I moved from Washington, DC, to Stillwater, Oklahoma, over two years ago, for more education, but just recently hung pictures in my rental, whose white walls bear a texture called knockdown: a dated pattern of lumps and bumps. Maybe I thought leaving the artwork wrapped in paper meant I didn’t really live in Oklahoma, a place whose wildlife makes me swoon, but whose politics make me shudder. One favorite rediscovery in the pile of pictures: a framed black-and-white illustration from Albert Seba’s eighteenth-century work in Latin and French, The richest treasures of the natural world accurately described, and represented with, the most skillfully rendered images for a general history of natural science, or Thesaurus. A title that never fails to please me with the way it screams, humble. In the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch print, a seven-headed hydra with hooked claws, a thick, scaly middle, and a ribboned tail crawls along the earth. Three smiling birdlike creatures perch or fly above the hydra as if they are familiars. I greeted this queer creature like an old friend, drove a nail in the wall. Accepted that my own queer self will live in Oklahoma another two to three years, long enough to make nesting matter.
Sara Ahmed’s essay “Queer Use” includes a photograph of a bright red Royal Mail box fixed to a wooden pole, surround by velvety, overgrown vines and purple flowers. A handwritten sign stuck to the box reads, Birds nesting. Please do not use this box. Many thanks. Her valuable lesson: intention does not exhaust use. If birds see a postbox as a nest, they may find a new habitation. Ahmed says of the photograph, “We can make this image our queer teacher.”
I think of Ahmed while viewing J. Jay McVicker’s Red Diagonal (1970), a handsome piece of op art. I’m in the Oklahoma State University Art Museum, seeking a queer teacher in a red state. The piece is an acrylic painting, four feet by four feet. McVicker loosely divided the canvas into four quadrants. Two larger striped fields alternate black and white paint; two smaller fields alternate white paint and bare canvas, a tempting skin. The stripes seem to shimmer with fluidity, creating an optical illusion, as if a herd of zebras rushes along the field. A single red line bisects the canvas at an angle: a trickle of blood drawn by a perfect arrow.