNETTO: We hit the ground running. We were like, "We are fucking doing this and it's happening now, and we're not waiting, and we want this to be jelled now." And so we made it happen.

TUCKER: It happened around the time of the Hide and Seek censorship.

CUNETTO: Just after.

TUCKER: It was like three months afterwards.

CUNETTO: It was when people were still talking about it. We were incensed that it was the target of criticism. I mean the Corcoran went through this in the '80s when they were trying to mount the Mapplethorpe exhibition, and there was this big outcry, ''Oh, public funds are being used for this type of work, blah blah blah!" It seemed to be so backwards that this was still happening, so part of our motivation was to form a group or movement or a body of work that represented solidly this world and this culture, and our perspective, and our times. Because clearly it's still an issue for the entire country. So we needed to really voice what's happening now at the kind of grassroots levels of gay culture.

MW: What is the central idea behind the collective?

CUNETTO: Part of our mission statement is a series of questions. And one of the big things we think about when we're making our work, while we're dreaming up the movements that we do and the shows and the themes, is how are we relevant now? What are the things that we have to talk about and think about internally, inside queer culture before we approach culture more broadly?

TUCKER: Our shows are always centralized around themes that we feel are almost universal, not just to a queer perspective, not to just a male perspective, but to any perspective.

CUNETTO: It comes from a desire to make work and generate dialogue that is of the moment. Because that's what a lot of really great artwork is – this emotional and poetic expression of what your life is right now in this place that you're in, with your biography, your world and in your culture. And we – I – want the artwork to reflect that. That's an important thing. I look to artists, queer or otherwise, whose work really communicates those things and what's interesting is the kind of emotional moments that resonate across decades that we're still kind of dealing with.

TUCKER: They become generational.

CUNETTO: We're obviously at a ripe moment. Because in some states we have marriage equality and in the majority of others we don't. So as a young gay man in D.C., you're existing in this weird no man's land – we have rights and we feel pretty free, but people still get gay bashed, people still go to the hospital for hate crimes. States – just the other day North Carolina – are enacting legislation that will prevent gay couples from getting married. So we're at this strange crossroads. And culturally that's an important moment. Our work needs to reflect the importance of that – and record the importance of that. Because art is also a record of our world.

TUCKER: Art informs culture, culture informs art. It's an infinite process.

MW: How does Boys be Good operate? Do you apply artistic constraints to the group?

TUCKER: Boys Be Good is a collective. It's not us telling the boys what to create and then have them create it. We get together once a month or so, and we'll have these conversations about the themes that Christopher and I will come up with. But we in no way really influence what the artists should be doing. We really love them and their individual voices.

MW: How many people are in the group?

TUCKER: Nine artists, plus four performance artists.

MW: You're trying to encompass all variances of art forms.

TUCKER: Artists that have wider variety of what they are able to attain. We're looking obviously for a strong portfolio, but people that have variety in what they create. Most of the people within our group are not centralized in photography, not centralized in video, not centralized in performance art. They have the ability to move in between. And that's not required of our members.

CUNETTO: On our website we say, "We're artists, writers, performers and creatives who are less easily described." So it's really people making and acting in all areas of culture, whether its visual or performance or literary. And we don't narrow it down to just fine art experiences. That's something that we try to reflect in our events, too. It's not just hanging gallery work on the walls, but creative people who are making culture that kind of reflects things in line with the mission statement.

 

Boys be Good arts collective: Tucker

Boys be Good arts collective: Tucker

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Do you have to be accepted into the group?

TUCKER: Yeah, generally.

CUNETTO: We are always looking for artists to work with and collaborate with and showcase the work of, but we look for a strong portfolio. It's been a process. We've asked artists to come on as full-time collaborators, which just means if they accept that proposition we expect them to show with us when we have exhibitions, to contribute when we organize performance nights, to be available when we organize panel discussions. Those core contributors have a special place within the group because they have more responsibilities and they're tasked with making work that relates to the themes we investigate.

MW: Do you both curate the shows?

CUNETTO: We curate sensibilities more than we curate actual art works.

TUCKER: We put a whole lot of trust in our artists.

CUNETTO: I think it puts a lot of life into the collective because you have the unexpected come out with every art exhibition in our movement. And that's where a lot of life is in the collective. We bring together people that we want to work with and we want to work together. And that ends up being really productive.

MW: From your perspective, do artists have to have a bare minimum of talent to be part of your collective? And how does one determine that talent?

CUNETTO: That's a big question in the arts generally.

TUCKER: You don't want to discourage somebody, obviously. We don't want to come from the standpoint of saying that your art is not good enough for this collective, because I would never see myself saying that to somebody. But there is a certain sensibility or aesthetic realm that we've been feeding into and if the work that is submitted to us doesn't really, I don't want to say fit in….

CUNETTO: I think the thing that we look for is: Is this person motivated in what they're doing?

TUCKER: Are they consistent?

CUNETTO: Yeah, consistent. In their product. In their work ethic. Are they invested in their technique? Are they good at their technique? Are they invested in growth? Do they appear committed to making good work that's emotionally and visually and academically and politically engaged? Those are markers of strong artists more than "Does it look good? Does it look commercially viable?" Artwork can take so many different forms, but really it boils down to the people.

Boys be Good arts collective: Cunetto

Boys be Good arts collective: Cunetto

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Do you have to be a gay male to be part of the collective?

TUCKER: You do. But at the same time, we've thought about Boys Be Good being a young male gay collective – and to both Christopher and me that seemed sort of exclusive. So from that standpoint, we have opened up the forum a little bit wider. We produce a 'zine with every single show, which has allowed for people of any gender, of any sexuality, of any orientation, of any background, to submit work to the same theme as the current show itself.

CUNETTO: Although it's all gay men, we try to engage a lot of ideas and perspectives that expose ideas and identities beyond the stereotypical gay male. So, when you talk about gender, it's from the discussion of ''What is masculinity?'' Like talking about that is also kind of tangentially talking about women's issues, talking about gender issues. It all contributes to a larger discussion of what queer life is. And we try to collaborate a lot with people outside of our comfort zones. We want to connect with and make art with people who extend beyond the kind of basic identity of the group.

But, in my personal opinion, I think that there's a big need to talk about men's issues in the gay community and I'm really committed to doing that and that's a big part of what I want the group to accomplish. We have a big responsibility. We're a visible portion of the queer community and we have a big responsibility to figure out what to do with that stance. We have a responsibility to use that mindfully and Boys Be Good is an attempt to ensure that our culture talks about that responsibility. At the same time, we want to engage really diverse areas of the queer community. We also want to ensure that the visibility that this portion of the gay community has is used wisely, efficiently and meaningfully.

MW: You're going to hit a point of growth where you're going to start having women and straights saying, "We want to be part of this club.''

CUNETTO: We're not opposed to that by any means.

MW: It's just not what it is now.

CUNETTO: Right. We want to be a go-to point for queer artists. This time – economically and politically – needs to have out, queer, visible voices that are fresh, voices that are visible. They need to be there, because where there is no voice there is no agency.

MW: According to your website, you guys have an annual fundraising goal of about $1,500.

CUNETTO: Yes.

MW: If somebody is has $20 to give, they may give it to the Human Rights Campaign as opposed to a local artists' collective. So your struggle to find funding – even the barest amount – must be a challenge to say the least.

CUNETTO: It's the world we live in. People want a return of investment. And when you see that HRC is lobbying for a new policy that you want to pass, there's your return of investment. The things that are made in culture are less easily perceived. Jason and I can look back and take great inspirations from Keith Haring's diaries and the experiences that Robert Mapplethorpe had. But those things aren't visible to everyone in society. And when peoples' daily lives boil down to political sound bites, like they want their money to go something they feel like is going to be immediate. And that's part of our culture.

When you invest in artwork, you don't say, ''This artwork is the future,'' because art is retrospective. You say, ''This artwork teaches me about the past.'' It's a different mindset and people are used to investing in things that go forward in time. But art, a lot of times goes back in time. But teaches us just as much and is, in fact, just as influential because it's the moments that people have with art and culture that changes their minds and thoughts about things. It's like those moments connect with people and people learn in the most surprising areas of creative culture.

It is where these points of culture intersect. We remember Harvey Milk, but we remember Keith Haring, too. We have to have leaders in culture that teach us things we never knew we wanted to learn. We have to have teachers in politics that inspire us to be brave. To have one and not the other gives an incomplete picture of what our lives are like right now. And as much as art can teach us, it's also a record.

Boys be Good: Tucker

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: How do you respond to the notion that everyone's an artist now? Everyone. You can buy Brushes for your iPhone and paint like a master. You can take a picture with Instagram and apply a filter for a dazzling effect. Everyone can shoot video and cut together a movie. Everyone is an artist now, potentially. Does that diminish what genuine artists do in any way? Does it distill your purpose?

CUNETTO: The really good work comes when individuals are able to use the tools as tools and not as an accessory. You can use Instagram as a tool and get great images, or you can use a filter on Instagram as your end product. You can use your iPhone to make a movie, and you can use the built-in tools to make it look nice, or you can use that application to make something that transcends the leg up the technology gives you. That's how art evolves beyond technology.

MW: Don't you also find it interesting that a hundred years ago this wasn't the case? Think about it. An artist was an artist. Some people would pick up charcoal and draw and some would just light it. Are we living in a more creative world these days?

TUCKER: I think, yes, we are living in a more creative world. But I'd also say we're living in a world that's more accepting of creativity. If you can create a pretty picture that's one thing, but if you can create a pretty picture that becomes something bigger than just a pretty picture, then it's something entirely different. Culturally we have expanded creatively, but not necessarily in the amount of artists that we're putting out.

CUNETTO: Being a human requires – and has required forever – a lot of creativity. But with the Internet and media, visual literacy has increased a great deal. Our ability and desire to create and consume images and sounds has also increased. So there's a difference between the need to be creative culturally or politically to survive, and the desire to make images to entertain and educate and emote. Those things, I think, have always been there, but they're magnified because we have so many different strong and diverse tools to do those things with.

I will say, and this is something even I struggle with in my practice, that images seem so instantaneous. You can consume them instantly. But when I'm making images, it takes a lot of fucking work. It takes so much time to render these things, to decide on the colors and the compositions and the forms and the arrangement. It takes a lot of work. And I think artists struggle with the ability to consume images so easily but the difficulty with which you encounter making them.

 

Boys be Good: Cunetto

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Which is why everybody is not really an artist. So, my big question: What is it with gay artists? Why do they seem fixated on putting penises in virtually everything that you see?

CUNETTO: Throughout the history of art, the female is something that is totally accepted. And I think that for a lot of gay male artists you want to say, "I'm trained in art and the nude body is the nude body. And the stories that I'm telling are from my perspective. I'm telling stories that I know." And if I'm using the conventions that draw on classical art, the nude is a huge part of that.

And culturally in cinema, in art, even in our television shows, men are more covered up, they're more disguised, emotionally more covered up, physically more covered up. Women are the ones who are supposed to expose themselves. And so, it's not just an obsession with penises or with sex or sexuality, but it's really baring your physical being. It's as emotional and psychological and mental as it is physical. So that act – although it's really pigeonholed into, "Oh, just another gay artist" – it's really, really meaningful.

TUCKER: A lot of it has to do with context. The question has been asked by the last 50 years of feminism, why is it the nude form of a female has been so readily accepted for the past 2,000 years of art history. Male artists creating female work is seen as, "Oh they're just objectifying that female. Yet when it's reclaimed by a female artist and becomes an obsession of a female artist to create a nude form, it becomes something entirely different because of the context of the artist creating the work.

Use of the male figure is a way of reclaiming the male figure – and not just reclaiming it from a male standpoint, but reclaiming the male figure from a homosexual standpoint, like, ''I'm gonna put it in your face.'' I might show you a dick in there – I'm just trying to reclaim exactly what I feel has not been represented.

MW: Do you think you're also creating art that you're personally interested in? As gay men, it makes sense you'd be more drawn to the male body.

CUNETTO: It begs the question, at what point does your sexuality inform your work as opposed to the other way around?

TUCKER: Sexuality is so tied into human nature that it becomes the question of are we obsessed with our subjects, are we glorifying them, or are we objectifying them?

CUNETTO: This is a really big question of the collective, because there is so much artwork that is gay art and is sexual and is definitionally pornographic because it is meant to excite. But there is art that is from a queer prospective that involves the male nude that's about a whole lot more. And because the culture – our culture – isn't used to seeing things this way, those things are lumped together.

We have to challenge the pigeonholing that queer artists experience. Whether it's a lesbian making nude females images or gay men making nude male images, those things have to be challenged, because in terms of art history and contemporary art, there's a lot more academically that you can bring into them that may be about sexuality but is not necessarily meant as an end to be pornography.

MW: What if a gay artist doesn't want to draw a naked guy?

CUNETTO: A lot haven't.

TUCKER: A lot of our stuff is non-representational. It just becomes a mass or a form or a shape or gender queer or something that is not supposed to have an assigned gender.

MW: Last question. I'll start with you, Jason. One hundred years in the future, how do you want to be remembered as an artist?

TUCKER: Hmmm. That's a hard question. As an advocate for queer culture and art. I'd like to be remembered more so for what I did on a communal scale than what I did for personal artistic identity.

MW: Chris, what about you?

CUNETTO: I want to be remembered for making works that move people, for doing things that move people, changes their minds, helps them learn. I want to be remembered as someone who was of his time and reflective of his time. There are some artists who kind of just live and are looked back on as examples of what the world was like and how tumultuous it was. But for me that process is active and purposeful and ongoing. I want to leave behind residue of my engagement with the world. And I hope that my art reflects that engagement and that desire, and that my efforts and engagement with the community and my work and organizing effected some kind of change.

Debitum Naturae will be on display from June 5 to July 17 at Arts@1830 at 1830 14th St. NW. The opening reception is Tuesday, June 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. and is free and open to the public. A performance-night fundraiser for the It Gets Better Project, is Tuesday, June 19, from 6 to 9 p.m. Reserved seating is $15 online at boysbegood.com or a suggested donation of $10 at the door for standing room. Visit boysbegood.com or call 202-643-2699.

Take a look at some images from the gallery here.


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