Breaking boundaries: 'Beyond Binary' at SF State Fine Arts Gallery

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Tuesday October 18, 2022
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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's 'Knees' from the Series 'Mussalmaan Muscleman'
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's 'Knees' from the Series 'Mussalmaan Muscleman'

The timely "Beyond Binary" exhibit of trans and non-binary-identifying artists at the Fine Arts Gallery, San Francisco State University, is on view through Oct. 27.

Curators Sharon E. Bliss, the Fine Arts Gallery Director, Kevin Chen, and Roula Seikaly write in the well-illustrated catalog that the show "originated as a contribution to the Feminist Art Coalition (FAC), a platform that fosters collaborations among art institutions that are committed to social justice and wholesale structural change."

"Beyond Binary" allows trans and non-binary artists to speak for and about themselves, through personal, subjective, autobiographic work, transcending the everyday fraught news: "don't say gay" laws; controversy around bathroom usage, birth certificate updates, minors beginning transitions, trans athletes sports participation, ad nauseam. And androgynous models wearing gender-defying luxury garb in fashion spreads, or Harry Styles donning dresses are likely motivated by commercial considerations, not indicative of cultural shifts toward inclusivity and acceptance.

"Beyond Binary" spans video, wall art including photographs, drawings, and paintings; ceramics sculpture, and installations. One common thread is use of folk and craft traditions: sewing and crochet, "hobby shop" paints, faux-naif technique, paper-cuts, glitter and spray paint. The gallery's relatively compact, open floor plan with several artworks on view at once underscores commonalities among the artists, with an intimacy missing from more blockbuster shows on themes of race and gender

"Beyond Binary" is not especially polemical. There is anger and defiance, but also joy, sly humor, insouciance, poignancy and sadness.

A gaudy video with peppy music, "Have You Ever Seen a Transsexual Before?" featuring the artist Chris E. Vargas scuba-diving amongst bright tropical fish, is placed at the entrance. Vargas is more provocative in the same video, lifting their shirt before icons like the Mormon Church.

The similarly bright "Clown Fish" by Craig Calderwood features a reclining figure buried under flowers and patterns, grinning mouth and hands with long fingernails with textured surfaces of craft store dimensional paint and faux fur.

Craig Calderwood's 'Clown Fish'  

Ben Cuevas's "Duality #1: Masculine/Feminine" has featureless white fiberglass mannequins literally sewn together, in wrap-around fashionable red and gray wool, unifying male and female bodies. Wells Chandler works with crochet — their yin-yang abstracted figurative piece, Pink Lotus, echoed by Jeffrey Cheung, with "Untitled," also exploring the body/gender merging theme. The simple, bold design of two intwined nude figures employs graphic blue outlines and Matisse colors; Shunga erotica put through a blender.

Juliana Huxtable channels more disturbing energy in her gaudy pink "Ari I" digital color print. An ostensibly female gowned figure, viewed from behind, poses on a bold, faux animal print chair, sporting a huge snake-like tail, and reminiscent of the Yoshitoshi print, "Kiyohime Changing into a Serpent at Hidaka River."

Beatrice L. Thomas aka "Black Benatar" strikes an aggressive, almost campy "Don't Mess With Me, Baby!" stance with their "Weapons of Mass Reconstruction #02" installation that includes a full-figured figure sheathed in black.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shows one way of handling men in the quilted piece from his "Mussalmaan Muscleman" series. Black and white photographic images of buff male athletes' bodies are overlaid with colorful, floral-patterned cloth. Is this an artful, even caressing way of taming, defusing maleness/masculinity, or the suggestion of the athletes' duality?

The poignant theme of lost connections, and reenactment as a manifestation of love and longing, is evidenced by Vivek Shraya, in work from her "Trisha" series. She uses rather banal snapshots of her estranged mother as the basis for photographs of herself, in similar settings, poses, and clothing. She writes: "My story has always been bound to your prayer to have 2 boys. I was your first and soft. Did this ever disappoint you? You had also prayed for me to look like Dad, but you forgot to pray for the rest of me."

Juliana Huxtable's 'Ari 1'  

In a similar vein, Alok Vaid-Menon, in the video "Trans/Generation," displays anger and pain, belied by their costume of hair ornament, abundant jewelry, and batik dress. The 4-minute loop is a recitation of violence and hostility toward trans people ("Silence and violence done to us in the name of gender"), and disapproval even from a beloved grandmother, herself a victim of gender. Eli Thorne also mines the theme of sadness and alienation in their faux-naif "He Wished He Had a River to Skate Away On" (referencing the melancholy Joni Mitchell song) and "Rescue Horse," the horse fleeing a landscape in flames, tail and backside on fire.

Trans artist Cassils's video, "Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch" was in the process of being installed during my preview of the exhibit, but a still from the video illustrates the body builder/personal trainer artist's use of the muscular transformation of their body as subject. Cassils's is indebted to the photographs of bodybuilder Lisa Lyons by Robert Mapplethorpe. Leila Weefur, presents a more noir view in a ceiling-mounted black and white video, "A Spell for Dissent," featuring house flies, test tubes, and incantatory voices; disturbing phrases like "I hate myself, and make others suffer for it." David Cronenberg's "The Fly" comes to mind.

Asri Wulandari combines traditional Indonesian shadow puppets, but updated with laser-cut clear plastic illuminated with colored lights. The installation, Wayang Kulit oleh Seorang Bencong, tells the story of "four women with gender dysphoria... liberated by the goddess of race and fertility, Dewi Sri, who... blessed them each with...the gift of womanhood."

Demian DineYazhii' employs shiny, metallic, decorative vinyl text. "Detach Yourself from the Settler Fascist Colonizer Imaginary," with the message "IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO DECOLONIZE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY," is a seductively packaged slap. Like the show itself, it's visually arresting, celebratory, and thought-provoking.

(Nicki Green, MCXT (Monica Canilao and Xara Thustra), E. "Oscar" Maynard, and J Wu also showed work.)

'Beyond Binary' at SF State Fine Arts Gallery, thru Oct. 27. SF State campus, 1600 Holloway.

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