"Trans Boy Jesus 2" oil on canvas by Johnson
“Trans Boy Jesus,” oil on cardboard by Michael Elizabeth Johnson

Art is often used to create alternative characters, whether drawn, painted or sculpted. It can bring meaning, explanation and oneself into the equation of how those characters interact, how they feel, and what they experience.

Celebrating a transitioning moment is often part of what makes an event easier to process. Celebration can be brought through performance and gives encouragement for the next moments where change is difficult, lengthy and liberating.

Transitioning in the transgender community means undergoing a transition to live as the gender they identify with. This can be through hormone therapy, surgery or by changing the pronouns used to identify themselves, to “they/them/theirs”, or to “he”, or “she”.

Gay Sex Heaven, an exhibit and performance (“Pluck”) featuringMichael Elizabeth Johnson at Petshop Gallery, on view through June 28, celebrates being transgender in an alternative way, tying together 3 different practices.

Throughout history, trans and queer people have been discriminated against, harassed, assaulted, and killed. Luckily through acceptance, inclusiveness, and understanding, people have been able to create environments where they can be themselves.

Through the view of a trans masculine individual, Gay Sex Heavenshows exploration of process and character building through zines, abstract oil paintings, and the manifestation of the artist’s “wiggle bird”.

A zine titled “Kingdum Cum”, written and illustrated by Johnson, is used as a “parallel exploration” guide of the show in the gallery space. Quotes from the zine are written on the wall of the gallery next to and around the oil paintings on cardboard.

The zine tells a story and vision for what Gay Sex Heavenis. The zine is illustrated with ink and brush in a style that is playful with thick and thin tapered lines that match the paintings.

Although the tittle of the show may hint at sex as sexual pleasure, it does more than that. The idea of Gay Sex Heavenencompasses the feeling of acceptance, understanding, and support of everyone, including oneself, regardless of physical appearance, gender, or emotional state, here on Earth. It is also about the things that are terrifying and challenging. Gay Sex Heaven“is about powerful love and the worldly terror” says Johnson.

As you enter the gallery, the first set of 16 smaller paintings on paper to the left take the viewer through the process for the rest of the paintings. The shapes and figures that intertwine on the paper canvas use the bold and tapered lines to create movement, confusion, and emotion.

Although, at first glance only blobs of outlined color are noticed, taking a step closer and examining the figures, shapes that resemble personified beings, begin to appear.  It could be the hand-like figures sticking out the side of the blobs of color, egg-like shapes, or what seem to be smiling faces covering their mouths.

“Trans Boy Jesus 2” oil on cardboard by Johnson

These shapes are motifs used by the artist called the Wiggle Bird. They have been using the Wiggle Bird as a stand-in for them, and it has appeared in different forms, but always Johson said as an exploration of “it’s world, where it comes from, and what it means to me”, often drawn doing the things that he has done or experienced..

In the middle of the entrance room sit four more paintings. Two of which are on paper, and lie between a diptych on cardboard. These works on paper seem to fluff and prep the viewer for what is in between, “Trans Boy Jesus”.

A portrait of Jesus holding up the Sacred Heart, drawn as a stereotypical Jesus with a mustache, beard, and long hair. Next to Jesus is the Wiggle Bird, in bird form, in the same pose as Jesus and in his clothing but holding up a sacred apple instead of a heart.  Stereotypical Jesus sits at the gates of Gay Sex Heavenas to not completely ratify the image of the white Jesus we are used to seeing, to show contrast, along with the similarity of the stand-in Wiggle Bird.

The four larger pieces bring us back to the Wiggle Bird with quotes form the zine.  “World Egg” depicts what clearly looks like an egg, wrapped by blue figures that seem to kiss and caress it as it seems to hatch in a green background. These reactions are similar to those in lieu of a forthcoming birth of a child.

“Angel of the Machine” sets in a tan colored background with a round yellow figure that is carrying or struggling with green figures, shapes painted in white that resemble hands and feet, along with a pink and blue figure. A dark red shape, similar to that of “Trans Boy Jesus” flaps over and under the yellow figure. Every figure is outlined by ultramarine blue.

“World Egg” oil on cardboard by Johnson

On the opposite wall, more quotes and paintings. “Weeping Figure” floats next to a quote from the zine claiming “Gay Sex Heavenis for the living… an embrace with eyes closed.”  This painting would translate even without the quotes. A pink figure that resembles a hen is kneeled, holding partly itself and a blue figure.

The pose is similar to that of a parent embracing their small child. The background for the piece is a pale purple, grey, and dirty yellow. Giving it a sense of uncertainty but relief as the main figure embraces itself and others.

“Little Girl” sits on the same wall. It is another yellow figure, this one smiling while covering its face. It floats in front of a red shaded sphere surrounded by yellow nibs with red tips, resembling a sunflower. A white figure stands atop the yellow.

The performance, called “Pluck”, took place a month after the opening of the show.  It began with a nest of cloths sitting in the middle of the gallery. The colors of the clothing were similar to the paintings in hues of dark red, olive green, brown, beige, and blues. A red costume also sat amongst the nested pile. Johnson then stands in the middle and puts on the red costume.

The costume is a realization of the Wiggle Bird and made it’s “debut” for the performance. The bird is a way to escape many gendered biases, to be free, even from being human.

“Weeping Figjure,” oil on cardboad by Johnson

After plucking away at the nest, Johnson sets out to the next part of the performance in the new body, created out of illustrations and paintings into real life, as the Wiggle Bird, and begins initiation of taking their first injection of testosterone.

Beginning transition can often be an intimate and scary change in any stage of anyone’s life. They (artist) welcomed and thanked everyone for attending, pulled out instructions on how to inject the testosterone, and sank the needle into their thigh. The new body or Wiggle Bird created is a great parallel to beginning transition and creating “a new physical body for myself as well,” the artist said. “I’ve never injected T before, but had thrown a lot of art shows.”

Injecting testosterone as a performance while live streaming, in a crowd of friends and art goers, felt less scary and more celebratory, as it should be, than doing it alone in their room. Over the course of years, they will inject testosterone every week to undergo physical changes such as growing a beard and having their voice drop, to match their gender.

Johnson created their own gay sex heaven in Benson, at Petshop Gallery, a space where they could manifest paintings, characters, and bodies of work to share with others. A place to spread ideas of positivity, acceptance, understanding, and love through zines and performance as well. And last but not least, a place where transitioning can be performed, celebrated with, and supported not only by oneself but others as well.

Gay Sex Heavenby Michael Elizabeth Johnson runs through June 28th at Petshop Gallery 2725 N 62nd St, in Benson. Gallery hours are 11 a.m-2 p.m on Fridays, or by appointment. For more information, contact info@bensonfirstfriday.com.

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