'Queer Threads' exhibit opens in San Jose

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday May 11, 2023
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John Chaich, gay New York-based independent curator and founder of "Queer Threads," stands in front of "Secrets of Greenmont West, 2019" created by San Francisco Bay Area artist collaborative RoCoCo. Photo: Heather Cassell
John Chaich, gay New York-based independent curator and founder of "Queer Threads," stands in front of "Secrets of Greenmont West, 2019" created by San Francisco Bay Area artist collaborative RoCoCo. Photo: Heather Cassell

The highly anticipated "Queer Threads" exhibit makes its Northern California debut at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles May 12.

The exhibit features the works of 37 San Francisco Bay Area emerging and established queer artists and opens with a free public reception that evening, where attendees will be able to meet John Chaich, the creator of "Queer Threads," and some of the artists.

A panel discussion with four artists moderated by Chaich, a gay New York-based independent curator, will follow on May 13, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The panel will feature artists Alexander Hernández (San Francisco) "Hide and Seek, 2021," Angie Wilson (Oakland) "Hand Knotted #1, 2011," and Seattle-based artist Molly Jae Vaughan. The panelists will talk about the intergenerational and intersectional range of works featured in the exhibit and "Queer Threads."

The show runs through August 20.

Programming around the exhibit is still being developed, said Chaich and Christine "Chris" Salinas, the museum's development director.

According to the museum's April 17 news release, the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles celebrates and preserves the art of quilts and textiles. More than 100,000 visitors have viewed its collections and exhibits during its 46-year history.

"'Queer Threads' affirms our museum's commitment to sharing the power of quilts and textiles in engaging communities and connecting their histories," Andrea Temkin, interim museum director, stated.

"We have always said that our museum is for everyone," Salinas told the Bay Area Reporter. The museum operates on an annual budget of $750,000.

Pointing to the current anti-LGBTQ climate in the country, Salinas said that the exhibit is timely by "making sure that we highlight the work of artists from various communities," especially from the queer and transgender communities.

The B.A.R. spoke with Chaich and five of the artists, including John Cunningham, the chief executive officer of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, which loaned the block memorializing gay Black singer Sylvester James to the museum for the exhibit ahead of the "Queer Threads" opening. Sylvester, known for his disco hit "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," died from AIDS complications in 1988.

The artists spoke about their works and being a part of "Queer Threads." Chaich spoke about the inspiration behind "Queer Threads," what's different about San Jose's iteration of the exhibit, and what he hopes audiences will get out of viewing the show.

Stitching queer stories

"Queer Threads" first exhibited nearly a decade ago at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, New York City's LGBTQ art gallery. Since its debut in 2014, Chaich said the show has traveled around the U.S., appearing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 2015/2016, and at Arcana Books as a mini exhibit in Los Angeles. During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, "Queer Threads" pivoted, collaborating with American University to exhibit installations in two storefront windows in Washington, D.C. with a series of virtual discussions.

The San Jose exhibit was delayed twice due to COVID.

"Queer Threads" also became a coffee table book featuring works from the original exhibit along with additional artists' works.

Chaich, 50, who has worked with queer artists for most of his other exhibits, pinpointed three areas of inspiration for "Queer Threads." First, his interest in craft and quilting stretches back to his mother and grandmother's crochet, embroidery, knitting, and quilt works.

"I always was surrounded by all these fibers and textiles and so admired the work and care they put into it," he said. "That matrilineal level of just the creativity, beauty, and kind of meditative process that it was for them just was always surrounding me."

Second, coming out as a gay man in the early 1990s and seeing the AIDS quilt laid out on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. "was profoundly moving to me," he said.

Cunningham called the AIDS Memorial Quilt "one of the most powerful activist tools ever created." From the moment it was unrolled "on the front lawn of America" at the National Mall at the LGBTQ March on Washington in 1987 the AIDS crisis could no longer be ignored, he told the B.A.R.

"The quilt will continue to remind society of how corrosive stigma and discrimination is and how powerful the antidote of love, compassion, and art are," he said.

The quilt's impact on Chaich wasn't just because of the HIV/AIDS crisis, but also "this tremendous piece of textile art." The "message was very influential for me and understanding the power of what fiber and textile can uniquely do in that public space around a social cause intrinsically connected to my gay identity at the time," he said.

The AIDS quilt was co-founded by gay activists Cleve Jones and Mike Smith and straight ally Gert McMullin.

Chaich said his final point was the third wave feminist movement's taking back craft with feminist magazine Bust publisher and editor Debbie Stoller's "Stitch and Bitch" series, "reclaiming the domestic and being empowered through that and that intersection of queerness and feminism."

"In some ways, that kind of third wave feminist taking back of the craft tied me back to my matrilineal influence," he said.

Taking his curator eye to fiber and textiles, Chaich found himself continually asking, "Why are so many queer artists drawn to this medium? What's so queer about threads for artists and their practice?"

"I don't think I have the answer yet, but it's one of the core curiosities that drives my own attachment in exploration of the project," he said.

He's found through "Queer Threads" that audiences respond to the materials being used and how the artists are using those items to craft their artwork.

"I think the way that queer artists are working with fiber and textile to ask questions about our identity, politics, interactions, and relationships, and the spaces we make and try to change, strikes a real chord with audiences," he said. That "particularly through the medium that seems really intimate, inspiring, and connecting, but still somehow critical, and eye opening for many audiences."

San Francisco-based transgender bisexual Latina artist Lola Corona's "Lacing, 2007," wool, recycled lingerie, silk, and poly-fil, 14 x 10 x 5 inches. Photo: Courtesy of "Queer Threads"  

One example is Lola Corona's "Lacing, 2007." The knit boxing gloves play with femininity and masculinity, taking a tool used in a violent sport inspired by her youth and turning it into something feminine and warm.

"They didn't want to necessarily punch somebody with it," Corona, a 37-year-old bisexual transgender Latina, said of a pair of red and black gloves created for guests to interact with at a previous exhibit. "They wanted to rub their face against it."

The black and red gloves, which are a part of the series, aren't a part of this exhibit. The cream and brown gloves will be on display, said the San Francisco-based artist, speaking with the B.A.R. in a video call from London where she was on a trip doing research for an embroidery program she started in January.

The exhibit
Chaich is excited about this iteration of "Queer Threads" and working with Bay Area artists — many of whom work at California College of the Arts — whom he's admired for years from afar in New York, he told the B.A.R.

"This is the first time these works are being shown together this way," he said, and the themes that are emerging are forming "a real kind of healing arc in this version of the exhibition."

Chaich said the works explore violence against transgender women, the Pulse nightclub massacre, the impact of HIV/AIDS on Black and Brown men, as well as pop culture and the community's campiness, joy, and playfulness.

The exhibit also shows "how we heal through that and still can envision a sense of a queer future," he said.

It was important for Chaich to connect the exhibit with the Bay Area's rich culture and history of social justice and honor the AIDS quilt's birthplace in San Francisco.

"It was important to me to ... keeping that regional reference alive as a reminder of the role of how much activism [and] cultural production was born here and how it's inspired global movements," he said.

New artists, works
The exhibit is filled with many new works and new artists who haven't participated with "Queer Threads" before, and there are also some artists who have been with the exhibit from the beginning, but are showing new works, Chaich said.

One of the new works in the exhibit is "Secrets of Greenmont West, 2019" by collaborative RoCoCo, comprised of San Jose native gay Latinx artist Modesto Covarrubias and Oakland-based ally artist KC Rosenberg. The textile painting is the only one that explores San Jose history and queer identity.

Covarrubias, 56, was born and raised in East San Jose, but now lives in Berkeley. His family moved to the Greenmont West housing development in the 1970s, which became the subject of RoCoCo's piece in the exhibit. The artwork was created during the team's 2017 residency at the museum.

The work explores heteronormativity in the planned community built for nuclear families, yet an unspoken queerness in his Mexican American family was all around Covarrubias with LGBTQ aunts, uncles, and cousins who simply existed but their queer existence was not spoken or named, he said.

Covarrubias said he moved away from San Jose when he was 17 years old, finding LGBTQ community in Berkeley and San Francisco. It was only through accidental discovery and returning home through creating the artwork decades later that he rediscovered how queer his family is, and always was, in the middle of a straight Latino world.

"None of it is at the forefront. It all kind of reveals itself through the making, but it isn't made because of all of that," he said. "I had to rediscover it and then also rediscover it within my own family, not realizing the cues of certain things within my family.

"You can leave home and never come home again. You get to rediscover it in a way and learn so much and realize that you had all this support without realizing it," said Covarrubias about returning with new eyes and understanding.

The piece also addresses natural resources. The community was built above natural aquifers on former Indigenous land. It was also an agricultural hub, as Silicon Valley was once known as the "fruit basket" of the country before it became the heart of innovation.

San Jose, the Bay Area's largest city, is also the more conservative neighbor to San Francisco and Oakland, which are more progressive, Covarrubias noted. Having the local museum host "Queer Threads" is a sign of San Jose's changing social landscape.

"San Jose has always been super conservative compared to those two other cities as far as social structures," Covarrubias said, stating it is important that the exhibit opens in the South Bay. "I think we've seen that change too."

California Humanities is supporting the exhibit. Outgoing Executive Director Julie Fry said they liked that the exhibit had locally based artists participating, particularly Covarrubias, and also was "expanding the voice" of the LGBTQ community.

"I think that this is an opportunity to show the LGBTQ+ community beyond [the AIDS quilt] in a contemporary way creatively looking at different art forms, exploring ways of expressing their individuality and their voices in a way that I don't think we see often enough," Fry told the B.A.R. in a video call from Paris. "This is a really nice way of talking about the issues that concern [the LGBTQ community]" in an accessible way in a "very tactile, visual type of art form."

Chaich is excited about seeing artists' works "who have been in every iteration on view again, with either similar or different works like James Gobel," Chaich said about returning "Queer Threads" artists' pieces included in the show.

"It's exciting to keep refreshing the voice that his work brings into the exhibition," he added.

Gobel, 51, a San Francisco-based gay artist, has been a part of "Queer Threads" from the beginning but is now showing a never before seen work, "Robert the Tailor after Giovanni Battista Moroni, 2021."

The work is a portrait of New York fashion designer Robert Tagliapietra painted using mixed craft materials such as felt and yarn, with acrylic onto canvases, in the style of 16th century Italian Renaissance painter George Batista Moroni's still lifes.

Chaich hopes the exhibit touches audiences exploring both the complex and painful aspects of being queer and what the community faces as well as its creativity and joy.

"I hope that if the show is doing that for me in organizing it, I hope that it can for audiences too," he said.

Also supporting the exhibit are Applied Materials Foundation and Horizons Foundation.

The reception runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 12.

The museum, located at 520 S. 1st Street in San Jose, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fridays through Sundays, and 6 to 9 p.m. every first Friday. General admission is $10 adult/non-members; $8 for seniors, students, and teachers; $5 for Smithsonian adults; and free every first Friday.

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