Brent Cleveland is a queer Montreal-based visual artist whose neo-figurative portraiture probes concepts of gender, sexuality, and human expression. Through the haunting and distorted gaze of his subjects, Cleveland imbues a sort of warping of the male gaze, reflecting a nuanced glance of heteronormative defiance toward the spectator. We recently caught up with him about his work, his inspirations, and how Montreal has fostered his artistic practice.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work? Where do you derive your inspiration from?
The process of making my work can waiver between being very precise, clear, and focused, to suddenly becoming very chaotic and messy. I walk along this edge a lot of the time. I make room for spontaneity, and usually this can be inspiring. Something as minor as one colour seen in an instance during daily life can get my mind racing. Something seemingly benign, such as walking by mint-coloured latex gloves at the dollar store trigger ideas and questions.
Do you have a favorite photograph or painting, which inspires you?
I always think about the Lascaux cave paintings, especially when I am going through difficult phases in my life. There is something very ethereal and inspiring about anonymous cave paintings. They help me think about art beyond the constraints of capitalism, allowing me to envision a bigger picture of humanity. There is so much virtue signalling in the art world, and I become frustrated when artists are out of touch with their own limitations. The Lascaux cave paintings offer a refreshing perspective for seeing the world in a more honest way.
What visual references do you draw upon in your work?
I buy a lot of Vogue Hommes, the ads are magnificent and many of my colour choices come from the clothing. I often make drawings from these images and work out how I might want to paint them. I also love art history, I have this belief that I can communicate with artists from the past by reproducing some of their work as studies in hopes of absorbing their knowledge.
How has the Montreal art scene influenced your work as an artist?
I consider Montréal to be a sacred place where I allow things to influence my work organically. I pay attention to the artists around me, and I make an effort to visit as many shows as I can.
In terms of my practice, I feel indebted to artists such as Luanne Martineau and Delphine Hennelly. They have shaped me in a profound way during a sensitive time. They were on my graduate committee during my MFA thesis defence in October of 2020. Both offered meaningful insight into my work and my thinking. I have also been lucky to have epiphanic conversations about art and life with my dear friend and fellow artist, Sheila Nadimi. She has given me strength when I was my most vulnerable.
Explain the concept of ‘Sissy Boyhood” and how it informs your work.
Sissy Boyhood is the lived experience of homosexuals growing up loving the feminine world, all the while navigating the heterosexual world. It is an incredibly contradictory experience that can be hard to grasp under heteronormative conditions.
Specifically, institutions have preconceived notions and misguided judgements under heteronormativity, and often times infantilize and villainize Sissy Boys in order to protect and uphold the status quo. Sissy Boys are often expected to be highly emotionally flexible, but would never be rewarded for achieving such flexibility. In fact, they are often criticized for showcasing breadth.
To boil it down, young gay men who showcase feminine traits are harshly pigeonholed. Simply by identifying the homosexual, heterosexuals assume having the individual figured out, leading to shallow interpretations and petty misunderstandings.
As a coping mechanism, I believe Sissy Boys create alternate timelines that are much more forgiving.
My work strives to bring the Sissy Boy a new level of nuance and respect that is severely lacking in the world I navigate. I see things I wish I didn’t see, and people say things I wish they didn’t say. As an artist, I take all of that mess and try to make work that resonates in a way that is more honest to the human experience I have lived.
What is your favourite piece that you have painted?
This is a good question, but difficult to answer. I’m certainly aware that some paintings are stronger and more memorable than others, however, picking a favourite seems impossible. I’m not sure I have made my favourite painting yet.
How would you like to challenge yourself as an artist going forward?
I am interested in expanding the universe of my paintings. I am challenging myself to imagine the world of my paintings beyond the edge of the canvas. This interests me deeply, asking myself, where are they? What would I see around the corner if I could step into one of my paintings?
Cody is the Editor in Chief and senior contributor at liminul.
He is a photography aficionado, fashion enthusiast, avid Lana Del Rey fan, and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.