Where We Find Ourselves
By Matthew Herzog
Where we Find Ourselves is a group exhibition curated by Jordan Rockford. Defying the limited confines of Gershman Y’s Open Lens Gallery, the collection investigates how queer identity is reclaiming cultural space despite decades of mainstream control.
In our current age, gay marriage is protected by the U.S. Constitution and movies like Moonlight won Best Picture. Yet, films like I Am Not Your Negro skirt James Baldwin’s sexuality and a Presidency can roll back federal guidelines on Transgender bathrooms. We are at a time where the construction of our future still utilizes residue from the past. Although incredible advancements in queer identity have been made, we see those that identify as queer still navigating cultural influence and misrepresentation.
In a walkthrough with Rockford, he referenced the incipient flower of this exhibition, that which crystallized the search into the current state of queerness: Ryan Wilson Kelly’s Moth to a Flame.
‘He’s taking this parable, essentially, of Diogenes the cynic searching for his obscure ideal and this moth which is drawn to its object of desire. And, how that object of desire is the end of him. This is a queer artist telling a queer story with his partner. This is very personal and it is, in its own way, very erotic. But it’s also taking this common place parable which technically isn’t about any of this and reframing it to find a queer ideal. What is it to be queer? What is the search? When you’re queer, what are we searching for in that candle out in daylight? How are we trying to find the things that we can’t already see? And then, where does that lead us?’
Rockford refers to a queer person’s hunt for representations of queer identity and ultimately the queer ownership of that identity. In this sense, Ryan Wilson Kelly is not only depicting queer desire but possessing lore in order to include it. Utilizing his canon of theatrical sets, exaggerated expressions and sizable paper mache head gear, Kelly, along with his partner, rewrite Diogenes’ search for an honest man. By playing a moth that parallels the original narrative, Kelly inlays not only a queer plot but one hidden right under the nose of a famous, albeit controversial, philosopher.
What makes this so contemporary is the queer proprietorship over its own identity. What makes this unique is that this hasn’t always been the case.
For me, weeding through mainstream culture for queer representation was often an experience in compromise. The stereotypes in which homosexuality appeared, the tragedy in which characters endured, or the suggestions behind dual-identity, would often be both a validation and an undermining of queer experience. Narratives in drama, comedy and science fiction had undercurrents of hidden queerdom. Love was in a long glance. Violence was about the placement of hands. Symbolism stood in for words.
Dial-up internet was a lesson in personal revelation. I hunted for HBO clips of Queer as Folk. Though now that I watch it, it’s a little insulting. I would turn off the volume late at night so I could watch MTV’s Undressed and hope a college boy liked his male roommate as much as I did. Though again, early nineties television representations of queer identity was like watching a ken doll with highlights have sex with another ken doll with highlights. It’s what you got, and it was kinda hot, but they were still plastic, neutered, and could only do so much.
To give the briefest of history lessons, in 1920’s film there was the emergence of the sissified male and ‘mannish’ female. They were the aesexualized middle that made the heteronormative ends feel more themselves. This came on the heels of the Great Depression when the socioeconomic decline emasculated heteronormative gender roles. The ‘sissy’ and ‘mannish’ female were seen as the representation of how males were no longer males (in the sense of economic producers) and women might never marry and might, God forbid, wish to get a job. These characters, although prevalent, were not well liked. Unfortunately, it was for what they suggested about the current state of male gender than what it suggested about queer identity. Welcome to where ‘sissy’, ‘weak’, and ‘feminine’ became the same word.
In the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, amongst increased censorship from a Catholic/Protestant influenced Production Code headed by Joseph Ignatius Breen, queer identity in popular culture only survived if subliminalized. We saw the appearance of the Fantasy Villain subplot, the sexualized lesbian vampire. Dialogue with pauses and long looks stratified film into what one was saying over what one meant. I.E. comparing guns in a Western film became a euphemism for dicks and handjobs.
For queer persons, a third ear developed. It targeted pitch and tone so what wasn’t being written could be suggested. Undertones moved people like Kelly’s moth to a rainbow lit buzz. Ever wonder upon the origin of gaydar? If the language of the body was how queers first learned to code, is it any wonder we’re so good at dancing?
The direct emergence of the queer subject finally came in the 60’s with Frankensteinian tragedy films like Suddenly, Last Summer and The Children’s Hour, where sexual perversion was tackled in its most waspy way: rumors, social demonization and the conflation of homosexuals as degenerates. It was the creation of the non-humorous queer figure, the social villain. And though it was a seedy portrayal, it brought society closer to the idea that queerness undeniably exists and is around. In effect, they began the manifestation process of that which they feared. They partially tore through a veil revealing the hazy image of what had always been there.
From the mid to late 60’s till now, that figure experienced an evolution where cultural representation caught up with societal reality. Queer narratives became more accepted, less mediated, invading daily discourse. It was articulated by television plots, magazines, celebrity outings and public figureheads. Queerness became clear images of people via the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin, Jackie Forster, and Ruth Ellis.
By the time I was born, queer representations in culture closely resembled me, my friends. Characters and national dialogues felt like investigations into my humanity. It revealed love and a leftover self-hatred and identity confusion from decades of misrepresentation and a retaining cultural rejection. Today, it’s as if after the battle for equal rights and true representation, every participant battles for healing. (Whether that be licking wounds or patching hearts.) And as we’re seeing in this exhibit, healing includes reclamation.
‘It’s not just looking for a reflection but it’s actively grasping your life experience, your mainstream life experience... and making it part of your story, making it a part of the ingredients of your identity… Reclaiming is a process in which all marginalized peoples and cultures go through. We see it across the board in how a community reclaims themselves, reclaims the language that’s used about or against them, reclaims their own stereotypes and emphasizes them and owns them.’
Rockford pointed to a particular piece that reflects this contemporary mediation of representation and personal identity: Zackary Drucker & Amos Mac’s collaborative photograph, Distance is where the heart is, Home is where you hang your heart, #13.
Zackary Drucker, a major contributor to mainstream queer representation as the Co-Producer of Transparent, returned to her hometown in Western, PA and was photographed in the places of her youth. These were the formative environments, the imbued landscape with which Drucker was raised. In an act of reclaiming, she kills it in this vintage fur hat and necklace that belonged to her aunt and stands as her most authentic self in a school’s athletic field. As Rockford commented, referencing correspondence between him and Drucker, he ‘wants viewers to be seduced by the luxurious texture of her identity.’ Well, it won’t take much effort. Drucker steals the stage as this feminine beauty with Game-of-Thrones-meets-Golden-Girls style rule over athletic symbolism. The snow in the background makes the scene serene, Pennsylvania post-battle where Drucker is the last woman standing.
Shortly after, Rockford took me to another piece, Jamil Hellu’s Smoke. Hellu uses the transitional effect of a lenticular to highlight his own protean identity. As you pass the piece, it transitions from a man in traditional thawb and kaffiyeh - a white robe with red and white patterned fabric draped on his head - to one wearing leather armbands, leather pants and a chest harness otherwise called a Bulldog Harness. A useful implement in my experience.
Hellu was raised in Brazil by a Syrian Catholic family and Muslim relatives. Now, take this navigation of national, linguistic, and religious practice and add being queer.
‘There are shifts and shifts and shifts and he [Jamil Hellu] is always in-between identities. And he’s not talking about the contrast between them but where they meld and mesh. There’s always a tension between who I think I am and how people see me or who I want to be and the community I’m in.’
It’s curious to consider Hellu’s piece as a person in the middle of two influences. I asked Rockford about the cycle of cultural influence. If Hellu is between two social parameters, does that mean queer identity could create or has created its own box? Is a cultural representation, whether proximate to truth or not, always a format to which one feels the need to mold? Rockford raised his eyebrows and nodded, saying ‘I think that’s always the risk.’
In one moment you can have an individual defining themselves through popular/familial culture. And in another moment the same individual can define themselves within the queer community with which they identify. (A queer experience as motley as taste itself.) Each has a set of rules and regulations. Each has a set of identifying markers, symbols, even clothes.
What is also interesting, as we step into another example of contemporary layering is the appearance of cross pollination; the bleeding of queer experience into communal culture, and likewise, heteronormativity casting over queer resourcefulness. You have participants crossing their eyes, trying to find themselves in the *purpling of cultures.
*Purpling is what my God-fearing youth counselor used to say when he’d catch me in the girls bunks at stay-away camp. He was a white 35 year old with a blond wife, two kids, and a Labrador, equally using the word devil and love. He would close his eyes and play new age christian songs on his guitar near fifteen year old boys in his finished basement while his wife drank wine in the kitchen laughing to 7th Heaven. He had no idea what he was doing deadpanning an obviously queer thirteen year old boy who hung out with girls. Oh, the suburban veil; that lovely fear driven suspicious Utopia.*
Speaking of him, I should return to navigating communities and the empathy needed to foster togetherness.
A running theme through cultural and personal navigation is the initial desire to navigate them in the first place. Having seen what others faced, what so many still face today, it’s powerful to witness empathy and self-worth as the driving force behind progress.
‘A lot of us wake up everyday, look in the mirror and say, Yep, I’m still the same person. Time for coffee. I think a queer perspective in general questions that. I think that... one of the biggest contributions to culture now, in the present age, is from the Trans community. They’re doing the heavy lifting of daily figuring-out, reclaiming, redesigning their identities. Whether that’s mentally, physically, presentation wise, pronoun wise. Identity, who I am and how I construct that identity, is a constant process for the Trans community. That’s something that all of us can learn from. Regardless of whether we’re the happiest, straightest, cis’est people you’ve ever met, it’s something that every human can learn from.’
To take a sidebar, Dr. James O’Keefe MD suggested in an October 2016 Tedx Talk in Dublin that homosexuality in males is genetically programmed altruism. He quotes evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson when saying, ‘homosexuality gives advantages to the group by specialized talents and unusual qualities of personality.’ Homosexual men will not fight brothers for female partners, nor generate more mouths to feed. O’Keefe went further saying homosexuality was a gene epigenetically enacted to predisposition caretakers so that survival is forged by the strongest familial unit and not the individual. He even attributes his son’s homosexuality to his wife’s cancer. While his son was in utero, his mother was fighting chest cancer and enacted the epigenetic switch to birth her own caretaker. P.S. this guy really loves his son. He pulled an on-stage-man-choke when a photograph of his son was projected. He probably choked even harder believing his son wasn’t just gay but a modern day genetics-be-the-new-God Saint.
Take James O’Keefe or Joseph Ignatius Breen or James Baldwin or Ruth Ellis or Jordan Rockford however you will. You can love any of them, empower or demonize their actions as part of the queer agenda to infiltrate culture. You can dislike the exhibit and say modern identity was represented but where were the older generations. You can plainly say ‘The work is beautiful.’ or ‘It’s derivative.’ or whatever other term you learned in art school today.
But what unites the lot is exactly what tool Jordan Rockford’s exhibit utilizes. It’s akin to what Directors, Actors, Censors, Artists, Writers, Curators and other contributors/purveyors to culture have done in the past. In a most upfront and sincere way, Rockford presents a perspective upon our environment. It narrows our vision toward contemporary queerdom hoping we’ll begin to add our own responses and change the environment for ourselves.
He asks the same inquiry that Joseph Ignatius Breen asked himself before he edited a scene too gay for audiences. Rockford poses the same contemplations that Ruth Ellis battled over the course of her career as the oldest surviving Lesbian and LGBT activist. He wants us to look around, in our magazines, through our religions, amongst our families, and not just search for the reflections of identity, but demand culture depict exactly Where We Find Ourselves.