UPDATE: Artist Marc Bauer visited the Menil Collection January 29–30, 2024, to alter his wall drawing, RESILIENCE, Drawing the Line, 2023, on view at the Menil Drawing Institute through August 2024. The 36-foot-wide mural, created with charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil, combines powerful imagery from art history with contemporary references to produce a thought-provoking narrative. Since its conception, Bauer’s unique approach to the drawing included the intention to continue evolving the work over the course of its year-long display, returning once more in April 2024 to make a third and final set of changes.
As a teenager watching French television in the 1980s, Swiss artist Marc Bauer rarely saw representations of queer people. There were only two exceptions: when the news media announced that a famous public figure had AIDS (and he was accidentally outed), and when that public figure died shortly thereafter of AIDS-related complications.
“It was a constant revelation and annihilation at the same time,” he recalls. “This idea of representation is so important for communities to have an idea of themselves. It’s very difficult if there’s no public image of yourself.”
The queer artist has made up for this lack of representation with a vengeance in his 2023 work RESILIENCE, Drawing the Line, commissioned by the Menil Drawing Institute and unveiled last September. Vibrant figures voguing in a Montrose club and embodying queer joy take center stage in Bauer’s 36-foot-wide charcoal and pastel mural. It also incorporates references to great works of art history such as Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, an iconic work of 19th-century Romanticism. At the same time, Bauer explores such contemporary themes as climate justice, humane migration policy, and the rights of marginalized people. He sets the work decisively in Houston, with the city’s downtown skyline anchoring the left side of the tableau.
Messages from Childhood
In a diaristic manner, Bauer also includes moving fragments of messages about masculinity and sexuality that he absorbed from his father while growing up: “I HAVE NEVER BEEN MASCULINE ENOUGH, MY VOICE NEVER DEEP ENOUGH, MY BEHAVIOR NEVER ASSERTIVE ENOUGH. I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THE FEMININE CHILD. MY FATHER SAYS TO ME, ‘YOU ARE SO SENSITIVE. YOU SHOULD MAN UP.’”
As part of the research to create his Houston-inspired oeuvre, Bauer, 48, reached out to several notable LGBTQ Houstonians including choreographer Harrison Guy, visual artists Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughn, and trans/queer genderfluid artist Koomah. He also drew upon LGBTQ historian JD Doyle’s website, HoustonLGBTHistory.org, and Bryan Washington’s popular novel Memorial, among other resources.
Bauer’s decision to put queer people at the center of his work comes at a time when conservative forces are attempting to erase LGBTQ Americans from public life. Florida and four other states have passed discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” laws to silence and repress LGBTQ Americans. In May, the Texas legislature passed a law criminalizing drag performances. In the Greater Houston area, Katy ISD implemented an invasive and cruel policy in August that requires teachers to report the gender identities of transgender students to their parents, which has occurred 19 times over the last four months.
Disrupting Violent Power Systems
The Menil’s press release about RESILIENCE underscores the importance of the LGBTQ experience to the central image of the mural, observing, “In centering this scene, Bauer considers how queerness and the queer encounter—in its joy, celebration, and fluidity—might present pathways to reinvent how to care for one another and disrupt violent power systems that seek to exploit and control the natural world.”
Kelly Montana, an assistant drawing curator for the Menil Drawing Institute, who curated RESILIENCE, notes several other concepts that Bauer explores in his works: ideas of the fragility of memory, the mutability of image, and the joys and hazards of human relationships. She also praises “his incredible investment in drawing,” which made him a natural choice to be the fifth artist selected to create a work for the Menil’s ephemeral wall-drawing series, which began in 2018 as part of the Drawing Institute’s commitment to seeking new approaches to the form and language of drawing. That year, the series featured another queer artist, Roni Horn. In an unusual move, Bauer will return to Houston at the end of January and in April to revise and further develop RESILIENCE, which will be on view through the summer and then destroyed.
Drawing as an Act of Witness
“Intimacy is political.” —Marc Bauer
Born in Geneva in 1975, Bauer studied at the École Supérieure d’Arts Visuels Genève (now HEAD) and at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam. He spent a significant part of his career in Berlin and then returned to Zurich, where he is a tenured lecturer at the Zurich University of the Arts. In 2020, he received the Meret Oppenheim Award, Switzerland’s most prestigious art prize. His works have been featured in galleries across Europe, including at the Drawing Room in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, and as part of the Congo Biennale in Africa in 2022. His commission for the Menil Drawing Institute was selected by the New York Times in its fall 2023 arts preview as one of the season’s most notable visual-art events. In 2024, the artist will create his first graphic novel.
Bauer’s art practice is based in his careful examination of how images circulate in print and online media platforms. He uses drawing to reconfigure found images—from sources ranging from personal family albums to cable news streams—with the goal of ultimately shaping a prismatic view of history, culture, and politics. He likens this process to a kind of witnessing—a deliberate and deeply personal way of seeing and understanding the world.
Of his practice, Bauer has noted that “painting and drawing are a way for me, and by extension for the viewer, to understand reality, in all its complexity—subjectively, politically, symbolically. It also allows me to show how history, memory and changing power structures influence the present moment.”
In conjunction with RESILIENCE, Drawing the Line, the Menil Drawing Institute will host a free dance party celebrating queer histories on Friday, February 2, from 7 to 10 pm. Houston artists Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, Koomah, and Harrison Guy kick off the night with short performances in the courtyard of the Drawing Institute. The party continues with music by DJ Stephanie Saint Sanchez and lively outdoor video projections of Marc Bauer’s animations projected on the Drawing Institute’s exterior.
As a young man coming out, gay social gatherings like these were exhilarating for Bauer. “Partying was a moment of freedom, of discovering yourself,” he notes. “There’s something very exciting—a frame that allowed people to experience the best of themselves.”
Marc Bauer’s RESILIENCE, Drawing the Line is on view at the Menil Drawing Institute, 1412 West Main Street, through the summer. For more information, visit menil.org