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A Personal Transformation Becomes Public in ‘Surface Tension’

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Installation view of Joseph Liatela's 'Surface Tension' at the Center for Sex & Culture.  (Kimberley Acebo Arteche)

In early 2017, San Francisco-based curator Dorothy R. Santos witnessed a performance by multimedia artist Joseph Liatela at the opening reception for We’re Still Working: The Art of Sex Work at San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center. Santos, who maintains a dynamic creative practice focused on digital art and the overlap of biology and technology, immediately approached Liatela about a possible collaboration.

That first dialogue lead to additional conversations about visibility, surveillance, and how identity that rejects oppressive binary definition may be portrayed in contemporary art. Open through Feb. 16 at the Center for Sex & Culture, Surface Tension — Liatela’s first solo exhibition — represents their year-long collaboration with Santos, and visualizes a potent personal transformation.

Joseph Liatela, Installation view of 'Surface Tension I-IV,' 2017.
Joseph Liatela, Installation view of ‘Surface Tension I-IV,’ 2017. (Kimberley Acebo Arteche)

I arrive at the Center for Sex & Culture (CSC) with enough time to view the installation before interviewing Liatela and Santos. Hung opposite the small but solid library and media archive for which the Center is known worldwide, Surface Tension I-IV immediately draws my attention. Printed on swaths of silk and organza suspended from the ceiling, the four photo objects invite us to witness the gradual shedding of Liatela’s identity as they transitioned.

The organza, draped delicately like a diaphanous blouse that barely masks the artist’s evolving form, is absent from the sequence’s final image. What is revealed is the artist’s altered torso, chest proud and arms spread wide, unburdened by disguise. It captures, with subtlety and precision, a range of emotions — trepidation, joy, relief — that many transgender people feel when exposing the body that fits them to the world at large.

Any movement in the gallery causes the objects to flutter gently, a quality made more notable by the not-so-gentle surgical scars revealed in the photographs and the sutures that bind the tensile materials. Liatela and Santos both aver violence is an element in the work.


But rather than associate that violence with harmful (though recently modified) medical perspectives that link a desire to transition to mental illness, Liatela views the ruptured silk surface as symbolic of a physical and emotional breakthrough. In other words, out of violence emerges new growth and new life.

Joseph Liatela, Installation view of 'Cloaked,' 2017.
Joseph Liatela, Installation view of ‘Cloaked,’ 2017. (Kimberley Acebo Arteche)

A sculpture called Cloaked anchors the exhibition. Comprising disparate materials, including latex, nylon, and archival photo transfers, the sculpture hangs from an intimidating metal hook and spreads across the floor in a way that makes visitors aware of their own movements in the space.

Where Surface Tension I-IV suggests motion, Cloaked appears leaden despite the relatively light materials Liatela used in its construction. The piece demands a physical and psychological reckoning.

The piece — and its creation by an artist whose identity results in automatic social marginalization — reminds me of Angela Hennessy’s Black Hole, which was on view recently in her superb solo exhibition at Southern Exposure. Both Cloaked and Black Hole elicit psychological responses similar to those created by Richard Serra’s imposing floor pieces, an effect intensified by knowing Hennessy and Liatela aren’t the artists (white, male-identified, gruff) traditionally encouraged to take up space.

Joseph Liatela, 'Cloaked (detail),' 2017.
Joseph Liatela, ‘Cloaked (detail),’ 2017. (Kimberley Acebo Arteche)

Surface Tension reveals one person’s singular and personal journey through transition and the psycho-physiological effects of that journey. If our brief view of that experience is the sole takeaway from the exhibition, it would be a triumph.

Liatela and Santos go beyond the personal, however, and encourage us to think about critical issues that impact all of our lives, but especially those of trans men and women: surveillance, or who is welcome in public spaces; the medical establishment and how it is implicated in determining who receives treatment and at what cost; bodily sovereignty, and how it’s no one’s business what do you or don’t have between your legs.

‘Surface Tension’ is on view at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco through Feb. 16, 2018. A conversation between the artist and theorist Julian Carter takes place Feb. 5 at 7pm. For more information, click here.

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