Chubby bears, phallic-shaped trees, assholes on branches, piss fountains and butthole fungi – The work of London-based artist Joseph Ridgeon is definitely a conversation starter. It seems easy to assume that this is his main objective – to be some sort of catalyst for change by inviting others to partake in much needed political discourse regarding sexual politics and queer sexual expression.
While the very nature of his work seems inherently political in many ways, Joe does not claim to be driven solely by a political agenda. Of course, he does not deny that his work is clearly influenced by queer sex culture. It’s pro-slut. It’s sex positive. It’s kinky. But ultimately, it doesn’t really give a fuck what you think. It is shaped by the real life sexual experiences and antecdotes of the actual queer community.
I was able to have a chat with Joe recently to discuss his work as a queer artist.
KJ: Hey Joe! I don’t ever think I’ve asked you this, but where did you study? Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up, and how you first got into art?
JR: I studied a BA in Fine Art at the University of the West of England and, in 2016, I completed my MFA at Goldsmiths University of the Arts, London.
I grew up in a small town full of hippies called Glastonbury – home of the Glastonbury Festival. Despite its liberal and “New age” reputation, it’s actually quite a conservative area and, until I was 19, I didn’t know any other LGBTQ people. My parents were also houseparents for a boarding school, so I grew up in a house full of 40 girls which seemed normal to me at the time – but I guess could have been quite formative.
I have always loved drawing and being creative, and started to use that as a way for me to process desire in my teens. I would draw people I had crushes on, or my favorite images from my only porn mag – 100 % Beef. I felt this process brought me closer to realizing those desires.
KJ: You seem to like larger men, as your work is heavily centered around bears and leather/kink culture. When did you decide that larger body types and leather/kink would be heavily featured in your work?
JR: I don’t think you do ever consciously decide those kinds of things. When I was first in higher education, I was very conscious of wanting to be a “contemporary” artist. So my work would often address sexuality and kink in a more conceptual way. It was only when I was in my mid-20s that I rediscovered the joy I received from representational drawing. I think it’s also quite significant to my work and how it changed. Until about 25, I had very little exposure to bear or kink culture.
Bears feature in my work not necessarily as the main feature, but as a part of queer landscape. Their prominence in my work is, in some part, due to the bear body being a place where desire, sex, and kink meet; The security and comfort I get from being in contact or proximity to big bodies. They are a friendly totem in a strange woodland full of butthole fungi and dismembered limbs.
KJ: Do you consider yourself a “chaser”?
JR: Yes and no. For app profiles and casual sex, it’s a useful way to communicate what kind of guys I’m into. But, for me, it doesn’t go beyond that.
KJ: Do you consider your work political? Sex positivity and anti-slut shaming are now huge topics of discussion in many spaces, and much of your work seems centered around sexual freedom and expression. Do you feel your work appropriately relates to the current socio-political landscape?
JR: I think everything is political, especially sex. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I think my work is an agent for change in itself. The political potential of art comes from the discussions people have around the subjects that the art may bring into the fore.
My art is informed by subjective experiences or stories, and anecdotes I hear from my peers and members of the queer community in London. In that sense, it stays quite current and certainly relates to app-based sex and sexual freedom. I think one thing is clear from the work – I’m very pro slut. That is because it is a narrative I live and can comment on.
There are loads of queer artists who use art as a way to express a whole range of political concerns and experiences regarding race, gender, intersectionality, and disability. I believe it’s important to understand that my own work is a part of a huge spectrum of queer art, and also acknowledge my own privilege within it. It’s not enough to claim a political stance or make work about one agenda and not show solidarity with another. An affront to one is an affront to all.
KJ: You work in every form – painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. Do you have a particular favorite?
JR: I don’t have a favorite. However, drawing is essential and is something which I am constantly doing (even at work). I work in a variety of mediums because I like to choose what medium can best communicate an idea or aesthetic to the viewer.
KJ: If you had to sum your work up into no more than three or four words, how would you describe it?
JR: Weird, funny, fat and queer.
KJ: Do you have a favorite work of your own?
I don’t have a favorite, but I made a sculpture called ”Keepcup by Day, Pisspig by night”. It’s a water fountain of a penis and a hand merged into one, which it is simultaneously holding and pissing into. It always makes me laugh.
KJ: Are there any artists whose work inspires you?
JR: James Unsworth, AA Bronson, Judith Bernstein, and Elijah Burgher, just to name a few.
KJ: So, you’ve recently been teaching yourself tattooing. What made you decide to start tattooing?
Recently, I have been thinking about alternative ways people can engage with my art outside of the traditional gallery format, and also the ways in which people would want to buy or exchange works.
I have been interested in tattooing and considering learning the craft for a while. After recently getting a new tattoo and speaking to the person doing it, I was enlightened to a whole DIY and queer tattoo scene. He offered to teach me, so it kinda started there. It’s still very early days, though, so I’m looking forward to see where it goes.