Ace Lehner is an interdisciplinary scholar and artist specializing in critical engagement with identity and representation; history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art; visual studies; photography theory, queer and trans theory and issues of representation. Lehner’s artistic practice often embraces collaboration and primarily utilizes photography and video to mine the complex relation between representations and the constitution of identities.
Currently, Lehner is a Presidents’ Dissertation Year Fellow at the University of California and completing their dissertation Trans Representations: Contemporary Art Photography and Non-Binary Visual Theory. Recently Lehner has been an Artist in Residence at The Wassaic Project in Wassaic NY. This February Lehner chaired a panel on Trans Representations at the College Art Association conference in New York, NY. This March Lehner will be speaking about their research and artistic practice at the International Center of Photography. Lehner’s review of Alpesh Kantilal Patel’s recently published book Productive Failure: Writing Queer Transnational South Asian Art Histories, was published in the Winter 2019 issue of Art Journal. Lehner currently serves as the guest editor of the forthcoming book From Self-Portrait to Selfie: Contemporary Art and Self-Representation in the Social Media Age published by MDPI Books. This summer Lehner will be featured in the Wassaic project’s Summer Exhibition.
Lehner is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Visual Studies in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at University of California, Santa Cruz, and is based in New York. Lehner holds an MA/MFA in Visual and Critical Studies/Fine Art from California College of the Arts and a BFA in Studio Art with a minor in Social Anthropology with distinction from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Lehner also studied fine art and art history at Middlesex University in London, England.
Lehner has worked as a commercial photographer for over a decade.
(Excerpt of Interview below)
DKB: It feels like we’re in a moment (at least in the context of the arts) that is returning to a discourse of the 80s and 90s in the United States of America. There's a certain kind of rigidity and vengeance within identity politics now, in 2018, that was present differently then, 3 decades ago. Part of it has to do with being under a fascist, Donald Trump, and the ways in which people feel threatened and therefore have to reaffirm and reinforce their identities — based on class, race, gender, etc. — even more. Are you grappling with this return at all? If you are, in what ways have identity politics influenced your work, and in what ways haven’t they?
AL: We talked a little bit about how living here I need to take up a little bit more space as a queer non-binary person. But it's also the political moment as well. So when I say here, I mean in this political time and in this geographic space, it feels like if you don't want to be squished you have to be louder.
To your question about now versus then in terms of 1990s identity politics, it's really interesting because I just did a commissioned piece for an artist-curator, E.G. Crichton, who is doing this project that came out of an earlier project she did of matchmaking in the queer archive, where she paired a contemporary queer artist with a queer person in the LGBTQ archive in San Francisco — the show was amazing! The new iteration is that contemporary queer artists are given an old issue of the influential queer magazine OUT/LOOK. I was invited to make a work that responds to the 1990 Winter OUT/LOOK Magazine issue. So she mailed me the issue and the only parameter was to make a new work that responded in some way to the issue. In perusing the winter 1990 issue of OUT/LOOK: National Lesbian & Gay Quarterly, I was struck by how much has changed within the LGBTQ+ community over the past decades. While outside of LGBTQ+ communities nationalism, patriotism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia seem to be continually enmeshed and invested in policing identities.
The cover is a painting, its a section of a torso, but then some of the title articles include "When a Dyke Falls For a Man," "Sexual Lies: A Butch Fesses Up," "The Homosexual Lens of Mapplethorpe." In other words, the magazine reflects anxiety in the LGBTQ+ community about ascribing to and performing within narrowly defined sexual identities. They're really rigid in the way they talk about identity politics. Queer identity as seen in the magazine (which I think was pretty emblematic of queer culture at the time since it was pretty cutting-edge) felt really policed. In that moment, the AIDS Crisis is still raging, Ronald Reagan's not talking about it, queer people were in crisis. There was really a demand that people be explicit about their identity. While today, LGBTQ+ culture is engaged in making space for non-binary genders and we understand sexuality and gender as independent from one another, and ultimately self-defined. So the piece I ended up making in response to the OUT/LOOK Magazine is a video work that reflects where we were and where we are, while playfully opening up space for critical reflection on issues both within and outside of LGBTQ+ communities — including gender, whiteness, performativity, and how they intersect with issues around patriotism and nationalism, particularly during our current political climate.
DKB: While we're reading this work, which you explained earlier is comprised of both a written and a video component, I wanted to make sure to ask about the relationship between your writing practice and your visual practice. How are they at work in your larger practice and how do they supplement each other?
AL: When I went to graduate school I wanted to go to California College of the Arts because they offered a dual Masters degree in Visual and Critical Studies and Fine Art. I wanted to be in a program where I could engage in critical thinking, writing, and making, so CCA’s program really appealed to me. Even in my undergraduate studies, I did a minor in Social Anthropology. It's always been part of how I think and how I work. They're always informing each other. As an artist I'm often doing a lot of research and reading. And when I'm writing, the fact that I'm also producing work about representation feeds back into how I understand what I'm writing.
At the moment, I'm working on an essay for a book project. I'm a guest editor, and the project is on self-portraits to selfies. So I'm thinking about the ways in which representations are at work today. Specifically self-representations and social media. When I'm thinking and writing about how people self-image, I have first hand intimate knowledge into how people make self-images, beyond just what it's like to use a tripod and a camera. I have this insider knowledge as an artist working with these issues and technologies, and it helps me to unpack what people are doing. Which I think a lot of art historians or cultural critics don't necessarily have.
Sometimes I have friends that are doing degrees in fields related to art take my classes in photography because they're writing about photographers and want to be able to understand what it means to work in a darkroom or in Photoshop. I really commend people for doing this because it helps people understand what you're looking at and what you're writing about when you actually know what the process is like. For me being able to go back and forth between researching, writing, and making is mutually informative in all directions but just also part of my interdisciplinary practice.
DKB: In response to the question, “Where do you call home?” you expressed that home is wherever you feel comfortable. In doing so, you didn't site home in a specific geographic location but instead in and around a specific emotional response — comfort. Where do you feel comfortable and how does your idea of home factor into your past and present writing, photography, and video work?
AL: I know it was a short answer, but the notion of feeling comfortable is key for me. I've traveled around a bit in my young adult life. I have a really strange family. Pretty dysfunctional. And I’m queer, so alternative family structures have always been what I’ve relied on, and those can most quickly be described as someplace where I felt understood and around people who had similar social, intellectual, and cultural allegiances.
Creating my own family, as a queer person, was important. It’s really common and prevalent in the queer scene, it’s a part of what we all do, create our own families. It's not an axiomatic, but it’s an inter-generational, family. You find older people that are queer that become your mentors and your family. Having the privilege to go to an art graduate school in the Bay area was so helpful to me in that way. Because I had so many interesting queer mentors and family of all backgrounds. People that are the same age become family. People that are younger become family. And that process has really been more helpful as a family structure than any other. And this isn't just limited to queer people. But extends to those who are dealing with things that I'm interested in artistically, social justice-wise, and in terms of scholarship. All that feels familial.
And so wherever I find these communities — the progressive, radical, anti-racist, trans-positive families — geography is less important than feeling like I can have conversations with people that I want to be having that are critically engaged, thoughtful, and socially conscious. With people that get me. That's more important to me than the geography of it. I've found different geographies and spaces to be fascinating. Living in the Hudson Valley can be super comfortable as long as the people around you make sense. It's the people that I'm surrounded by that make it home.
In regards to how that informs my practice, I think that's an interesting question because sometimes, when changing geographic location, I notice how people interact with me differently. For example, living in the Bay area, people are totally comfortable with trans non-binary people. For example they’re accustomed to asking everyone “what's your pronoun? They, them? Ok, cool.” Right off the bat, you ask people that and it's fine and you’re over it and you move on. But then, living in the Hudson Valley, I go into a grocery store and people are like "uhhhhh." Suddenly you become a unicorn when you're not in a pack of unicorns. So that's interesting because it's made me take up more space in my own work as a non-binary person. So I've been making more work about that because it seems important to take up that non-binary space. Like now I have to make representations about myself and my own identity because here that's not happening, no one’s doing that, and there’s no trans and non-binary visibility or knowledge. It is interesting how geography changes and impacts what I'm making. In the Bay area, thinking about representation meant making photo and video work about exploring what it means to be a Mexican-American queer person in that place, because you're in a landscape that used to be Mexico but now has been colonized and become California. So there's these layers of history, and there it made sense to think about that condition, that history, and how it impacts peoples’ lives today. I collaborated with Libby Paloma on the project Chingona Por Vida, which was about her identity in that space and what it means to be a queer femme Mexican-American in the Bay Area today.
DKB: You mentioned that the work you collaborated on with Libby in the Bay Area was specific to the place and your respective positionalities, although the emphasis was on her identity. Let’s spend some more time with questions of position and place. How are you currently thinking about social and political representations given the landscape here, where you are now? Put differently, in the move from the Bay to the Hudson Valley, how has your work shifted and what’s remained the same?
AL: The things that remain the same are the driving questions of my practice. Which are often about representation and the politics around identity. So, in this sense, these questions and my practice become informed by the place and the moment. But there's something consistent around how I'll continue to come back to, not solely social justice, but representational politics. The form and the medium and the subject might change but those questions continue to drive, echo, and compel me. I often work in photo and video, but I’m not really media-specific. I also work in installation, drawing, performance, and printmaking, and I’m a visual studies scholar. I’m really interdisciplinary. I was trained by conceptual artists, and so feeling free to move through media has always made sense to me.
In terms of where we are, in this context, here and now, I actually grew up in the Hudson Valley. I've lived far away from here for almost two decades. Since being back I’ve been thinking more about my position in relation to this place, reflecting on the landscape of my youth. It's interesting to think about coming back here because I have a very personal relationship to the landscape but it feels so far away.
And then there's the whole art-historical narrative of this place as well — Thomas Cole and the mid-19th century Hudson River School of landscape painting, so that is always in the ether when dealing with the Hudson Valley as an artist.
DKB: The mis/representations of the Hudson River School — which continues to be touted as the “first great American art movement” — have certainly cast a long shadow over the lands and waters of this place. It’s troubling to think about the intimate relationship between romanticized landscape paintings and manifest destiny. I find their depictions of American Indians to be particularly problematic, especially with respect to social and political representation. Have any of these issues made their way into your thinking, since you've been here, in this context?
AL: Yes, exactly, the notion that caucasian colonial artists and politicians could encourage the colonization of North American landscapes and peoples so blatantly and consider their artwork the “first American” art is absurd and grotesque. It’s a complete erasure of all earlier cultural and artistic production that was here already. Yes, I'm definitely trying to think about these issues and these different histories. But also not just the landscape of the Hudson Valley, but the larger political landscape of the United States. In terms of specifics, I've been thinking about the histories of this landscape, thinking about mapping, and thinking about the possibilities of imaging myself in this landscape. I’m still struggling with it, but I think I need to get a hot pink jumpsuit and go stand in the landscape and see where that goes.