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A Magazine for Sheffield

Harry Nixon-Kneale "I want to create a home for queer artists in Sheffield"

Ahead of his first solo show at Gut Level, we meet the young Sheffield painter who repurposes pornography and puts the sex back in sexuality.

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Nixon-Kneale in the studio with some of the pieces from his exhibition, Harder.

Born and bred in Sheffield, painter Harry Nixon-Kneale only just started his MA at Hallam but has already landed his first solo show at Gut Level, the queer arts collective that has just found a new home in the city centre. His work explores themes of identity, abuse and homophobia, but also – and most importantly to the 23-year-old – queer joy.

In his show Harder, Nixon-Kneale take frames from gay porn and transforms them into vivid, larger-than-life canvases – not unlike the still of the bloodied nurse from Battleship Potemkin that Francis Bacon painted again and again. Other works see the devil take up residency in a poppers-fuelled cruise bar, while boys in balaclavas receive blowjobs amid fields of pure colour.

We spoke to Nixon-Kneale ahead of his launch party on Thursday (1 December) about unorthodox studio methods, his Handsworth upbringing and why he hopes queer people of all stripes can find a home in his work.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Handsworth. My mum was working at Asda, but decided to quit that and train to become a nurse while single-handedly raising me. If it wasn’t for the support of my mum always telling me to chase my dreams, I guess I wouldn’t be here now. I went through Catholic education, which was good in some ways but traumatising at the same time.

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Harry Nixon-Kneale

I was singled out: I was the weird, slightly overweight, possibly gay kid. I was being called a faggot before I even knew what gay was. It took time to accept that and cherish it, which is what I do now.

Is making the work part of the healing process?

Yeah, it’s a very cathartic process. My previous practice was based around homophobia and the effect it’s had on me and other people. Now I feel like I’ve closed that chapter and I’m in a new chapter where I can actually start celebrating joy, and celebrating myself as a queer-identifying man.

What can people expect from Harder?

My new show is at Gut Level, which is really important to me. It’s a queer, non-profit organisation that hosts events from workshops to club nights. After a battle with the council and being shut down twice, they’ve come back stronger than ever. They’re planning on showing a different Sheffield-based artist every month, and I’m December’s. In the media, queer people are represented as sex-less creatures – they’re always the funny one, or the caring one.

My perspective is that we get to have the main character moment. I’m taking all of that and turning it into a joyful, humorous, tongue-in-cheek show which will feature sexually explicit artwork but with hidden meanings.

What was the process for making these pieces?

All the images in my show are found imagery from porn – videos that have been appealing to me! My process is that I’ll notice an interesting pose where someone’s having sex, or someone’s face is really animated – too animated for real life. That’s what’s appealing to me, because it’s not a true representation of sex. It’s staged, it’s filmed in a studio, and they’re actors. It’s a transactional process of sex – false pleasure.

I use pink a lot in the work, because it’s a reclamation of the colour. The pink triangle was used to single out queer people in the concentration camps. We were freed from the camps, but then imprisoned again because in the [liberated] countries it was illegal to be who you are. That’s still the case now in Qatar.

Why do you choose to centre the queer experience in your work?

I think it’s important to focus on queer life and queer identity because, although I’ve been very fortunate that my family are extremely accepting, there are people who don’t have that support network. But they’ll have their chosen family. I guess what I’m trying to do with my work is create a home for those people, who don’t have a safe space to be who they want and to do whatever the fuck they want.

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Harry Nixon-Kneale

What happened in Colorado… things like that shouldn’t happen. It could happen here. I recently had a strange experience going to the police [after a homophobic attack]. They’re institutionally homophobic – they should be there to protect us, but there’s a fear because of how they’ve acted against us.

What are some of your influences?

I take techniques from classical artists like Caravaggio and da Vinci, and subvert them by painting and drawing pornography. That’s important because I could draw them crudely, but instead I spend days or even weeks on a painting.

But my influences do come mainly from pop culture. There’s a vast array of references: the fetish community influence me quite a lot. I would say artists like Anna Uddenberg as well – her sculptures are stunning, and it’s something I only wish I could do.

Caravaggio of course painted sex workers and other outcasts, which isn’t unlike you choosing to paint gay pornstars.

Caravaggio did paint the down-and-outs in society – [Amedeo] Modigliani even hired prostitutes to paint them. Again, it’s transactional sex. It’s important to de-stereotype and de-prejudice people who just want to make an honest living.

What’s next?

I’m hoping to finish my masters, but also work with the queer community in Sheffield to curate more shows – and maybe even create a collective.

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Harry Nixon-Kneale

I want to create a home for queer artists in Sheffield. A similar space to Gut Level but more art focused, a space for people to express themselves. In terms of my own work, I’ve always been interested in film. I’d love to make my own films exploring and subverting self-care, guided meditation and ASMR. And have a website with all of that, parodying [Gwyneth Paltrow’s 'wellness and lifestyle brand'] Goop, basically. Using Bible verses condemning homosexuality to bring about a meditative state!

Did you make a conscious decision to put so much of yourself in the work?

There’s a part of me in every single painting that I do. It’s important for me to be in some of them because I’m a queer man who’s faced the prejudices that I’m painting. I’m exploring that, and exploring my own sexuality.

My exploration doesn’t end at the painting – I express my sexuality and sensuality in what I wear, the way I carry myself, the way I speak. Art is just an extension of my personality. If I’m in a good place, my art will be in a good place. If I’m going through a depressive state, my art will mirror and shadow that.

Learn more

Harder is on display at Gut Level throughout December.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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