In 1995, Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake curated the now famous queer-themed show In a Different Light at the Berkeley Art Museum. The show explored twentieth-century gay and lesbian experience, with an emphasis on the coming-out process. That was, of course, a very different time. Long-entrenched homophobia was exacerbated by anxieties related to the AIDS crisis (the first effective antiretroviral drug would appear the following year). Amidst this hostile environment, the queer community nurtured a group of unapologetically radical artists, such as Catherine Opie, who would later emerge as the most well-known. In one photograph, Opie created a childlike house-and-family line-drawing, where both parents are female; what took people's breath away was that her cute little lesbian image was literally carved into her own flesh. (Who says that the pen is mightier than the sword?)
Since 1995, thousands of Americans have come out; the majority of Americans now state that someone "close to them" is gay, and lesbian mom movies are mainstream blockbusters. So are we "post-closet"? What does activism look and feel like in 2010? Where does joy factor into the "out" experience, and is separatism a viable option? How do labor, food, and gentrification rank within the queer community? And how do these shifts get expressed in radical visual culture?
SF Camerawork's fall exhibition, Suggestions of Life Being Lived, addresses these questions; in doing so, it revisits some of the terrain carved out by In a Different Light. Emerging curators Danny Orendorff and Adrienne Skye Roberts include sixteen artists and artist groups (five are local), working across photography, film, video, activism and education. If In a Different Light opened the closet door, Suggestions of Life Being Lived walks out of the closet altogether, and inhabits the living room.
The most effective works are in the middle gallery, which features humorous and nuanced back-to-back video installations/viewing environments. Allyson Mitchell, a Canadian sculptor and video artist, has produced five continuously looping videos (try Free! Bake! Sale!, Chow Down, and My Life In Five Minutes), which focus on body image, consumption, and fat activism. The videos are viewed from inside a hut constructed on a floor of abandoned afghans, quilts and other textiles. In creating a womb-like habitat within the gallery, Mitchell manages to pay sardonic homage to the culture of lesbian domesticity, separatism, and craft.
Across from Mitchell's installation is a piece by Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans, fittingly titled Falling in Love With Chris and Greg. The couple has produced and performed in a series of short couples-sitcom satires (viewable at fallinginlovewithchrisandgreg.com), which also play here on a loop. The videos explore gay marriage and transgender divides alongside awkward blind dates and lactose intolerance. Like the videos, the "living-room" installation blends the ironic and the earnest; I can't decide if I'm supposed to share in a laugh or a sneer. This discomfort is deeply effective.
The curators describe the exhibition as: "embodying intentional and imagined communities, self-determinism, and DIY alternative world-making." That's a big promise, and these two projects nail the humor, intentionality, and challenges of the "post-closet" world. Queer radicalism has indeed shifted in the last 15 years -- less "I'm here, I'm queer, get used to it" and more engaged with the multiplicity of identity and with irony in daily life -- and the curators have approached the topic with dynamism and sensitivity. Sit down on the loveseat and have a view for yourself.
Suggestions of Life Being Lived opens tonight and runs through October 23, 2010 at SF Camerawork. For more information visit sfcamerawork.org.