LJ Roberts’ Queer Epics

LJ Roberts (b.1980) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and is known for large-scale textile installations, intricate embroideries, artist books, collages and sculpture. Their work investigates the overlaps of queer and trans politics, alternative kinships, narrative, and material deviance. Daniel Fountain speaks to LJ here about the relationships between craft, identity and queer theory, and how this manifests itself in their practice.

L: Portrait of Deb (1988-199?)
R: Detail From the series Portraits (2011-)

For you, what is inherently queer about craft? What makes textile practices in particular ripe for strategies of queering?

I find that issues of marginality I encounter as a queer, gender non-conforming and non-binary person, often mirror the position(s) of textile and craft within visual culture. The margins that queerness and craft inhabit are often mutually reflective. I engage in material deviance to illustrate this. There is something productive about working from the margins while simultaneously committing to a practice of de-centralization. Furthermore, I find my experience in the world requires flexibility, adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness as essential for working and living. I use tools and techniques such as toy knitting machines, single-strand hand embroidery, a sock making machine, quilting, and appliqué particularly because they are portable, accessible, and can adapt to a variety of circumstances; which is also how I aim to move through life. There is a congruency and a mirroring there; craft and queerness enable each other beneficially.

I know that we both share a love for texts such as José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999). Could you talk a bit about how the tactics of queer theory influence your artistic practice? Or vice versa?

Certainly there is an overperformance of craft materials and techniques in my work that challenge certain stereotypes of craft. I think that a lot of craft stereotypes are rooted in antiquated ideas and structures that people are stuck in – a comfort zone. A lot of these ideas, often rooted in binaries, are counter to the complexity of life, identity, material and experience. So perhaps the work I make is productively uncomfortable. When I look at what I do (such as attempting feats with children’s toys) there’s an absurdity and also a really earnest risk – every piece I make feels risky. I do not wish to make art that does not feel like I am pushing myself. I suppose a lot of the queer theory I am interested in is about the impossibility of simplification, the politics of risk and re-imagining the possible. I also think it is important to note that queer theory is intertwined and fused with all sorts of other identities and factors, so that plays into what I do as well. I think a lot about accessibility in my work and what is legible. I want there to be feeling in work and I want the work to be a conduit to entering conversations that are challenging, exciting, inspiring, and productive.

On a similar note, the use of colour, texture and scale is particularly striking in your work – do you consider it to have a camp aesthetic?

Honestly, for as much as I value camp, I don’t consider my work to be all that campy at the moment. Someone said to me recently that I construct ‘queer epics’. This doesn’t mean the work is entirely rooted in reality, of course. There is myth, history, speculation, possible implosion, and so on. Of course, much of camp is epic and some of it is not, which gives it just as much, if not more, power. I don’t consider what I am doing to have much irony. A lot of what I do is translating my imagination, my thoughts, my fantasies, my anxiety, my reality into material. I’m certainly open to other people’s opinions on that though!

In a variety of works (such as in The Queer Houses of Brooklyn, 2011) there is often a particular narrative about queer worldmaking, or a celebration of the alternative familial structures that members of our community quite literally craft. I wondered if you wanted to expand a little on the importance of that?

LJ: I’ve always been drawn to alternative kin structures, also sometimes called ‘chosen family’. My friends and mentors and lovers have been central to my formation and survival as a queer person who struggled with being raised in a conservative suburb of Detroit. In Heather Love’s book Feeling Backwards (2007) she speaks of these networks, friendships, and relationships – these non-biological kinship structures – as one of the greatest achievements of queer culture and I agree. I personally struggle with what I view and experience as queer assimilation into heteronormative and now homonormative structures and frameworks. I suppose a lot of my work aims to grasp onto kinship ideas that are counter to assimilation and to imagine how these kinships can be re-imagined even further in the future as we approach unprecedented geo-political and environmental circumstances.

I also want to add that I’m really trying to explode ideas of queer kinships at the moment. For most of my life, and I started thinking about queer kinships at a very young age before I could even name them, I felt as though they did not include biological family. It felt like blasphemy. However, I’m reconsidering this as I have multiple people to whom I am biologically related to that I am forming queer friendships with – some of them queer and gender non-conforming and some of them not.

Some of your work is very representational, but others (such as Portrait of Deb, 1988-199?) seem to form abstract portraits of queer bodies and experiences – what do you think the advantages are of the latter?

I think one of the most useful tactics that the concept of ‘queer’ engages is that we can never make assumptions about a person’s identity and that people’s identities are not static, that they are intersectional, and that they can change. Abstraction doesn’t often allow for pointed assumptions based on a physical image of the body and I think this is useful. This is not to say that traditional portraits aren’t useful, in fact they are critical; for marginalized people images of people they identify with are often scarce in popular media, though this has begun to turn a bit I think.  We need to see people we relate to and that provides reassurance that we are not alone and that people forge forward.

I’m aware that a lot of your textile works in particular take a painstaking amount of time to create. What are you currently working on?

My current body of work is centered around depictions of vehicles and vessels that have often harboured queer and trans people, allowing them to shape their lives counter to hetero and patriarchal norms. But I am also approaching this project with an awareness that the politics of migration and environmental collapse make movement fraught. I have a personal and specific anxiety around this due to being raised in Detroit in the 1980s where I saw the auto industry collapse and the city fall into ruins. Yet, life continued to flourish. There’s a lot of resiliency there for sure. Therefore, I am creating quilted and collaged post-apocalyptic vehicles and speculating about how they might continue legacies of resilience and kinship formation.

Words: Daniel Fountain (he/they) and LJ Roberts (they/them)

About the Artist

LJ Roberts has exhibited widely in major institutions including The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Museum of Arts and Design to name but a few. In 2015 LJ was one of nine recipients of The White House Champions of Change Award for LGBTQI Artists presented by President Obama. Their first museum commission was included in the critically acclaimed show Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall at Brooklyn Museum in 2019. Recently they have been in residence at the Textile Arts Center, IASPIS-Stockholm, and Pioneer Works. Last year LJ won The President’s Award for Art and Activism from Women’s Caucus for Art and they are currently Faculty at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

More of LJ’s work can be found here.
All images are copyright of the artist.