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The need to establish an identity is something that trips a lot of us up in our 20s. That time in life is the weird nether region between adolescence and true adulthood when we struggle to reconcile the desire to be one particular thing with a still-evolving nature. As a result, many of us force ourselves into roles we weren't really meant to inhabit jobs that aren't right, relationships that can't work and then spend months, sometimes years, trying to undo the damage. But perhaps this obsession with identity is something that younger generations are evolving beyond. I recently sat down with two newly minted SAIC graduates who seem not only to accept that strange, amorphous space in between but to celebrate it.
Sam Lipp and Luis Miguel Bendaña are codirectors of Queer Thoughts, a new contemporary gallery that hopes to promote a "postidentity" agenda. The queer in the title is not meant to refer exclusively to work created by LGBT artists, but rather used in order to "reapply the word to a meaning that is more open," according to Lipp. The gallery is largely concerned with pushing beyond the confines of queer theory and identity politics, which means that it hopes to free artists from the need to align themselves with gender, sexuality, or race. Instead, Lipp and Bendaña want to explore the possibilities of nonidentity. On its own, the concept of nonidentity can seem vaguely negative; non- as a lone prefix carries connotations of nothingness. But as applied to Queer Thoughts, nonidentity is meant less as "I'm not anything" than "I'm not any one thing." And perhaps the easiest way to unpack that idea is to consider the gallery space itself.
Located in Pilsen at 1640 W. 18th Street #3, Queer Thoughts occupies half of a residential apartment; the other half serves as Bendaña's home. All the physical trappings of a traditional gallery are there (white walls, bright track lighting), but the exhibition space is limited to a walk-in closet. Lipp and Bendaña could have chosen to display art in the larger of the space's two rooms, which would have allowed for the exhibition of additional work and a more traditional viewing experience. But by forcing viewers into the closet, they're challenging not only our expectations of a gallery, but also our understanding of what it means to be enclosed.
In a traditional gallery, there's a prescribed method of movement: slowly circle the room, step towards a piece for inspection, away for contemplation, and then move thoughtfully onto the next. In Queer Thoughts, the sheer confines of the space prohibits that movement. Physically, there is only so much you can do given the limits of the room. Now apply that as metaphor for identity. How do we create room for movement within the confines of our perceivable selves? Does my biological status as a female necessarily make me a woman writer? Does race or sexuality make an artist a black artist, or a queer artist? How do I move beyond the bounds of my identity in order to be considered as more?
The irony, according to Lipp and Bendaña, is that by forcing viewers into such a tightly enclosed space, they're hoping to inspire more open thought (although I suspect the irony of having Queer Thoughts in a closet isn't lost on them, either). The gallery has staged three exhibitions since its opening in June and I was able to view the most recent, a group show entitled "Oh My Goddess." Featuring five area artists, the show was an exploration of fertility, femininity, and the mother/whore dichotomy. And while the physical act of viewing the work in such a small space did change the emotional experience for me (the proximity to both the work and other viewers inspires intimacy and a borderline uncomfortable level of self-awareness), I can't say that I walked away having had any epiphanies related to nonidentity. But it was a thoughtful show, and whether or not I achieved any kind of academic understanding of the project, "Oh My Goddess" did succeed in expanding my notion of a traditional gallery exhibition. I also found it noteworthy (though perhaps none too scholarly) that in a show about women, a small, vaguely clitoral pearl affixed to the wall was described as a "found object."
Lipp and Bendaña are pleased with the reception the gallery has received so far and optimistic about its prospects in Chicago, a city they see as a kind of in-between place in the art world. It doesn't draw the international audience you find in New York or generate the kind of hype associated with LA, but Chicago does have its own brand of openness and energy, they believe, and that makes it an exciting place for artists to be. Lipp and Bendaña are both artists themselves. Each maintains a studio practice, though neither cares to confine himself to a particular medium. As artists, they're unconcerned with being identified as painters or sculptors they're happy to exist in that space between. And as gallerists, their primary concern is "to create a space where you can think different thoughts and come to different conclusions. Or come to no conclusions at all."
Make up your own mind on Friday, November 9, 7-10 PM, at the opening reception for the gallery's fourth show: Pia Howell's "Homosapien 2."