LGBT art show asks: what’s next?

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Tuesday September 21, 2010
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Work by Aay Preston-Myint, part of Suggestions of a Life Being Lived. Photo: Courtesy SF Camerawork
Work by Aay Preston-Myint, part of Suggestions of a Life Being Lived. Photo: Courtesy SF Camerawork

If there were any doubt, one look at SF Camerawork's queer-themed show Suggestions of a Life Being Lived confirms that times have indeed changed, at least for some.

The exhibition's guest curators, both of whom are under 30 and part of a younger generation, pick up where In a Different Light, Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake's groundbreaking 1995 show of works by radical, fearless artists at the Berkeley Art Museum, left off.

The BAM exhibit arrived on the scene during a different era and in a combustible climate laced with a potent cocktail of homophobia and the terror of AIDS. It focused on coming-out narratives of gays and lesbians when assertions of queerness constituted acts of defiance and bravery.

Fast-forward to 2010 and a less repressive, closeted context: Suggestions takes queer identity as a given, and with "outness" no longer a pressing issue, moves into the realm of political activism, beyond dominant gay and lesbian culture, and implicitly asks: What's next?

A departure from the gallery's usual fare, the show includes photography, film, video and installations (as well as flyers and artifacts, like the ephemera assembled from Gay Shame's theatrical direct actions) which are expressions of activism, independent adventures in community, loosely formed alliances and experiments in alternative living.

Works by 16 artists and artist collectives are divided into three broad thematic sections: the public arena as a site for protest, education and affection; self-organized communities, intentional and imagined; Utopian worlds and the performance of self-determination.

Designing an exhibit to advance a socio-political thesis, however well-founded or free from dogmatism, is a tricky proposition and has its pitfalls, as demonstrated by a show whose theoretical/philosophical underpinnings are its least persuasive feature. Art has power on its own terms to engage and move the viewer; but for the most part here, artistic considerations take a back seat to political ones. One can only imagine the impact if those priorities were on equal footing.

In the best instances, artists wed their talent to salient points. The first gallery displays excerpts from Steven Miller's Reclamations, a group of staged color photographs capturing "forbidden" affection between men in public places such as one in which a young father, walking on the street with his child, eyes two men stealing a furtive kiss in an alleyway. In another, lovers clutch each other next to the supply racks in a warehouse. But the couple making out in the backseat of a bus, undeterred by their fellow passengers, speaks to bravado beyond politics or sexual orientation. Has anyone tried this on Muni? While taboos may be oppressive, Miller seems to suggest, it can be thrilling to break them. The "transgressive actions" of his subjects, he writes, "made mundane locales into sexually charged spaces."

Humor and parody triumph in the show's most enjoyable and effective works. Canadian provocateur Allyson Mitchell, a self-described maximalist artist, fat activist and member of Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, blends feminism, the tyranny of pop culture, autobiography, sexuality, food and body image into an amusing, thought-provoking brew that nonetheless has an edge. A homey, makeshift tent made of patchwork afghan blankets with a sign on top that reads "Pride is a Pyramid Scheme" doubles as a low-tech screening room for a loop of the artist's short films: Free! Bake! Sale!, My Life in 5 Minutes, Chow Down, Unca Trans and Candy Love. Mitchell, a video artist and sculptor, also uses found textiles and abandoned craft. "Lady Sasquatch," whose image leaps out from a fiber-rug square, is Mitchell's well-fortified, hairy answer to the toned, smooth-skinned centerfolds favored by Playboy.

Across the way, you can sit on a sofa and watch Falling in Love with Chris and Greg, a satiric, gay soap-opera/reality show produced by and starring Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans. In episodic format, it chronicles the ups and downs of this real-life, overeducated, odd couple - one is a liberal, one is a radical; one is transgendered, the other is not. (Youmans has a Ph.D. from UCSC's History of Consciousness program, while Vargas, who appears to be the more easygoing of the two, is a filmmaker. Eric Stanley and Vargas' Criminal Queers screens Oct. 5-23.) A drawing of the pair by Jason Fritz hangs on the wall of an ersatz living room where video episodes play in rotation.

Though they don't seem to have much in common, Chris and Greg somehow soldier on, tackling thorny issues which, in their very mundanity, represent a sign of progress: open relationships, Canadianism, lactose intolerance, the horror of receding hairlines, gay marriage and pregnant men, though not necessarily in that order.

Suggestions of a Life Being Lived, at SF Camerawork through Oct. 23. Info: or (415) 512-2020