Light Years: Revisiting In A Different Light

5.1 / Half-Century

Light Years: Revisiting In A Different Light

By Glen Helfand, Josh Faught September 11, 2013

Legendary group exhibitions, the ones that seem to reframe art history, are time capsules.

Legendary group exhibitions, the ones that seem to reframe art history, are time capsules. These are collections of objects with meaningful associations to the moment of their public appearance in galleries and exhibition catalogs. A show such as Harald Szeemann’s 1969 When Attitudes Become Form, for example, is often referenced as a benchmark curatorial project, but there are numerous exhibitions that address more specialized concerns, with a more concentrated sphere of influence. Renny Pritikin’s invitation to reconsider In A Different Light—a 1995 show at the UC Berkeley Art Museum co-curated by Nayland Blake and Lawrence Rinder (then the curator of twentieth-century art at BAM/PFA, the institution he now directs)—“for what it did at the time and what it looks like now, retrospectively,” has been a wonderful opportunity to think about a legendary, time-capsule-like show that happened closer to home. The exhibition’s subtitle, Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice, seems only partially dated by its theoretical ambitions and its potential to be cataloged on multiple library shelves. It was a hybrid exhibition, a relatively successful attempt to reframe dialogues and organizing strategies for presenting work by LGBT artists. Blake relays his approach in his catalog essay, noting that after organizing a show of gay and lesbian artists at the late New Langton Arts, “It was difficult to see where to go next, both in terms of gay and lesbian dialogue and my own curatorial practice.”1

When the show opened seventeen years ago, the community it reflected was deeply invested in it; the community was also divided, as tends to happen when the concerns of a living subculture are made visible within an institutional setting. Looking back at the material, primarily through the catalog, it becomes apparent that the show’s makers managed to address sociopolitical and aesthetic concerns via astute selections and contextual frameworks—clusters of artworks and objects that created a narrative of identity that was more associative than dogmatic.

To address the editorial structure of this issue of Art Practical, this text takes the form of a dialogue. I was there and took part in the discussions surrounding the exhibit, but I hadn’t thought about it much recently. To consider how the show’s innovations have fared over the years, I asked Josh Faught, an artist of a younger generation whose work conflates affects, styles, and agendas from multiple moments in queer histories, if he would be interested in having a conversation about In A Different Light. He didn’t know much about the exhibition: “My only real relationship to the San Francisco queer community at the time was through listening to records and watching Pedro Zamora on MTV’s The Real World…From my remote Midwestern location, the culture here at the time seemed radical and dynamic. Perhaps it appeared more radical then than it does now.” What follows is our conversation, conducted on June 10, 2013, on the exhibition and the general shifts in queer cultural production.   

—Glen Helfand

Vincent Fecteau. Chorus #2, 1994; collage, hot glue. Courtesy of the Artist and Wayne Smith. Image: Vincent Fecteau.

Glen Helfand (GH): I very much remember this show, not for its specifics but for the feeling of it and role it played when it opened: there hadn’t really been anything like it. It’s interesting to be looking through this catalog now and to recall the exhibition, noting the range of artists—some forgotten and others surprisingly relevant, still—but mostly it seems that not much has changed since 1995 in terms of curatorial direction and the representation of queer art.

Josh Faught (JF): Absolutely. A number of themes are still quite relevant: the tensions in conceiving an individual identity versus a collective identity, questions around queer sensibilities, radicalism in the face of assimilation. In this regard, I couldn’t determine whether I found a sense of support, in the way this exhibition felt so ahead of its time, or whether I felt a sense of alarm. Are we, as queer makers, experiencing a kind of cultural Groundhog Day, in the Bill Murray sense of the term?  

Are we, as queer makers, experiencing a kind of cultural Groundhog Day, in the Bill Murray sense of the term?  

GH: That movie did come out about that time, so that is an interesting reference: a populist entertainment that had much appeal to artists and thinkers. And Bill Murray did play his one gay character in Ed Wood which was made in 1994. Perhaps because I saw the exhibition and was connected to the dialogues and many of the artists involved, I find there is something heartening in the way that it has held up. It seems there are well-chosen works and pieces that continue to seem relevant or are keystones in the artists’ careers. There was a recent essay by Bruce Hainley in Artforum on Monica Majoli, illustrated with paintings that were seen in that show. In the essay, her work is not contextualized as about identity but rather in more nuanced, formal terms. But perhaps what the show did was more innovative, in regards to a curatorial approach. That’s what still feels fresh about the show, more than the way it addressed concerns around LGBT issues.

The structure of In A Different Light was very literary and narrative, and as I recall the arrangements in the galleries, it had a wonderfully smart sensibility of association. You could tell the curators took a lot of pleasure in making the connections. It seemed very reflective of Nayland’s artistic practice, of his eye for art and popular culture. The fact that it was curated collaboratively also seems prescient in these days of team-organized Whitney Biennials.

JF: Further to the strength of this curatorial strategy: I appreciate Nayland’s comments in the introduction to the catalog, in which he writes, “The works in the exhibition formed a new map that is the result of ‘wandering.’”2 There’s something open-ended, expansive, and curious about this kind of meandering, where adjacencies, in the Benjaminian sense, between themes and works can be played with in a way that doesn’t demand a political urgency or mandate.3 The continuum between personal and political practices felt refreshingly fluid. I also appreciate the intergenerational approach to the works. In many ways, queer communities today feel so customized, niched, and closed down. There’s a cynicism felt between generations of queer-identifying makers rather than a synergy or a sense of continuum.

Deborah Kass. Double Blue Barbara, 1992; silkscreen on canvas; 45 x 72 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.

GH: Nayland and Larry seemed to be on to something when they used the frame of human connection, of moving from the void of the self to ideas of difference and relationships. Those ideas resonate with the current political dialogues about the progress of marriage equality. From this cultural moment, it’s difficult to tap into the excitement and urgency with which queerness entered the popular culture in the early 1990s: Madonna courting underground sexuality, the term “new queer cinema” that B. Ruby Rich coined in 1992. I recall going to a gay protest of the Oscars outside Spago in Los Angeles, with the ire focused on Jodie Foster, though everyone was silenced by awe when Liza Minnelli hit the red carpet! There was an imperative to stake a more visible claim to culture, both high and low. In A Different Light spoke to the idea of otherness in artistic identity and conversation, opening up a universe of associations to broader scrutiny. At this point, I also appreciate the way that the arc of the show built towards a sense of celebration, of the orgy. That spirit suggests an explosion of old ideas and making room for an enlarged view.

JF: I love the idea of the orgy being the means by which queer themes are rendered visible by the largest number of participants. It completely confounds the notion of the critical mass as an assimilated whole. I also found Larry’s comment in the introduction quite compelling: “If identifiable gay or lesbian aesthetic styles or sensibilities exist, they exist in multiplicity and in complex intersection with mainstream art practice.”4 It sets up the possibility for a new vernacular around queer affect: a promiscuous affect, which includes the otherwise normative mechanisms of mass culture. I keep coming back to the work of someone like Darren Bader, who just recently won the Calder Prize—thinking about his rancid burritos on the ledge at MoMA PS1, and the cats running around the space, and how they can be read as queer gestures.

It has always struck me that San Francisco has not had a more nuanced queer gallery scene. 

GH: Indeed, and yet those kinds of gestures can read as being so insular—or is it that the notion of difference has found a means of acceptance that isn’t visibly sexualized? (Though I suppose there’s always something abject about plump burritos, and they are so identified with San Francisco!) I’m reminded of Nao Bustamante’s 1992 strap-on-burrito performance that was couched much more in gender and racial politics than queer gestures, but it was just that. It probably was a fairly radical gesture for Nayland and Larry to steer the show in a direction that was more political in an aesthetic realm than in an activist one. They were working within a lineage that was so politicized; I appreciate the catalog’s notes on other shows that served as precedents, to reflect the cross-generational aspect of their approach.

And yet, in so many of the essays, other curators note the resentment of artists withdrawing for political reasons. I was taken by the notes on the Against Nature show that was curated by Richard Hawkins and Dennis Cooper: from the start they didn’t want to include ACT-UP and similar groups. Hawkins and Cooper were at once avoiding conflict and making a pointed gesture. In a sense, the approach of In A Different Light bypassed some of those concerns. Though it was interesting to revisit the bit of controversy around the Lyle Ashton Harris photograph, in which an arts administrator, who happened to be in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s bathroom at the same time as a drag queen, brought legal proceedings to have his image removed from the catalog; that’s why there are stickers on that page. There must have been sticker parties to cover the thing over. Or to hear stories: Judie Bamber noted in a recent talk at the San Francisco Art Institute that she had to argue her way into a book on lesbian artists put together by Harmony Hammond.

The show also seems so connected to that particular site, the Brutalist architecture of a building that the museum won’t occupy for much longer. The exhibition never traveled. It has always struck me that San Francisco has not had a more nuanced queer gallery scene. There wasn’t much else besides the now legendary Kiki Gallery, which showed a number of the artists represented in In A Different Light. In some ways, the show expanded the activity that happened in that gallery and placed a generation of artists in a broader context. I see this most in the artists who were working in San Francisco at the time; there was a real reflection of the community in the exhibition. We never had anything like John Connelly Presents, but that speaks to the Bay Area’s identity as a place of experimentation and not necessarily as an art market.

John de Fazio. Top Elf, 1991; LSD-glazed earthenware; 18 x 17 x 12 in. Courtesy of Dr. Tom Folk.

JF: That’s so strange. As someone who was sixteen when In A Different Light was conceived, I always imagined the queer community in San Francisco at the time to be the most radical and dynamic. From the perspective of my St. Louis, Missouri, bedroom, I was always enamored of the queer cultural production in San Francisco, particularly as it related to the punk scene: Tribe 8, Team Dresch, Pansy Division, Outpunk. It’s funny that you mention John Connelly Presents, however. I feel as though there’s something that happened along this continuum in the mid-Oughts, with John Connelly Presents, Peres Projects, Daniel Reich Gallery, and the Whitney Biennial in 2004, that represented a shift or a resurgence of queer-identified practices. I remember two really fantastic essays in that particular Biennial catalog, one called “Fag Limbo” by Wayne Koestenbaum and another called “The Way Things Never Were: Nostalgia’s Possibilities and the Unpredictable Past” by Debra Singer, which spoke about new queer practices as they related to issues of craft, nostalgia, and psychedelia. It was really at this time that I also began to consider my work in relationship to these ideas. I can’t tell, however, if these works represented vapid styles of the moment or whether these themes have endured in practices emerging right now.

GH: My sense is there is a sense of endurance; much of the work still looks fairly fresh. The thing that I’m uncertain about is if younger artists are conscious of the precedents.

JF: There’s something very real about the way amnesia works among queer artists today. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of communities today: they are really fragmentary, almost to the point where an individual serves as a solipsistic community.

GH: That’s always the case, don’t you think? I like the fact that Nicole Eisenman has a show at the Berkeley Art Museum. Her work in In A Different Light was so much about abundance and community, in a formal way (those piles of writhing bodies!), while her current work depicts that sense of connection in another manner, one that is much more about painting and maybe her abundant wit. It’s still so indelibly her world, though.

One thing that also resonates, in thinking back to the mid-1990s, is the literary component of the project. The catalog has prose that is a clear reflection of Amy Scholder and High Risk Books; the form of the anthology was so much more present, and the exhibition echoes that sensibility or approach. Amy co-edited the catalog with Larry and Nayland, and the latter part of the book is literary work. Do you see much of that in younger artists’ or editors’ projects? Is it embedded in social practices? Is there enough queer social practice?

JF: Do you mean, like, poetry slams?

GH: Spoken word at sex clubs!

JF: All kidding aside, however, I do think that institutions such as Printed Matter have helped bridge this gap for quite a while. I’m also thinking about practitioners like the artist collective LTTR and Emily Roysdon, who are working between curating, social practice, and writing. In A Different Light seemed unique, however, in that it so seamlessly engaged curatorial practice, prose, and object making in a similarly generative vein. Perhaps this has something to do with Nayland’s comment that the mid-1990s marked an unusual flip, when activists became artists.

The digital-culture boom...provided another kind of orgy of possibility.

GH: It may seem obvious, but we have to contextualize this show in relation to the digital-culture boom that was beginning to eclipse queer culture in the Bay Area. The Internet provided a new means of the solo worldviews that you mentioned. It provided another kind of orgy of possibility. And perhaps it’s no surprise that Nayland has made such good use of his online presence in subsequent years, very much presenting himself as someone available to younger generations of artists. High Risk Books published objects that followed earlier distribution models. The bookstore A Different Light, which was obviously referenced in the title of the exhibition, went out of business in 2011, as did many other gay bookstores. That business model just doesn’t exist any more. That used to be a locus of culture and community, and you can’t deny that the role of such sites has shifted drastically since the mid-1990s.

Your mention of Printed Matter also brings AA Bronson to the fore in this conversation. General Idea is well represented in In A Different Light, and Bronson continues to be an iconic figure in terms of queer and artistic communities, and he often collaborates with younger artists.

JF: Both Nayland and AA have the unique ability to tap into the zeitgeist of generational concerns. They have also managed to successfully shape their practices in ways that reflect their previous works while remaining current and relevant. I appreciate your comment about the role of the Internet in shaping communities or cultural production. It makes me think of the success of artists like Ryan Trecartin or Kalup Linzy, both of whom incorporate the schizophrenic nature of Internet expression either explicitly or implicitly in their works, as they attempt to construct and transmit identity through or on this precariously amorphous platform.

GH: Ryan has his own YouTube channel. Channel is such an interesting term: so fitting generationally but so much about amorphousness, something transmitted through air, as Ryan’s sensibility seems to be. And while his work is totally queer, it isn’t always discussed in that arena. Interestingly, there wasn’t much video work in In A Different Light.

Nayland Blake, Lawrence Rinder, and Amy Scholder, In A Different Light exhibition catalogue cover (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995).

JF: Indeed, it looks as though both video and performance were somewhat neglected in the exhibition. It makes me think about the means by which identities have been conceived in such immaterial ways today. Or rather, there appear to be two trends in the art world today: one that moves closer to materiality, formal presentation, and objecthood and another that embraces queerness as a specter, an immaterial presence through performance, social practice, Internet activity, or abstraction.

GH: Video perhaps has a more embedded sense of narrative than static work—or do you see film and video work that is more abstract? Michael Robinson might be an interesting example, particularly in his most recent work in which narratives, and indeed glittery drag, is pulled into a narrative that is incredibly loose. I’m intrigued by his work as a generational expression, which is at once ironic and deeply sincere. It does seem to have that specter you mention: it’s difficult to identify exactly what it is that is going on, yet it’s very specific.

JF: Funny, Michael Robinson actually did a piece called Carol Anne is Dead (2008), in which he reworks found video footage in which he and his family recreate scenes from Poltergeist in drag. I love that queerness is what’s haunting the video more than the ghosts from Poltergeist. But I’m really fascinated by the ways that Robinson’s work can feel just as fresh or relevant in its articulation of queer sensibilities as someone like Matt Connors or Vincent Fecteau, neither of whom identify the structures around their work as distinctly queer.

Michael Robinson. Carol Anne is Dead, 2008 (video still); color video; 7:30. Courtesy of the Artist.

GH: Vince’s work in In A Different Light, his little tower of cat pictures, was more identifiably campy, so it’s interesting to note the more abstract mode it took on, soon after.

We can’t not talk about the role of Postmodernism in In A Different Light, which so clearly expresses the way that queer artists were able to enter a dialogue forged in the ’80s by the Pictures Generation artists, Jeff Koons, and others. The insertion of identity into referentiality is so apparent in looking at the works: Robert Indiana’s LOVE being reinterpreted as AIDS by General Idea, Deborah Kass reworking Warhol, Sherrie Levine being aped by Amy Adler. It seems to be so much about echoes and acts of remaking and rethinking history. There are also strong connections to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, when Glenn Ligon showed The Black Book. In A Different Light occurred just two years later, so clearly Larry and Nayland were responding to the Biennial in fairly direct ways.

JF: And similarly the 2004 Biennial looked back on history and the use of appropriation to explore utopia or the possibility of generational transcendence or remaking: Virgil Marti screenprinted 1960s-style, drug-induced spider webs on Mylar; Christian Holstad constructed a 1970s-tinged installation as an homage to “rebellious spirits everywhere”; and Tom Burr reworked the minimalist cube as a foil for a 1980s Cruising-era leather bar.

I guess, in the end, I’m asking more questions than drawing more conclusions.

GH: I agree, and yet I think that looking at the show has been useful. We lack this kind of art history. Someone will write a thesis about it (it’s probably already happened). In A Different Light was a groundbreaking show, but I’m not sure it got its due. It may be a historical footnote based on its location, but looking through the catalog now, I’m inspired and happy that I was able to experience it firsthand.


  1. Nayland Blake, Lawrence Rinder, Amy Scholder, eds. In A Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice  (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995. Accessed June 10, 2013. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. See Walter Benjamin, quoted in Richard Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 24.
  4. Ibid., Blake, Rinder, Scholder.

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