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Unbecoming Queer

Boise State hosts QueerID's national juried exhibit

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Chances are, the people who support the constitutional amendment against gay marriage won't be attending the National Juried Exhibition in conjunction with the QueerID conference--dedicated to a broad examination of the queer rubric--at Boise State this month. No doubt they'll be up in a fuss over the whole "queer" thing and will protest--or at least complain--without ever seeing the art. Which is too bad. Much of the art doesn't even depict anything explicitly sexual. Most of it has to do with identity, societal roles, political issues associated with gender, and tasteful expressions of finding new ways of being.

Lezlie Frye, but, photo print
  • Lezlie Frye, but, photo print

Juror John Paul Ricco, a professor at the University of Mississauga in Ontario, Canada, says in his juror statement, "becoming queer is also and always must be, unbecoming." Whatever we define as queer is always open to interpretation, he says. So he chose to focus on art pieces that either figuratively or literally represent the human form. The pieces in the show run the gamut from sexual to poignant, from overt messages to subtle blends of substance. Some appear almost silly at first, but take on more gravity after reading the artist's statement. Media varies from acrylic paintings to photography, to video, to found objects, silver, and felted wool.

Pecking Order by Laura Prieto-Velasco is the first piece you see upon entering the gallery at the Visual Arts Center on the Boise State campus. It's a sterling silver and steel cable mask in the form of a bird beak. The display includes a small photo of a model wearing the mask, looking for all the world like an Elizabethan partygoer. Masks were at one time used to humiliate people in society for perceived wrongdoings, says the artist in her statement, which makes one pause to consider the message of humiliation in modern society as it relates to gender identity, sexual orientation, and roles we play. The mask also brings to mind the figurative masks many of us wear in our daily lives and invites the question, "What do we do to ourselves by not being our authentic selves?"

Prieto-Velasco has two more pieces in this show. Cuffs for the New She is actually a pair of silver cuffs that can be worn like bracelets around the wrists. These elegant cuffs include large pearl clasps and gorgeous cutouts in the silver. They do not lock like handcuffs, but are pulled together by magnets. The cuffs resemble the shirt cuffs of male members of society with fancy cuff links, and the New She wears these to meld into the male persona in order to make it in this world. They could alternatively be toys for bondage games. Or they could be handcuffs that make a person captive. When put in the context of identity and gender, any of these interpretations brings a deep dimension to this piece.

The final piece by Prieto-Velasco is titled Feminine Beard. It looks like a tiara when lying in the display, with its delicate design, but a photo of a model wearing the beard shows it worn on the chin not the forehead. It is held in place by post earrings for those with pierced ears. The artist's statement indicates that an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who was a woman wore such a beard to demonstrate her leadership despite her gender. Apparently, other women have also done so through the ages. Like the mask and the cuffs, the beard brings forth questions of identity as it relates to gender roles and dominance.

Kris Sanford has two inkjet prints and shellac in the show. Anniversary depicts the bodies of two women, circa 1930. We cannot see their heads, but one woman has her hands around the waist of the other, while one hand of the other rests on the first one's thigh. It is an intimate pose, but not necessarily sexual. These women could be lovers, sisters, friends, co-workers, or classmates--which is kind of the point. The viewer tends, because of the subject and title of the exhibit, to assume a lesbian or sexual relationship, but identity, intimacy and sexual orientation are too complex to see in just black and white--which, incidentally, this print is. Summer at the Lake could be the same two women, or some others. We can only see their legs and feet, seated on some rocks at the lake side, their shoes poised neatly by their sides. One can interpret the image in a multitude of ways, which might be the point.

Self portrait in orbital relationship is a personal piece by Nisa Blackmon, who writes in her artist's statement about what was happening in her life when she made this mixed media sculpture. As interesting as it is on its own, an intriguing aspect is the shadows cast by the lighting of the work. The piece itself features a half sphere which forms, when cast in shadow, a complete sphere. There's a message right there.

Alex Emmons' Allow Me to Marry makes an explicit statement about gay marriage. It is an altered book, do-si-do style. One side of the book is called the "Preface" and talks about historical heterosexual marriage and the high divorce rate. The other side, "Afterword," states, "gay marriage is here," and lists places where legal unions for any couple are allowed. The title of the book that has been altered is "The New Service Book," a religious service book, probably from a mainstream church that forbids gay marriage. Or perhaps the book really is a new service book with an inclusive wedding ceremony.

Dear Diarrhea by Michael Thorstensen is the most comical and simultaneously heartbreaking work in the show. On the surface, we see a toilet, a can of Lysol, a scented candle, and a roll of toilet paper. The background appears to be diary entries detailing the time and nature of every bowel movement during a bout of diarrhea. Upon reading the artist's statement, we discover he tried to apply for disability and was told to keep a diary of the side effects from his HIV meds, which is how this work began.

Lezlie Frye and Renae Kowitz admit they have a lifelong obsession with Paul Bunyan's butt, so it is no shock that but, focuses on just that. In a digital print that has a snapshot look to it, as if taken by college roommates on a road trip in Minnesota, someone stands behind a Paul Bunyan statue and reaches up as if to grab his butt.

Gary Schott's Zoetrope Machine: Turn My Crank! has the intriguing air of Victorian embellishments all around. He claims to have a fascination with machines. How this relates to identity, roles, and unbecoming is open to interpretation, making this one of the exhibition's more puzzling pieces. Does a fascination with a moving picture speak to such issues? Is the face in the machine's moving picture related to the artist's identity? It this a commentary on images and how we perceive reality?

Laurie Blakeslee, who teaches photography at Boise State and is part of the executive committee for the QueerID conference, says that each of the art pieces echo the topics of the presentations at the conference, with titles like Gender and Community, Socially Constructed Identities, and "The pursuit of happiness and the American dream: But you don't qualify if you are different in any way."

A total of 25 works by 16 artists are on exhibit through October 27, at Boise State's Visual Arts Center. The closing reception is October 20 from 5 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.queeridconference.org.

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