An individual holds their breasts in their hands, the tattoos on their their chest and stomach exposed as a leather jacket is drawn open, like a curtain.

Love Letter to Suzanne Shifflett

An individual holds their breasts in their hands, the tattoos on their their chest and stomach exposed as a leather jacket is drawn open, like a curtain.
Suzanne Shifflett, Still Butch, 2017. Oil on panel. Courtesy of artist.

All my childhood stuffed animals were boys. I can’t say why, exactly, but I assigned the entire menagerie he/him pronouns and names like Seth and Rocky. Nascent queerness can present itself in myriad ways, but I feel a particular kinship with those dykes who—like me—spent their early years obsessed with boys as objects not of romantic love but of aspirational desire.

Long Beach-based painter Suzanne M. Shifflett is one of them. In interviews and artist statements, she recounts a childhood fascination with images of cowboys, soldiers, and other masculine archetypes. Drawing these figures was where her interest in art began.

A silver-haired, heavily-inked butch, Shifflett has been working as a painter and tattoo artist for decades. She spent long stints in San Francisco and Portland, where she was involved in the ’90s and early aughts sex worker activist movement and the BDSM scene. The influence of these communities on her artistic subject matter is clear. Although the content of her meticulously detailed, highly representational paintings includes animals, plants, and vintage motorcycles, her signature is portraiture. “Portrait” is a loose definition for these works, which often eschew their subjects’ faces to focus on chest tattoos, leather-gloved hands, and genitals, often penises.

These portraits radically subvert the fetishization of the female form that characterizes so much of art history. Like the drawings of cowpokes and G.I.s that constituted Shifflett’s first stabs at art, her portraits are rigorous studies of masculinity, suggesting the capacity of artists excluded from the borders of male identity to observe and document it.

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