Reading Erasures in the Bay Area’s Queer Arts Community

5.2 / Readership

Reading Erasures in the Bay Area’s Queer Arts Community

By Emily K. Holmes, Anton Stuebner December 4, 2013

A Conversation

In 1993, Kiki Gallery opened in San Francisco’s Mission District. Founded by the artist and activist Rick Jacobsen, the space provided an outlet for artists whose creative practice had been directly impacted by the AIDS crisis. Closing after just eighteen months, the gallery exhibited work by prominent queer practitioners in the country, such as Nayland Blake, Kevin Killian, Catherine Opie, and Karla Milosevich. In 2008, the gallery Ratio 3, also located in the Mission District, presented Kiki: The Proof Is In The Pudding, a retrospective exhibition offering a critical appraisal on the cultural impact of Jacobsen’s work at Kiki Gallery. The show also drew attention to how drastically the Bay Area’s queer arts scene has changed in the absence of radical curators like Jacobsen.

The risk of erasure for queer artists concerns and haunts us. As notorious as San Francisco is for gay, lesbian, and trans communities, we wonder why the city does not have many, if any, permanent exhibition spaces dedicated to queer art. While there may be historical societies and centers that present queer art periodically, why is there no single queer art museum or gallery? Would this be desirable or problematic? What are the implications of this absence? How do we as writers respond to the history of queer art makers without the presence of such venues that, through the exhibition and cataloging of artworks, historicize the presence of queer artists in the Bay Area? Is queer visibility dependent on such venues? Through a combination of emails and in-person conversations, we discussed what kinds of presentation platforms offer outlets for queer dialogues in the arts community. We also considered what these dialogues might be and whether they are still politically relevant in our contemporary cultural context.

The word queer has lost much of its political potential for radical distinction

Anton Stuebner: To begin, should we discuss our usage of the word queer? I know that we have had a lot of back and forth on this particular question, and part of what makes queerness so difficult to unpack is its overlapping questions of sexual and political identities. As I understand it, queerness is about how identities are not fixed, not necessarily prescribed into our bodies; the expansiveness and shifting of queerness makes it hard to pin down, which lends to it a more inclusive, boundary-breaking solidarity.

And yet part of what drew us to this conversation—and, of course, a significant part of what drew me personally to investigating the history of Kiki Gallery in San Francisco—is this shared assumption that the word queer has lost much of its political potential for radical distinction, especially as it has become absorbed into critical discourse. Is it worth talking about queer art now that the word queer has become such an integral part of critical studies programs at both the collegiate and institutional levels? For that matter, is it even significant to talk about queer art as a genre?

Rick Jacobsen, Owner & Curator, outside of Kiki Gallery on 14th Street, San Francisco, CA. 1994.  Courtesy of the Kiki Gallery: Oral History Project. Photo: Wayne Smith.

Emily Holmes: In a roundabout answer, I will say that reading about queer art was integral to me embracing my own queerness. As a quieter, bookish kind of person in general, I browsed the queer-books aisle of the library as both a public and private declaration of my sexuality while I struggled to figure it out. At first, the act of reading about queerness and queer art was less of a commitment, less of a declaration, and then it changed when I began to identify with what I read. Reaching out, selecting a book, and pulling it into my hands was a physical gesture of curiosity before I conceptually understood why I wanted that book on that particular topic. Later, seeking to understand what queerness is, and has been historically, felt like the most pleasurable responsibility as a reader.

I am not sure if a space like Kiki Gallery could exist in the contemporary moment.

The following revelation was finding a community of people who also were deeply invested in queerness. Finding people with whom I could talk about queerness over fries and milkshakes was essential, friends who emailed me articles on femme identity or drag queens. Do you know that feeling? The feeling of allowing yourself to pick up a book on queer art, as a sort of deterrence and displacement until you later realize it’s both the art and the queerness pulling you in?

AS: When I moved back to San Francisco in 2005, I visited the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Almost instantly, I felt a sense of relief being surrounded by an archive of materials that validated my own experience of trying to locate my identity (which was very much in flux) and sexuality. The Hormel Center is actually where I first came across Amy Scholder, Nayland Blake, and Lawrence Rinder’s catalog for the In a Different Light show at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1995. The catalog was my first encounter with many of the artists who exhibited at Kiki Gallery.

I am not sure if a space like Kiki Gallery could exist in the contemporary moment. Tamara Loewenstein interviewed Lawrence Rinder in 2009 about his involvement with Rick Jacobsen’s work at Kiki. Loewenstein asked Rinder if he saw “the need for more like-minded arts spaces that function, whether implicitly or explicitly, as political-activist spaces,” like Kiki.1 Rinder downplayed the politics of Jacobsen’s work by responding, in short, that Kiki “was not conventionally political at all.” Rinder does not elaborate on this remark, but there is something suggestive in this idea, that Kiki was too small or too unconventional a space to function as a site for serious political action.

I would argue that all spaces, no matter how small, have the potential to act as important sites of encounter, whether for one-on-one interactions or for larger forms of group assembly. But I do feel like the concept of gay rights has become so mainstreamed (and normalized and institutionalized) that I don’t know if we can still talk about queerness in a political sense—since the political process is, by its nature, inherently conservative and geared towards mainstreaming disparate communities towards a kind of shared homogenous structure.

Jerome Caja. Painted Jesus Plaque, n.d; plaster and nail polish; 16 x 10 in. Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

EH: My habits as a reader inform my habits as a writer. I’m reminded of the art historian Pamela M. Lee’s question on readership posed within a survey in the book Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, in which she asks: “Please describe your interest or involvement with various political, social, or countercultural publications. In what ways did this engagement influence your own practice as either an artist, designer, historian, or critic?"2 My reply is that a single text influenced my approach to what it means to write about art and drastically changed my practice as a writer.

Laura Cottingham’s article, “Notes on Lesbian,” changed how I approached writing about art.3 Cottingham writes passionately and polemically about the politics of erasure in history and art history. What does she mean by erasure? She speaks of the heightened obstacles one faces while writing the history of subjects whose lives are marginalized, or hidden, on so many levels. For example, sites of queer erasure might be a family estate obscuring a deceased artist’s sexuality, denying references to homosexuality. Trying to write about past lesbian artists, Cottingham suggests, presents a double whammy of misogyny and homophobia that can occur in how, or if, any records of an artist’s life remain preserved in some form. If a historian does find journals or letters, these might represent an artist’s self-censorship: the fear of coming out or the fear of social repercussions, which in many instances continue to exist for many queers, tinged with the threat of physical violence. How does one write this history? Alternately, what is at stake in not writing this history?

Reading this text was my moment of queer politicization. I became aware of having stakes in what I chose to write about. Cottingham concludes that writing history is a form of advocacy.4 I would posit the use of lesbian as a placeholder for queer, artist of color, gender non-conforming, and other terms for socially marginalized subjects whose histories tend to be neglected. What, then, do you think is the relationship of readership to erasure and to visibility?

AS: I think this struggle for visibility is important because so much of our political and social system relies on our ability as subjects to define ourselves as politically visible and viable beings. During the height of the AIDS crisis, queer activists were fighting for visibility in many different social and political forms, such as representation in the news. This was not because they needed to be legitimated by these political institutions (which, from a politically queer perspective, are structured against heteronormative and queer-phobic models). It was because, for better or worse, many of these artists relied on access to particular resources (like health care or clinical trials of experimental drugs) that were predicated on them being good subjects in these contexts. The queer artists who came out of this era were significant precisely because they understood that there had to be some kind of cultural production of queerness before queer communities could gain political visibility (and access to the resources that they needed to, well, survive).

EH: And yet, the ambivalence of wanting recognition, wanting access to our history on display!

Jerome Caja. Untitled, n.d; altered images in found frame. Courtesy of Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.

AS: In 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presented Contemporary Painting, 1960 to the Present: Selections from the SFMOMA Collection.5 Curated by Gary Garrels, the exhibition brought up questions about what it means to produce paintings in the contemporary moment. Many of the featured artists, such as Francis Bacon, John Baldessari, and Amy Sillman, are recognized for avant-garde work that frequently challenges assumed aesthetic conventions in visual art.  Garrels dedicated one gallery to artists whose work explored issues of gay identity and the AIDS crisis in San Francisco. Jerome Caja, one of the artists featured, was a queer artist who used to hang out at the Stud and make miniature portraits with lipstick. There was something unsettling about seeing Caja’s work in this context, maybe because his inclusion in this conversation seemed predicated on the portrayal of his art as work that addressed gay identity and the AIDS crisis but isolated from other historical and artistic legacies. Without underplaying the historical or social factors that informed Caja’s work, which were indeed about gay culture, seeing his works in a formal setting was off-putting maybe because they were never supposed to be precious objects. They were small pieces, fashioned out of everyday materials, that were to be sold to patrons of the Stud and passed among friends.

I need to feel connected to different communities in order to broaden my exposure to queer artists.

EH: I find this example fascinating. Visibility is perhaps a double-edged sword. On one side, it’s fantastic for the work of an explicitly queer artist to receive major recognition. On the other, the exhibition’s context matters if it renders the art lifeless, stagnant, or dead, as you imply. Or is this a second life? Right now I’m looking online at some of his images made with nail polish on a plastic tray. They are a certain kind of precious—trashy precious, purposefully unconventional and playful.

I am at home in San Francisco, sitting on my couch, typing on my laptop keyboard (with shiny red nails that I think Caja would appreciate). I use the Internet without thinking twice to quickly look up a queer artist. I anticipate that Caja’s work has a web presence, since by this point, I expect just about everything and everyone to be represented online. But what are the implications of having access to his incredible cache of information? How is it possible that I bring certain demands to the world and that they are gratified instantly, without me even leaving my house? And how does the Internet enable forms of community building that may not be predicated on in-person encounters? I need to feel connected to different communities in order to broaden my exposure to queer artists. These communities, however, can take the form of physical or virtual interactions—this conversation is the perfect example.

From this entry on the Queer Cultural Center’s (QCC) website, in a matter of seconds, I’ve learned how to correctly pronounce Caja (“chaya”) and that he was a drag queen. The thing is, it’s not only the Internet that enables this knowledge but also that someone chose to write about Caja.

This experience of learning about Caja—through you, the QCC website, and the re-publication of an article—is making my mind whirl. I keep thinking, “Someone chose to write about this, and someone decided to make this information publicly accessible.” Of course, taking a step back, I think, “Someone decided to make (queer) art.” What social conditions enable me to sit at my laptop and learn about Caja’s use of nail polish and eyeliner as mediums? 

AS: I am constantly amazed at the amount of information that is available on the Internet, and I do think that it’s important to consider how our access to this archive of material has changed the way that we encounter information—and, to your point, expect immediate gratification for any line of inquiry that we can dream up.

It is astonishing that you can, say, enter Caja’s name and find this entire catalog of articles, digital facsimiles, and so forth. But could you stumble upon this information without first knowing about Jerome Caja? Do you need to know Jerome Caja’s name—and have some sense of who he is, of what his work is like—before you can access this information? I have learned of artists by chance in gallery and museum contexts—that is part of the thrill of discovery—and yet, more often than not, I feel as if I need some kind of impetus to seek out queer art. I do not feel that I see it in everyday encounters with visual culture. And this is one of the most complicating aspects of approaching this archive of queer histories: This archive of information may exist for people to access, but one has to have an impetus or trigger or modus operandi to seek this archive before one can actually encounter it.

To be honest, I don’t think I would’ve encountered Caja’s work had my friend and coworker not told me about it in the first place. And that draws attention to another aspect of queer histories: that they very often are passed from person to person (and generation to generation) through oral accounts. One of the challenges in pinning down these histories is that they are archived without affecting their queerness—the fluidity of these histories and their ability to exist outside normative institutional contexts.

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

EH: And where could you have learned about Caja’s work, had your friend Ben not mentioned it? During the time Caja was selling art at the Stud, you and I were too young to join in! You raise excellent points about operating outside of normative institutional contexts. Again, what is lost or gained must be considered, both perhaps occurring simultaneously.

Part of the need I perceive...has to do with this concern of erasure, of loss, of marginalization.

Is queer art something that you know when you see? Is it an aesthetic? Is it tied to the identity of the artist? Can a heteronormative artist produce queer art? Can a queer artist make art that’s not pointedly queer? My answer is generally yes to all, but I wonder again about the politics of visibility. Part of the need I perceive to designate something, like a queer art history, has to do with this concern of erasure, of loss, of marginalization. If I did leave my house, where would I go in San Francisco or the greater Bay Area to see queer art, right now?

AS: It may be important to consider if it is counterintuitive to circumscribe queer arts communities within the confines of institutional identity, if queer communities are in fact supposed to be anti-hierarchical and, by extension, anti-institutional. Do online communities allow for unfixed, non-stagnant spaces of exhibition and visibility without the authorizing (and hard to fund) physical spaces? If so, what is lost with me sitting at my computer and you at yours? What is gained? When Kiki Gallery operated, the ways in which people communicated were simply different due to the technologies that facilitated life then. This conversation feels like the beginning of some important questions, ones with perhaps no comforting answers at this point in time. 

EH: There seems to be a pressing need to write about art and culture in the contemporary moment, to offer an archive for future generations and to focus on what we care about now, from a variety of perspectives. Kristen Frederickson’s book Singular Women: Writing the Artist presents varying scholarly perspectives on whether or not to keep the monograph.6 Her concerns not only are similar to Cottingham’s—that archival information may be inaccessible and fragmented—but also address the form of the traditional monograph, seen as stifling to feminist and queer strategies of writing history. I draw some parallels between the terms monographs and institutions where queer artists might be represented. Does the singular institution raise too many stifling constraints to queer representation and, perhaps, the forms that new queer art today might take, such as performance?

AS: I think these questions are a vital part of why you and I are interested in establishing a shared cultural history of queerness. When we first proposed this conversation, we wanted the transcript of it to act as a kind of queer performance. In doing so, we also wanted to see if we could define what it means to record and archive queer histories. I feel there is a need in arts discourse for conversations about artists whose work may not fit with the conventions of the art market, work that, for instance, may be political or challenging. In this sense, I do feel like alternative arts publications like Art Practical provide an important platform for readers to encounter work by socially conscious artists who engage in different forms of political discourse, including queer discourse.

With advancements in digital technology, we can access these online platforms as sites for generative conversations. Maybe we can consider how these kinds of sites act as new venues not just for queer authorship but also readership. We are not able to physically visit Kiki Gallery now, and yet through access to archived digital material, we can encounter materials that represent some of the most significant work that was shown there, like Catherine Opie’s portraits of Bay Area queer artists (like Justin Vivian Bond and, interestingly enough, Jerome Caja) or Rex Ray’s drawings that were created in response to the work of Yoko Ono. There is something remarkable about this particular form of encounter because it allows us to engage with this work in a meaningful way, even if we cannot place ourselves in physical proximity to it.

Notes

  1. Tamara Loewenstein, “Interview: Lawrence Rinder,” Kiki Gallery: Oral History Project, February 29, 2009, http://kikigallery.tumblr.com/#6330594275.
  2. Pamela M. Lee, “What We Were Reading: The Creation of a Counter-Public Sphere,” Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, 1964–1974, ed. Geoff Kaplan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 216.
  3. Laura Cottingham, “Notes on Lesbian.” Art Journal 55, no. 4. Winter 1996, 72-77.
  4. Cottingham, 75: “Writing about lesbians and lesbian art from a lesbian position that affirms and approves of lesbian existence is itself a form of advocacy, just as the number of dissertations and monographs and the amount of money Europe and the United States heap on white male artists is a form of political as well as cultural approval. Unless more lesbians are willing to accept the necessity of advocating our right to exist and our right to cultural heritage, our history as well as our present and future will continue to be lost, denied, trivialized, and otherwise damaged.”
  5. More information on this exhibition, including a description of artists included, can be found on SFMOMA’s website, which includes the original press release: http://www.sfmoma.org/about/press/press_exhibitions/releases/927.
  6. Kristen Frederickson, ed., Singular Women: Writing the Artist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

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