Not many now, or ever, would look to Christianity to help explain transgender identity. But with the metaphor of Communion, the message of the transfiguration of Christ is indeed a powerful tool in redefining trans bodies as natural and beautiful. Even the sacred can be queered.
Printmaker Milo Reid, himself transgender, explores these ideas in his upcoming MFA exhibition, “This is My Body.” He is an author (Unfavorable Amazon Reviews of the Body of Christ), screenprinter, and MFA candidate at SCAD. I had some questions about his upcoming exhibition, his faith and its relationship with his trans identity, and the religious kitsch he explores in his work.
Tell us about yourself. Are you from Atlanta originally? Where did you grow up?
I’m originally from Sebring, which is in central Florida. I lived there all my life until moving to Bronxville, New York, for four years, where I got my bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College. Then I ended up back in Sebring for a couple years after getting a job with a nonprofit arts organization there. I moved to Atlanta in 2012 to begin working on my Master’s at SCAD, originally as a painting major.
How long have you been with the church? What is your religious denomination and why?
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but my mother did attend a nondenominational church and I started going with her when I was about six. She passed away when I was eight, and after that I sort of bounced around between the different churches that my friends attended—I even went to an extremely conservative Southern Baptist church for a while. I still consider myself nondenominational, but I’m the most closely aligned with progressive Christianity because of their inclusivity and acceptance of the truths of faiths other than one’s own.
How has your identity as a transgender man affected your relationship with the church, specifically? How have you worked around the church’s biases in that regard?
As a kid, even before I was fully aware that I was trans, I felt that it was necessary to obscure parts of myself in order to be accepted within the church. So, like many people, I’ve become alienated from organized religion, and haven’t been involved with it since coming out. For a few years, religion wasn’t something I thought about much, but when I began delving into my thesis’s subject matter a couple years ago, my faith ended up being renewed. My partner has also been a big influence in this—he’s a pagan and worships the Norse pantheon of gods, and his solitary religious practice and use of physical objects within that context really got me thinking about that in regards to my own beliefs. I’ve begun to feel more confident about engaging with religion on a one-on-one basis, but on the other hand I do miss the sense of community within the church. It’s something I’ve been considering seeking out once more.
Tell us about the medium you work in as an artist. What are you attracted to in screenprinting and woodblock reliefs? How has this shaped the message of your work?
I like the ability to use layers of process to echo layers of removal from concepts and the information surrounding them. One of my pieces may have gone through the permutations of an original drawn illustration, an image printed in a book, a scan, a Photoshop file, an inkjet print, a line drawing on a block, a carving, a woodblock print, yet another scan and subsequent Photoshop file, a transparency, and finally, a silkscreen. In a similar fashion, the religious information we receive has passed through so many intermediaries before it reaches us. This is why it’s important for me to use objects and images in my work that previously existed, and were not fabricated specifically for the piece. I want them to have an authentic depth of history that creates a path I continue in the work.
Of course, most printmaking is layer-based, but what really drew me to screenprinting and woodblock relief is their strong sense of physicality. The presence of the hand is so evident in a relief print, and I use it to evoke the human element within my work; a reminder that the viewer is not the first to engage with the object or image. Screenprinting also works towards this by existing in a strange space where it’s become somewhat antiquated, but still has strong ties to mass-produced consumer objects. I can establish a bodily quality to the print through the usage of fleshy tones and thick, tactile layers of ink, and then betray that through things like halftones and slight irregularities of registration.
Woodblock reliefs in particular have a rich history in the church. Who are your influences and why?
I love the work of Albrecht Durer and Jose Guadalupe Posada, but perhaps they’re more inspirations than influences—a lot of the time when I look at older work like that, it’s so intricate and perfect that I have a hard time conceptualizing the fact that a person actually created it! I also really admire the work of Sean Starwars and the artists of Cannonball Press. For my photo-based work, Liliana Porter has been a strong influence. She shows such a reverence for objects, I feel like she photographs them as if they were people. The work of Larry Jens Anderson and Mike Kelley has informed the usage of pre-existing objects or images as well as the theme of childhood. John Waters’ enthusiasm and positivity for his subject matter is also something I’ve worked to emulate.
You mention in your artist statement the huge role that Communion, as a metaphor for consumption of the body of Christ, plays in this upcoming exhibition. How do you center your concerns with your body and the identity it has instilled in you and the body of Christ? I can imagine there are strong connections with the idea of transfiguration and the nature of trans bodies.
Yes, absolutely—the idea that the body is what you make of it. The body is what it means to you, whether we’re talking Communion, the body of Christ, the church as a body of believers, or one’s own physical body. I think that the establishment of the ritual of Communion was an act not only of intense love, but also of radical bodily autonomy. Jesus’ physical body would perish, but he defined its meaning in a way that could not be destroyed. The meaning of the body is more concrete than the form itself, and that gives us a powerful opportunity to assume agency. Trans people assert the truths of our bodies similarly to the ways in which Jesus asserted the truth of his.
Your work focuses on kitsch in particular. Can you elaborate on the importance of kitsch within religious art? Do you think that the complex ideas at the foundation of Christianity need to be distributed through simplistic kitsch art? Do you think that kitsch is a more effective art form for the ideas conveyed by Christianity, or just one of many resources for disseminating religious truth?
Religious kitsch is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it lets people engage with religion on their own terms, and integrate it more fully into their daily life through objects. It gives them a God they can see and touch, one that’s always physically there. It also provides easily understood introductions to these concepts, which is why children feature so prominently in my work. The problem is that there’s a point at which the ideas need to be elaborated upon to continue to actually function, but often the case is that nothing’s really been built beneath the surface level. For example, children are told that when they are in need of help, they should pray to God. One day Grandma gets ill, they pray, Grandma dies anyway. These moments when the system as one knows it fails to operate are the subject of one of the books in my show, Promises, Promises. Many people who have lost religious faith they once had have a very similar narrative: the people who introduced them to that faith had their hearts in the right place but weren’t able to provide them with the tools to deal with the times when reality and dogma seem to clash.
Ultimately, I don’t think religious kitsch is a bad thing as long as it doesn’t form the sole basis for development of a religious philosophy. In many ways, I think it’s a beautiful thing, and I strive for recognition of that within my work. I believe the consumption of kitsch is an important way in which laypeople, particularly those who have been marginalized, have taken faith into their own hands.
Anything else you’d like to add in summary? What can people expect at your exhibit this Friday?
One of the books that’s been instrumental in the research I’ve done for this body of work is Kitsch and Art by Tomas Kulka. In it, he says, “Consumers of kitsch look through the symbol, so to speak, to what the symbol stands for.” This idea of the journey through the image to something on the other side has been at the heart of all my work regarding kitsch, religious or otherwise. My belief is that the weightier the referent, the greater the rift is between it and the image plane. This show examines that rift, and asks what resides there—what’s fallen down in between the cracks. I think it’s a space that any viewer can inhabit, regardless of the role religion has played in their life. My goal is for the work to straddle the line between comedy and tragedy in the same way the subjects of the pieces, from chocolate crucifixes to paper Communion wafers, straddle the line between the sacred and the profane.
Don't miss the opening reception of "This Is My Body" on April 29th from 7-9pm.
It will be on display April 29th and 30th at Gallery 377, located in Marcia Wood Gallery Midtown, 1037 Monroe Drive NE.
More info HERE.