John Gutoskey’s “PULSE Nightclub: 49 Elegies" series honors those murdered in Orlando
On June 12, 2016, 49 people died and 53 others wounded when a gunman opened fire at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was then the largest mass shooting by a single person in American history.
Gutoskey has lived in Ann Arbor for many years, and he received his MFA from the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design and has lectured at the University of Michigan on different aspects of costume design. Now he runs his own printmaking studio in Ann Arbor, all the while exhibiting his work at galleries across southeast Michigan and beyond. Gutoskey’s subtle, mixed-media works are filled with color, arresting images, and a deeply introspective quality. I spoke with him about 49 Elegies, his work in general, and the importance of activism in art.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the decision to make this series of pieces?
A: When I first heard the news about the massacre at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida early on June 13, I was in shock. The largest massacre -- at the time -- had just happened at a gay bar. This news stopped me cold. For the LGBTQ community, a queer bar or nightclub is a place of sanctuary. It is a sacred, safe space for us. It is akin to this mass-shooting happening in a church, temple, or mosque. I struggled to put what I was feeling into words. Although I did not know any of the victims personally, I felt an overwhelming sense of anger followed by a broad feeling of loss and an almost metaphysical sadness that this had happened to the LGBTQ community; that it had happened inside what was supposed to be a safe, sacred queer space and that it had happened to a minority within a minority, as it was Latin night at PULSE Nightclub.
After about a week of pondering what had happened, I could not find adequate words to express what I was feeling. I came to the conclusion that anything I had to say would be best conveyed visually through my art, and that I would work through all that I was thinking and feeling in my studio. I decided I would speak through my print work by creating a series of 49 monoprints to honor the 49 victims whose lives had been lost.
The monoprints are not stand-ins for the actual victims, but more a visual narrative or visual poem made up of 49 elegies that attempt to communicate what happened to the victims of the PULSE Nightclub massacre on June 12, 2016, and its aftermath, as the entire LGBTQ community grappled with it both locally and nationally. In modern times, the elegy is written not out of a personal sense of grief, but out of a broader feeling of metaphysical sadness and loss, and it has often been used to elegize a group. The classic elegy has three parts. It begins with a lament of grief and sorrow, a middle section of praise and admiration for the deceased, and it ends with a section that consoles and brings solace to the living. I felt that this poetic form worked well with what I had been thinking I would create in my studio. I used the elegy form as a framework and theme for the 49 monoprints, and I kept this in mind as I made them -- some of the prints lament, some celebrate, and some attempt to console.
Q: How would you describe your artistic style and mediums?
A: I would say my style is rooted in mixed-media -- in both my 3D/sculptural work and my print work. I really enjoy combining multiple techniques and media in a single work. Much of my work is layered and it lends itself to this layering of different techniques and media.
Q: Does this exhibit showcase any new techniques or styles for you? If so, was that inspired by the subject matter?
A: The group of 49 mixed media prints that make up PULSE Nightclub: 49 Elegies is the first body of work I made using the monoprint. Essentially, a monoprint is the closest a print gets to a painting. It is a single -- mono -- print. They are not editioned. You do not end with 20 prints of the same image printed the same way. Monoprinting allows me to combine multiple layers and techniques in a single print -- in this series, I combine woodcut, collage, digital images from photographs and scans, stencil, spray enamel, glitter, colored pencil, art paper, gift wrap paper, and alcohol gel transfer decals.
In terms of inspiration and choice of media, it was a confluence of events. I had a friend teach me how to do monoprinting using a sheet of plexiglass in May of 2016 and I fell in love with it. I really took to it, as it mirrored how I had worked when I worked in 3D. I was in the process of figuring out what I would make using monoprinting with plexiglass when the PULSE Nightclub massacre happened on June 12 of that same year. I decided I would respond to the massacre by making monoprints. One to honor each of the 49 victims who died.
Q: 49 Elegies is displayed at 22 North, a gallery in Ypsilanti where you’ve exhibited other work before. Can you describe what makes that gallery a special place to show your work?
A: It’s a fairly new space in downtown Ypsilanti -- which is hopping these days when it comes to art, music, food. It’s also a very nice-looking space. The owners are really great, and I had done a group exhibit there last October on political art. There is a lot of energy in downtown Ypsi these days and I wanted to show my work there again. I had shown the 22 North owners, Nan Plummer and Jim Spencer, the 49 Elegies when they visited my studio, and I inquired if they would be interested in exhibiting the series that following June for the second anniversary of the massacre. Fortunately for me, they agreed.
Q: There has been a thread of activism that runs through previous exhibits of yours that I’ve seen, and clearly, it’s a part of this current exhibit. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it opens at the start of Pride Fest in Ypsilanti and Pride Month in general. Do you find activism to be an important part of your work?
A: Absolutely! I need some kind of emotional or intellectual hook to keep me engaged and interested. I also want to try and communicate something meaningful or start a dialogue about important issues of our time that matter to me -- especially pertaining to LGBTQ rights and social issues. In the past, I have made work about marriage equality, queer families, queer spirituality, wounded Iraqi warriors, the re-election of George W. Bush, the election of Donald Trump, etc. My ideas or inspiration usually come from my responding in my studio to something that is bothering me, or something I am mulling over and trying to figure out -- either personally or culturally. I will work through it visually and see what I can make out of it in responding to it through media in my studio.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
John Gutoskey’s mixed-media exhibit, “PULSE Nightclub: 49 Elegies” opens with a reception from 7-9 pm on June 1 at 22 North Gallery, 22 N. Huron St., Ypsilanti. The exhibit runs until June 30. For more information, visit johngutoskeystudio.com and 22north.org.