A typical slider on the door to an office might contain a thin, loose panel of plastic that glides in a groove to conceal one of two options: ‘vacant’ (green) and ‘engaged’ (red). In 2007, artist Chester Tenneson produced a version with only one option – ‘vacant’ – both choices offering an emptiness. It’s not unusual to see repurposed moments from everyday situations appear in Tenneson’s assemblages. Whether a hot water bottle in a bow tie (‘Blow the Dust from Your Eyes’ (2020)) or a pair of green ‘gentleman’s slippers’ on the kind of castors you might find on a flatpack shelving unit (‘We’re No Stranger to Love’ (2022)). His material selection deliberately appropriates quotidian, even humdrum, objects or texts.
I’m often cautious about closely connecting an artist’s biography with their practice because it can throw up misconceptions or dead ends. The artwork is a third thing, separate from the viewer and the maker, with infinite possibilities for transformation. But, by Tenneson’s admission, his work derives directly from his experience as a trans man. In ‘Labels and Fables’ (2020), a recorded slideshow, he concisely charts his practice through the lens of transness, stopping to detail emotions experienced in early life, as a teenager or student.
He isn’t attempting to conjure an elaborate ruse but rather engender a sense of playfulness to subtly undermine structures designed to restrict the multiplicities of queer expression. Tenneson’s sculptures remind me of works by the American artist Robert Grober. But, whereas Grober’s sculptures suggest inimical forces beneath the surface, Tenneson’s contain the same matter-of-factness present in the tone of the slideshow. Throughout, there’s a sense that work is just as it appears to be: for example, a plastic sausage atop a concierge bell (‘Put Away the Dishes’ (2021)) or a wall-mounted shaving mirror with the mirror’s surface covered in fabric plaster strips (‘The Sky is Still Blue’ (2021)). Tenneson humorously renders the original object almost functionless with Duchampian twists and unexpected additions.
After graduating from Manchester School of Art, Tenneson trained as a sign painter in Stockport. His preoccupations with language follow the same logic of subversion as his sculptural works. He’s interested in how the directives of institutional language function to exclude and alienate trans people. He inhabits these forms – plaques, posters, signs – but evacuates them of meaning to expose how the authoritative posture is just that. In a series of enamel on board works, he painstakingly renders fragments of non-sensical text, situating great white men of modernism (John Cage, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore) in absurd situations: ‘Henry Moore Wearing a Pair of Limited-Edition Sunglasses Holding a Medium Sized Axe’ (‘Henry’ (2022)). He is sending up the heteropatriarchy with a wink and a smile.
For me, the crux of Tenneson’s project resides in the idea of resistance, a term he uses several times in ‘Labels and Fables’. In his work as an artist, he reclaims space for trans and queer people by repurposing the material of the cisgender world that, for many, can enact so much harm. And as an educator, he champions equality, so future generations aren’t left feeling the sort of lost engendered by, say, the two options in ‘Vacant Slider Sign’ (2007).
(Part of a series of texts on artists participating in PIVOT, the inaugural artist development programme in the North West of England. PIVOT is delivered in partnership with Bluecoat, Liverpool and Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.)
Sean Burns is an artist, editor and writer based in London, UK