Here’s the thing: I came out at a pretty young age.
It wasn’t the grand and dramatic story people hear about in movies and the like. My immediate family was supportive, and my more distant relatives responded with a murmur and an empty stare that was neither with me nor against me. I was here, queer – and, evidently, everyone was used to it.
But that’s not to say things weren’t without tension, even if just within myself. I tottered into a group of young queer activists during high school. These were radical, brilliant kids who were marching in protests and putting bills into action that would protect generations. Then there was me. My modus operandi? I wanted to get married to a lady. I may have been accepted, but inwardly I felt wholly inadequate.
So when I saw Rise Up! Social Justice in Art open at the San Jose Museum of Art, I was reluctant to go. I felt that taking space there would be an act of fraud, like someone would notice my presence, point an accusatory finger and shout “That woman! She hasn’t called her congressperson!”.
Still, I went. Maybe it was for the review, maybe it was the seductive siren song of Pride Month making me bold. Whatever it was, I’m glad I went, because Rise Up! is a small but truly spectacular exhibit.
This collection is a variety of mediums – from sculpture, to intricate watercolor, to massive mixed media pieces that literally command space in the room. A good example of this is Mickalene Thomas’s Portrait of Qusuquzah #5, a giant work of enamel, oil and rhinestones that depicts one of Thomas’s many muses in her passion for depicting strong black femininity. Each sequin is placed by hand, adorning the model’s eyeshadow and lips, and her deep, dark eyes stare out at whoever passes her with unquestioned self-assurance. There’s no other way to say it, Portrait of Qusuquzah #5 is a shrine to power that glitters as you approach it from every angle.
I was also drawn to Chris Ofill’s Untitled (Couple E), two portraits that depict an African-American couple dressed in royal regalia. This is a work that grows the more you watch it, as you take in the detail of the watercolor, the precision of the lines in the clothing and the way the colors seep and bleed into each other. It’s strangely soothing, almost cooling in a way. And once more it comes with two more pairs of piercing eyes.
What I went to see, though, and what got me to come back to the exhibit a second time, was Robert Arneson’s Five Times for Harvey, a collection of five portraits depicting Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, from his start in office to his eventual assassination. When I first saw these portraits I stood in front of them for a long time. The drawings are all based on the same smiling photo of Milk, but they’re depicted in these frantic, scratching lines and colors – except for the third one. The third portrait is all black and grey. If you look closely you can see the words NO DAN NO scrawled along his upper lip, a reference to Milk’s killer. And in the one following that the colors return with an explosion, blacking out Milk’s eyes and mouth. You can see BANG BANG BANG faintly running across his forehead.
In the final portrait Milk’s face is once again smiling and serene. There’s a gold star painting over it, a nod to the legacy the man left in his wake. It’s a legacy that can’t be shot down, one that rises with each wave of a rainbow flag. I found myself moved to tears right there in the museum.
I left Rise Up! with a sense of pride – who would’ve guessed. I could see my identity displayed in physical form, and it was beautiful. For all the queer persons and POC reading this, let me just say, your humanity is powerful. It is sequins and shadow, and so many colors. It doesn’t matter if you take part in every march or hold yourself more quietly, you deserve to see yourself made into art. Allies too, you have a chance to open yourself up to the souls and minds of your fellow Earth-mates. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to say this without hyperbole, so I’ll say it now – everyone should see this exhibit. Just to entice you I’ve left a few treasures unsaid, so you have a surprise or two in store when you come.
Now, if you excuse me, I have to call my congressperson.
- JUN 8-SEP 30: Rise Up! Social Justice in Art from the Collection of J. Michael Bewley | San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California
Five Times for Harvey, 1982
Mixed media on paper
30 × 24 inches
Gift of J. Michael Bewley
© Estate of Robert Arneson, 2018, licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.