John Criscitello is Re-queering Rock ‘n’ Roll

'Bouquet 1', silk screen and graphite on paper, by John Criscitello

There are very few images of penises in John Criscitello’s Capitol Hill studio. Which is surprising, as Criscitello rose to international prominence two years ago as the street artist decrying neighorhood bro-ification by pasting an image of a giant phallus on top of a Jägermeister ad on the corner of 12th Avenue and E Pine Street. Not long after, his posters reading Bellevue Wives Matter, Woo Girls and We Bash Back became icons of the gayborhood that once was.

When I meet with Criscitello to talk about his upcoming solo show In Code at Gallery4Culture, opening Thursday, Sept. 7, Criscitello amiably rejects revisiting that part of his oeuvre. “People always wanna talk about that,” he says. “Just like Capitol Hill as it once was, it’s in the past.”

Criscitello’s basement studio, where he and his assistant screen print T-shirts and hoodies with images of his well-known Honeybears, roses, big dicks and witty slogans, is filled to the rafters with his latest work. Large screenprints of famous rock ’n’ roll figures are paired with paint and flowers or feature harsh, swiftly scribbled graphite lines. “I’ve turned back to the process of handmaking work, to printing and drawing,” he explains. “Now that everyone is seeing everything through a screen, I think something so tactile is attractive.”

His new body of work features rock stars re-imagined as homoerotic characters. On the wall, there’s Kurt Cobain embracing not Courtney Love but a soft double image of himself. Splayed out on the ground are 10 pillows with a black-and-white image of John Lennon standing next to a naked image of himself. Yoko Ono holds another woman: herself.

Like a 21st-century Warhol in a post-gentrification wasteland, Criscitello conjures the queer art that might’ve been had the gay community not been decimated by HIV, riffing on images that are themselves interpretations of iconic images. Many have a coded homoeroticism to them, he says. “Making homoerotic things that are not necessarily hyper-sexual is really interesting to me,” Criscitello says. “What sort of image can you work with that’s not just a dick in an asshole?” He smiles. “The only dick in the show is John Lennon’s.”

Why John Lennon and Yoko Ono? Why Kurt Cobain?
I like Kurt’s link with Seattle, but I also think he was sorta queer. When he said, “Everybody is gay,” that was new. I’ve been fascinated with the image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono since it came out on the cover of their album, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. The nudity was shocking, but also the hatred with which Yoko Ono was met. She was maligned, a woman of color branded as a witch. And here they were, naked to the world. It was beautiful. I wanted to rethink these powerful, iconic, heterosexual images from rock history as a same-sex couples.

This show features lots of double images and dualities—such as soft versus hard, masculine versus feminine. Why is that?
I grew up with these iconic images of these rock stars. Knowing I was queer then, I was reading them as queer images. The Warhol cover of the Sticky Fingers album: very homoerotic. In all these iconic rock images, gender, masculinity, femininity, make-up, leather, gay, straight were already mixing up for me.

Are you also trying to subvert the clichéd opposition of masculinity vs. femininity?
Absolutely. These notions are somewhat tired. Trans, genderfluid and genderqueer people are becoming more visible. Cis, gay male culture is being held more accountable for the elements within the gay culture that it’s responsible for, such as racism, body-fascism, misogyny and a ton of other exclusionary practices. And that’s a good thing. I think everything has been said about cis, white, gay men. It’s time to take a backseat.

It still informs a large portion of the work in the show, though. Why?
I’m still interested in the romantic idea of gay male culture from the ’70s and the art from that time, something I grew up with. I’m really inspired by the printed gay porn magazines from the ’70s and ’80s—Tom of Finland being the most well-known example—full of hyper-masculine men, sailors and leather guys. I suppose it is sort of a tribute to what I find homoerotic and the arbitrary distance between butch/fem, masculine/feminine and how that polemic in homosexuality is becoming more and more invisible.

Could your re-queering of these straight images of rock stars be a response to the de-queering of Capitol Hill and other so-called gayborhoods around the country?
Maybe. But let me say: It’s too late for Capitol Hill. We’re not in the throes of gentrification, we’re on the other side. This city’s a done deal.

And yet, here you are still, making queer art in your Capitol Hill studio.
I’m holding on because I don’t really know what else I can do. The crux is, when your rent goes up all the time and the goalposts keep getting moved, you become trapped. You have to have money to find a new place to live, a new job. Most artists I know are working poor or sub-working poor. If a studio is $1,900 a month, this is not a place for artists, and definitely not a place for people who are already struggling because they are queer, trans or people of color. The only ones able to maintain here are the people that are the antithesis of everything I’ve ever believed in. Corporatists, careerists, capitalists. But I don’t want to go too much into the us-versus-them, the tech-people narrative. Whoever this is a place for, good for them.

Do you want them to look at your work?
Absolutely. I want everyone to look at my art! In all seriousness: I’m still sentimental and believe in the power of art to change people’s perspectives and views, make them talk about it. Art is still one of the most powerful means of human communication. That’s why we keep doing it.

John Criscitellos In Code opens at 4Culture during Pioneer Square’s First Thursday Art Walk on Thursday, Sept. 7 and runs through Sept. 28.