Gio Black Peter is Guatemalan-born artist who, since the late 2000s, has made a name for himself as an underground performance artist, actor, and painter. His paintings are reminiscent of the French post-impressionists, with a primitiveness and emotional sensuality akin to Paul Gauguin’s style—and yet, his subjects are hyper contemporary. Often representing members of the queer community and historically underrepresented figures, the artist contextualizes his subjects within present-day issues like the Black Lives Matter movement or censorship discrimination. His practice extends beyond the studio, into the underground nightlife scenes; the artist throws parties and events, performs musically, and curates exhibitions, as well. Following in the footsteps laid out by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, Peter is steering the downtown New York art scene back to the unapologetic celebration of life outside the mainstream.
Peter is one of the contemporary artists to be added to the second edition of Phaidon’s Art & Queer Culture. (The book, initially published in 2013, surveys over 250 works over 130 years of queer art history.) Here, we talk to the artist about the Black Lives Matter movement, censorship and its ramifications on the queer community, and the art of staying up all night.
When we were deciding on a time to speak you mentioned you’re nocturnal. Do you really stay up all night?
When I paint, I don't have any set hours, I just work until I'm dead tired. So if I'm working on a painting that I started in the daytime it usually runs into the night. I just recently moved to L.A. for an artist residency, but when I was living in New York, I would paint at night because that's when the city is quiet; I could really focus without distractions. We live in a society that assumes everyone's a daytime person. Some people get energy from the moon, not the sun, and I’m one of those people. I've always been like that, since I was a kid. At night I get excited, I get hyper, it's when I get my most creative sparks. It's hard living in a daytime world.
What’s the residency you’re doing in Los Angeles?
I'm at the Tom of Finland Foundation. I'm going to be there until the first of August—so all summer. I'm working on paintings, drawings, and a play. At the end of the residency I'm going to make a presentation of all the work and will premier my play.
Have you made a play before?
I did do a play at an opening of an exhibition I had in the Lower East Side three years ago, so this will be my second one.
What's it about?
My play is called “Sans Succubus”—so “without the succubus.” It's about an astronaut who has been detached from the space ship and is floating in space. It's a love story.
What else are you thinking about in the studio?
Right now I'm working on a couple of things… Paintings that are portraits on wood of communion. A lot of people mistake the paintings for glory holes but they're communion portraits. They're like sculptures, on wood, and they're done of people that I've met on my travels. I'm also working on large paintings, which are abstract. I've mostly been a figurative painter but now I’m doing mostly abstract.
What's interesting to you about communion?
When an artist paints a portrait it’s an act of communion. For example, I look at someone's face for hours and hours to make a portrait; you have to get into that person's head. Who is this person? What is the story their eyes are telling me? As an artist, one of the things that I enjoy about making work is connecting with people. It's in celebration of that.
I know that communion has a place in religion, not that it necessarily has to. I'm wondering if religion and/or spirituality play a role in your life.
I grew Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness, so I did grow up with that kind of upbringing. I don't know that it affects my work now, but maybe subconsciously it does. Everything that's part of our upbringing is part of our story.
In Phaidon’s revised version of Art and Queer Culture, your painting Bad Cops Make Good Snacks is featured. The text quotes you saying, “the painting is about retribution.” How so?
That painting was my way of addressing the problem that we have in America with law enforcement targeting people of color. There's been so many crimes against people of color, especially black men who have been shot and killed by police. The central figure in that painting is a man of color. Next to him is a trans woman. The reason they connect—something they share besides being marginalized—is that police have a history of not protecting them. There are a lot of crimes against trans people with no follow up. So the painting is about that. When you make a painting, you can make it about anything. For me it's important that my work talks about things that I think are important to discuss, and it opens that dialogue. When I say “retribution” I mean “justice.”
In addition to being an artist you also curate. Last year you organized a show called “The Violators” that was related to censorship. What are your thoughts on the relationship between censorship and queer identity?
“The Violators” was a show that gave a stage for artists to show work of theirs that had been censored on social media. Social media is an extension of our society. It's harder on marginalized communities like queer communities if they're censored on social media because maybe they don't have a place to share their stories in mainstream outlets. For myself, I've had 10 Instagram accounts, 15 Facebook accounts, I've been censored during live performances. I used to do music, and all of my music videos had been censored. The work that I've been putting out is a celebration of my identity, which is my queer identity and my sexuality. It seems like even in 2019, we still have a problem with sex, sexuality, and nudity, particularly here in the U.S.
It was kind of difficult doing research in preparation for this interview because so many of your videos have been taken down.
Yes! I stand by what I do. Whenever someone looks at an artwork they project what they see onto that work. It's the same reason that women's nipples aren't allowed on social media—because they're sexualized, even though women's nipples don't serve for only the gratification of other people in a sexual manner. With my work, it's the same thing. People project what they want to see. First of all, maybe they can't get past sexuality that's alternative to their own sexuality, so it's demonized. Maybe it's because... we'll I know why... it’s because they’re not comfortable with their own sexuality and they can't accept that someone else's sexuality can be out in the open.
How was that show received? What kind of feedback did you get?
The show was great; I had great feedback. It was anything but obscene. Walking through the gallery, what you saw were images that portrayed people, and people's lifestyles. It was beautiful because we had people from all ages, all genders, all sexualities, from different parts of the world, all displaying and celebrating who they were. Social media likes to believe that's what its purpose is, that's what it does, but what I believe is when you censor certain lifestyles, that's discrimination. And my thing is this: if they want to discriminate against people that they don't agree with, they should be honest about it, they should own it. Instagram, Facebook, and all the other apps should say, ‘We discriminate against all the people we don't approve,’ because that's what they're doing. I have countless friends (artists and non-artists) whose images get deleted. When that happens, the message you receive is, “You've violated our community standards.” That's where the name of the show came from—“The Violators.” My response to that is that we are also a community and we also have a right to exist.
Do you feel like censorship had anything to do with your move towards painting? Do you feel like the art world gives you more freedom to express yourself? Or do you feel like the art world is equally as intolerant?
I talk to other artists about this because I find it important to hear other perspectives in case I have a blind spot, but at the end of the day, a lot of people agree with me. When we talk about the art world we're talking about the art industry, the monetizing of artwork. Art can exist outside the industry of art. Our industry is predominantly run by heterosexual white men. So my question and statement is this: where does my queer and person-of-color work fit into that industry when there is very little representation of people who look like me and people whose lifestyles reflect my lifestyle. This is the problem that women have had in the art world since the beginning. For the most part, the people in power who validate artists don't understand artwork that comes from another experience than their own. Even in the film industry, the stories told are the stories that reflect the people in power. That's why there's a lack of diversity. They need to tell stories of women, stories of people of color. What we need is more people that are minorities, women, other marginalized communities, to be in positions of power so that they can also champion artists who are not just heterosexual white men.
I agree with you that not a whole lot has changed in terms of who is in power, but I do think that in the last few years we’ve seen artists from historically marginalized groups gaining more attention and more support. I don't know whether that's due to a genuine celebration for those perspectives or it’s due to a kind of fetishizing—and there’s a huge difference between those things. But there does seem to be a shift.
It's true that in the last couple of years, there are more artists of color being given a stage. My personal opinion is this: women were not just around the last couple of years. People of color have not just been around the last couple of years. They've always been around. The reason they're getting more opportunities now is because of what's going on politically. I think that institutions that didn't embrace marginalized voices are now realizing that they fucked up, for lack of a better term. They're making reparations towards that. But they could have done this twenty years ago, thirty years ago. I'm glad its going forward, it's great, but I want it to go forward in an even faster pace. We're all people. We're all brothers and sisters. We are all equal.
You’re included in Art & Queer Culture alongside some of the most recognized artists in modern and contemporary art. How does that make you feel? And how important to you is it that you’re recognized in association with specifically “queer” art and culture?
I feel proud to be part in a book that features so many of my heroes: David Wojnarowicz, Keith Harring… there are too many to name. I'm ecstatic about that. The recognition is nice but I'm not as interested in that, as much I am in having a platform to be able to connect with people. There's an art critic who I follow and I respect who recently had a conversation on social media about what it takes to be an artist. I found that conversation interesting because I don't think of myself or other artists in that way. My belief is that you don't need validation to be an artist, you are an artist. This idea that you need someone in the art industry to take a wand and tap you on the head to suddenly make you an artist is nonsense. I know my worth, I know my magic, and I know what I do, and I don't need anyone else to validate me. I think it’s like that for every artist.
You've been a creator for a long time, and you're practice extends beyond your studio. How much are you still engaged with making music, performance, and being involved with nightlife? Are these still central to your practice and do they relate to your paintings?
Everything comes from the same creative energy, so to me, it's all the same. I value everything equally. I throw parties where I show artwork, people do performances, I invite all my friends—artists and non-artists—to do what they want at the party. It's a celebration of being together in the moment. The theme of party is: do what you want. Some people have sex at this party. And I think that's great. But I always joke around that when I'm dead, people are going to remember me as the guy who used to throw sex parties. But if that's how I'm remembered, I'm fine with it. I don't have an elitist mentality about whether it's painting, this play that I'm doing, or it’s a sex party. I don't see art that way. When I create, I create, it comes from within, and it's genuine to how I'm feeling, so it's all equally important.
What do you have coming up?
I'm in an exhibition from May 8 to May 31 in Los Angeles in conjunction with the Tom of Finland House, and it's got a great group of 12 artist. I also have an exhibition that I've organized for a non-profit website that collects queer stories from small towns. That's called "I'm From Driftwood." That starts the end of the week.