Thirty minutes after I left "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art" at Wrightwood 659, my husband and I had to take a last-minute flight to Oakland to be with his father, whose health had rapidly declined. We ran home and stuffed the last of our clean clothes into a bag. We booked one-way plane tickets from the back of a cab, breathlessly gunning for Midway in near silence. It was the kind of situation that put art, journalism, criticism, all of my bullshit on the back burner.
While in California I improvised the role of Daughter-In-Law—something I'd never performed before. I ignored pronouns, dodged all discussions of politics with extended family, gauged where exactly I belonged in the quagmire of grief, tried to figure out who needed me where. The situation was disarmingly domestic and outside of my radical wheelhouse, but I felt calm within it. In the chaos, I became viscerally bonded to a new family, something that felt larger than my individual identity.
When I got back to Chicago and back to thinking about this show, I couldn't separate it from what I'd just experienced. I started thinking about the intersections of art, death, and family, three tenets that are so central to this three-floor exhibition. While it certainly capitalized on Pride month—what didn't this year?—the curation at Wrightwood 659, by Jonathan David Katz, speaks truth to the panic of belonging: the urgency to protect when your own are under fire.
"About Face"is a survey of what those warm anxieties look like at work. Using the Stonewall Riot as its launchpad, the show examines a "community in progress" and leans into trans politics as a way of expanding beyond the gay-lesbian binary. Four hundred ninety-two artworks are filed in five different sections: Transgress, Transfigure, Transpose, Transform, and Transcend. The gathering ranges from the heartbreaking and heavy—a sapphic engraving of two women holding each other brought me to tears—to meh black-and-white photography by Harvey Milk that is significant because of the politician's now-mythological status. While it's exciting that these photos have never been seen before, the show's real power lies in how it acknowledges the complicated (and occasionally contradictory) intergenerational conversations between queer artists of color. Nick Cave's glorious maximalism welcomes audiences at the show's entrance, while Attila Richard Lukacs awaits them along the stairwell with Lady and Her Lover on a Night of Storm. The latter image is at once holy, subdued, and unruly, expressing the painter's visceral, vexxed history with the concepts of beauty and the divine. A multifaceted dialogue between artists of color that doesn't hinge on them being artists of color—a break from the white gaze. That's something I've never seen before in a major Chicago institution.
At its core, I think queerness is about uncertainty, and the show encapsulates this idea beautifully. Identities are forged, they are reinforced, they continue changing shape. There are, of course, the liquid lines of gender and sexuality that can be redrawn at the blink of an eye, but there are also larger questions looming overhead: Will we survive this? Do we actually have a shared history?
In "About Face," this turmoil is represented in the tension between the embodied and disembodied. One of the most painful examples lies in Greer Lankton's collection of grotesquely beautiful dolls and installations. Lankton was assigned male at birth; her creations range in size, inhabit moments of horror and bliss, and offer a corporeal view through the lens of her anorexia. After her untimely death from an overdose in Chicago, Lankton's family threw out her work; it was resurrected from a dumpster and preserved. It's a gutting metaphor.
Because the queer body doesn't exist in a singular form, I'd argue that there is no such thing as queer figurative work; rather, queer artists grapple with the figure as both foe and friend. It's fragmented no matter what we do.
But if we hold each other tightly, maybe we can see a complete image. v