Like Smoke, on view now through December 4, 2016 at Equity Gallery, is a response to the perceived lack of institutional visibility for art about the queer experience without explicitly focusing on queer bodies and their erotic potential. Curated by Filthy Dreams’ contributor Osman Can Yerebakan, the exhibition is a sensitive and nuanced take on LGBTQ identity politics, attempting in earnest to coax empathy from even its toughest opponents by focusing on the shared human desire to love and be loved.
The exhibition adopts its title from the French arthouse film directed by Jean Genet, Un Chant D’Amour, in which two male prisoners blow smoke through a hole through the cell wall that divides them as a pseudo-courtship. With this in mind, it is apparent that the exhibition takes visual cues from cinematic Western romance. Works such as Daniel Greenfield-Campoverde’s stone archway Double Pressure! (or Anti-Monument to the Queer Diaspora) (2016) and Carl Ferrero’s crumpled notebook paper Lovers (2009) form familiar components of many romantic films: an ancient architectural city, and lost or misplaced correspondence.
Jade Yumang’s Boyfriend Tee series concentrates on a more traditional desire for monogamy, or, at the very least, long-term commitment. Yumang creates paintings from his boyfriend’s clothing, which were sent to him amidst a long distance relationship sustained over a period of four years as a substitute for his presence. Stretched tautly over wooden stretcher bars, the T-shirts are often filled with delicate dried flowers, expressing the yearning for a living presence to fill them.
The loss and absence of bodies is also a recurrent theme. Pacifico Silano’s Denim Selection (2014-16) appropriates an image of gay porn icon Al Parker with his figure removed so that only his disembodied clothing remains. This postmortem display of modesty is a respectful effigy to the star, who died from complications of AIDS, while refusing to let the terms of his demise define his legacy. While the AIDS crisis and its devastating impact on the gay community is addressed, Silano explores the emotional trauma rather than the politics, elucidating the nature of memory when conflated with history. The photograph leans against the wall, incrementally sagging and changing shape as a monument to how perceptions of person might change according to the times.
After the 2016 election results were announced, I spoke with Silano who saw this work, in particular, with a renewed conviction. He said: “I’ve had moments where I’ve questioned if the work I do is important enough, and if the struggle was over. It started to feel like gay identity had assimilated to the status quo, and we had become a part of mainstream society, but now I’m seeing a rejection of that and a rejection of the diverse makeup of America. I think now we have to come back together and be able to come up against those people who don’t want to see or hear us. The more people like that there are, the louder we have to be.”
As America faces an unfair reality under an outwardly racist, xenophobic, and sexist president who came to power despite losing the majority vote, it seems more urgent than ever to galvanize allies and form bridges through discussions around identity politics. Like Smoke accomplishes this with wide emotional range, exploring the nuanced highs and lows of queer relationships without resorting to the cliches of what has been traditionally upheld as “gay art.” Yerebakan and the artists nod to the importance of pioneers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, who harnessed shock value in order to foreground queer visibility and identity politics during a time when the mainstream public feared what they knew little about.
But, Like Smoke expands the territory of what we determine as queer art, highlighting alternative roles for the queer body that run counter to Mapplethorpe’s bullish hypermasculinity and problematic objectification of black bodies. The exhibition upholds values such as domesticity and monogamy that, at their core, are actually quite conventional. This continued humanization of queer lives provides greater visibility to femmes and other more intersectional identities that deviate from the current popular public imagination in America.
Moreover, it also reveals a struggle to gain validation and acceptance from a more conservative crowd–one that we now find presiding over the White House and Congress. It should be acknowledged that this attention given to the fragile and uninformed involves both inconceivable generosity and patience.