Why This Artist Paints Gender Reveal Parties

“Gender reveals reduce the nuance and fluidity of gender identity into a predetermined, store-bought binary of pink or blue.”

Last month, a gender reveal party went chaotically wrong when a pyrotechnic device that was set off ignited a massive wildfire. This is not a new phenomenon: In 2017, a different reveal spurred a fire in Arizona that burned 47,000 acres.

Wake-Up Call: Why were you drawn to painting an explosive gender reveal party gone wrong?

Witt Fetter: The paintings “Binary Explosive” (2020) and “Santa Ana Winds” (2019) are the first two works in a series of paintings that pair depictions of gender reveal explosions with images of wildfire abatement in the American West. At first glance, a gender reveal party isn’t a particularly complex subject to deconstruct. What is there to understand that isn’t evident in its name or visible in the thousands of viral videos scattered across the internet? Gender reveals reduce the nuance and fluidity of gender identity into a predetermined, store-bought binary of pink or blue. Even the nature of the event as a “reveal” creates a duality between the “before” of suspenseful ignorance and the “after” of awareness and euphoria.

I am particularly interested in the moment between not knowing and knowing — the milliseconds that follow the combustion but precede the identification of boy or girl in the eyes of the spectator. This burst of fire, smoke, and shrapnel flies in the face of the gender reveal’s principles of rigidity and enforcement. If it presumes that a life can be calculated and that a single color can conjure the entire essence and identity of an unborn child, the unforeseeable nature of the explosion proves otherwise. As seen in the recent El Dorado forest fire in California, the countless injuries, deaths and environmental destruction caused by gender reveal explosions upends the certainty of a predetermined narrative. The painting “Binary Explosive” depicts a still image from a widely circulated video of a gender reveal party in 2017 that inadvertently caused the 45,000-acre Sawmill wildfire in Arizona. When considered closely, these pageants have something to reveal, just maybe not in the shades of pink and blue that one would expect.

“Santa Ana Winds.” Witt Fetter

What is the significance of representing a gender reveal explosion set off by a U.S. Border Patrol agent?

“Binary Explosive” depicts a gender reveal thrown by a man named Dennis Dickey in Arizona. At the time of the fire, Dickey was a U.S. Customs and Border Control. I think this anecdote is useful in situating this moment within a larger context and history of state-sanctioned conformity and violence. The rigid gender constructs enforced by Dickey’s gender reveal takes place in a terrain that has already been subject to a system of categorization and control. The southern border wall imposes its own binarism logic of domestic versus foreign on a landscape that historically was home to the Tohono O’odham Nation and spanned the present-day border of the U.S. and Mexico. It’s important to acknowledge the overlapping structures that uphold various forms of violence both historically and in the present day, if not to remember that a single painting is only a small fragment of a much larger historical tapestry.

Is there a relationship between the cloud of blue smoke from the gender reveal and the pink plumes of flame retardant being doused on the forest fire?

There is a visual affinity between the vivid cerulean and hot pink hues of gender reveal explosions and the bright red phosphorus of fire retardants. In a very literal sense, the forest fires triggered by gender reveal explosions bring these two disparate subjects together, but on a more visceral level I think the apocalyptic imagery of aerial firefighting evokes the theatrical destruction that I see as inherent to gender reveals. Speaking broadly, I think there is a fundamental connection between the cultural and political bodies that allow land mismanagement and climate change denial to fuel increasingly destructive forest fires and the forces that perpetuate oppressive and rigid gender constructs. Whether one is denying the role of humanity in the destruction of the environment, or denying the humanity of people that exist outside of the gender binary, this intolerance stems from an inability to see the world from a position outside of yourself — a total lack of creative imagining and empathy.

What is the meaning of the title “binary explosive”?

“Binary Explosive” is actually the name of the class of explosives that are commonly used in gender reveal pyrotechnics. The most widely used explosive substance is Tannerite, a binary explosive, and it is often sold as pre-packaged “gender reveal kits”. The “binary” refers to the two separate components that make up the explosive mixture. On their own, these materials are not hazardous — only when combined do they become explosive. Tannerite is sold to consumers in its non-hazardous, uncombined state, thus avoiding the regulations that limit the sale and distribution of explosive materials in the United States. Dennis Dickey likely encountered Tannerite in his job as a border patrol agent, where binary explosives are used to train gunmen to accurately hit their targets.

The title is obviously a bit of a double-entendre, and as I mentioned earlier, I see the explosion as a simultaneous obliteration and reification of the gender binary. For the chemical reaction to occur, the two ends of the binary must merge. When I consider the explosion, I see the power and potential that exists when the duality of male/female is transcended by the potency of a gender-fluid existence.

“Walls Made of Air.” Witt Fetter

One of your more recent paintings depicts a lone bouncy castle on a lawn that’s been mowed into a perfect checkerboard pattern. How does this painting fit into your exploration of gender and your own childhood?

I’m interested in depicting spaces of containment that simultaneously provide an opportunity for escape and release. As a gender-queer person growing up within the restrictions of the gender binary, I was particularly attuned to the spaces in my environment that allowed me to build my own world free from the confines of what society expected of me. As a structure made of air and plastic and at once both a caged enclosure and a soft cocoon, the bouncy castle juxtaposes the simultaneous experience of confinement and liberation.

There’s No Place Like Home

Back in 2017, your series “There’s No Place Like Home” featured enormous, pastel-colored scenes of American visual culture. One thread throughout the four paintings was your use of “moiré” — whether on JFK’s suit the day of his assassination, Dorothy’s gingham pinafore, the red and white stripes of the American flag, or a TV weather map. Can you explain what moiré is and what it meant in the context of There’s No Place Like Home?

“There’s No Place Like Home” was an attempt to understand the deceitful power of images in contemporary culture. Appropriating images from popular films and television media, I approached the photographic image as a surface that contained a multitude of narrative layers. By representing these images in paint, I sought to visibly render the many strata that subsist on and beneath the surface of the image.

Moiré is a phenomenon that occurs when two identical patterns are overlaid, creating a zig-zag distortion. Moiré is seen in fabric and in the physical world, but the moiré that I am interested in is the result of a digital camera capturing an image of another digital surface. When the pixels of the camera’s resolution meet the pixels of the screen, a distortion occurs, producing a technicolor gauze of parabolic lines and vectors. For me, moiré is a portal into the digital image — a sort of rainbow over Oz that is as elucidating as it is mystical.

“Inversion Layer.” Witt Fetter

I am particularly interested in “Inversion Layer,” which depicts a weather map on television. You painted it right around the 2016 presidential election. What did it mean then? Does it take on a new meaning/renewed relevance in the lead-up to the 2020 election?

In “Inversion Layer” I was again interested in the various layers/meanings that can exist on a single surface. In this case, I took the Earth’s surface as my subject. As we saw in the 2016 election and are seeing again now, physical geography is an incredibly contested and manipulated space, subject to the distortions of gerrymandering and voter suppression. With this painting, I was interested in the way that weather functions as a sort of moiré floating in the hypersphere above American politics. As a natural force that is completely indifferent to the partisan lines drawn across the American landscape, the climate exists in its own dimension. But ultimately, the climate is brought back down to Earth by the politicization of climate change. Weather forecasting is ultimately based in conjecture, and the increasingly erratic weather patterns and turbulent politics of our contemporary moment prove that prediction ultimately has its own limitations.

This originally appeared on Medium.