Wearing a fabulous blazer patterned like a Tetris video game, queer Liberian-American filmmaker Cheryl Dunye smiles at the camera. This portrait by artist/activist Lola Flash, who focuses on visual conceptions of gender, sexuality and race, hangs near the entrance of the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash Gallery.
In a far corner, a forlorn blond Ken doll, by Minnesota-born, New Mexico-based emerging artist Yon Hudson, lounges on a silver bench with handcuffs in one hand and a suitcase on the ground. Did he walk out of a film-noir-themed gay smut novel circa 1960, when American LGBTQ culture was mostly underground?
Flash and Yon are just two of the more than 100 artists in "Queer Forms," an exhibition opening Tuesday at the Nash Gallery that represents the broad span of LGBTQ history and identities.
The walls, floors and sometimes ceilings of the gallery are covered with two- and three-dimensional works of art. In the middle, a darkened room offers space for six screens that play a rotation of 22 films. Most of the artists — including Catherine Opie and Andy Warhol — are American, but Canadian, Mexican, Israeli, Brazilian and Chinese LGBTQ artists also represent.
"I'm not interested in these hierarchies of who is famous and who isn't famous," said Nash director Howard Oransky, who curated the show. "I want to bring all these different people's work together in the gallery and let it tell the stories it needs to tell."
A pre-Stonewall local tie-in
According to Oransky, any time is a good time to do an exhibition on LGBTQ liberation because "the notion of personal and political liberation is a timeless idea that is going to be relevant as long as there are human beings." But the show coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which set off the American LGBTQ rights movement.
Then he discovered a local tie-in. Just months before Stonewall, U of M students Koreen Phelps and Stephen Ihrig organized "Fight Repression of Erotic Expression" (or FREE for short), a gay liberation organization that met at the old Coffeehouse Extempore in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The exhibit also includes "FREE You," a 23-minute documentary about the organization by recent graduate student Noah Barth.
Oransky worked his museum and gallery connections, wrangling many amazing works including a series of striking photos by now-deceased artist Laura Aguilar. The fearless Latina lesbian, born and raised in East L.A., presented marginalized folks — Latinas, lesbians, working class folk, larger-bodied people, persons with learning disabilities.
While some of the artists are iconic, one encountered Oransky as he was ordering coffee.
Minneapolis artist Ray Andrzejewski, who identifies as nonbinary, used to serve coffee at Moose & Sadies in the North Loop before taking the leap into full-time artmaking. Oransky and Andrzejewski bonded about art over hot liquid pours. Then Oransky found his way to their website.
"When he started working on this show, he was like, 'Hey, would you feel comfortable being included in this queer show?' and I was like, 'Yes, that's all I've ever wanted!' " said Andrzejewski.
For the piece "Live With it Awhile," Andrzejewski creates a little grieving nook made out of dried palm tree leaves, offering visitors to the show a sweet and inviting contemplative space amid the vast amount of visual stimulation. It's an homage to a lost friend who lived most of their life in Florida, which is where the palm leaves came from.
But there's also a quiet metaphor nestled within. While the hanging palm leaves appear soft from afar, there's a roughness to them the closer you get.
"That tough and tender vibe, I feel like it is an everybody thing," Andrzejewski said. "But maybe only queers are soft and tough."
Queer Forms: When: Sept. 10-Dec. 7. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tue.-Sat. with a reception at 7-10 p.m. Sept. 21. Where: Nash Gallery at Regis Center for Art, 405 21st Av. S., University of Minnesota, Mpls. Info: 612-624-7530 or cla.umn.edu/art/galleries.