The first dictionary entry for “queer” defines the word as meaning “strange; odd.” As we know, this word has taken on many other meanings, depending on who’s using it and what is intended. Two galleries are currently presenting work that offers us the opportunity to contemplate the many ways this word is used, and the reasons we categorize anything as “strange or odd.”

In press materials for “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” at Speedwell Projects (through Dec. 23), curator Faythe Levine describes the work on display, all by LGBTQ artists, as “a visual fabric of our collective love, rage, resistance, healing, and grief – amplifying the multitudes of ways queerness can exist.” At Zero Station, we have “Surfacing” (through Oct. 29), which highlights the work of three emerging Maine artists: Jarid del Deo, Meg Hahn and Mali Mrozinski.

As I walked through “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” I kept thinking about an essay I read many years ago by Andrew Sullivan, the British-American conservative gay writer (a concept I still consider – dare I say? – odd, if not oxymoronic). Sullivan was attempting to evaluate what contributions gay people brought to the world. He hazarded a few ideas, but, as I recall at least, it came down to a sense of style, both aesthetically and in terms of joie de vivre.

Good god Andrew, I thought, is that really the best you can do? No one would accuse “Eyes” of being an assembly of polished, stylish work, though there is certainly joy and affirmation in much of it.

Years later, when same-sex marriage became federally legal, I heard a more satisfactory (for me) explanation. A spiritual teacher I knew talked about the optimizing force of the universe, which is instrumental in moving humanity forward along the continuum of oneness, tolerance and acceptance. This optimizing force was pushing a new awareness to the surface not only about our LGBTQ brothers, sisters and non-binary family, but also further exposing the fallacy of “othering” in general.

Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan, “A Brief History Of How Music Made Me Queer,” 2022, embroidery floss and beads on fabric, 18” x 28” Photo by Luke Myers

The Maine-born lesbian and feminist artist Michelle Beaulieu-Morgan’s embroidery work, for instance – “A Brief History of How Music Made Me Queer” – certainly refers to her sexual orientation. But more profoundly it is an incarnation of what she has called her “too muchness,” an ebullience that was often treated as inappropriately obsessive during her youth.

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It’s a terrific work, teeming with musical references to, among others, “The Wizard of Oz,” Tim Curry in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Alvin and the Chipmunks, and imagery and lyrics by groups as diverse as Pink Floyd, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Janis Joplin and David Bowie. Despite the title, many of these references are not specifically homosexual or heterosexual. Rather, they are appreciated by many creeds, colors and persuasions.

Shoog McDaniel, “MerKiss,” 2021, 10″ x 15″ Photo by Luke Myers

“Queer” was, of course, adopted by the LGBTQ community as a way of transforming the word’s stigma into a statement of pride and power. Shoog McDaniel describes themself as “a Southern queer, non-binary, fat photographer and artist living in Gainsville, Florida.” Their nonet photographs of corpulent bodies – swimming, kissing, sleeping on top of each another – have a celebratory, in-your-face feel that obliterates all traces of the shame society attempts to heap onto people that its limited “mainstream” thought deems to be “overweight.” McDaniel sees fleshy plenitude as beautiful. It is among the most successful works in the show.

“Eyes” is uneven in terms of quality, something that might be an intentional challenge to our perceptions of what constitutes beauty, talent and “art.” Luzaka Branfman-Verissimo’s work concerns itself with the way stories of overlooked people – people of color, gender non-conforming and so on – are told. One method they use is to break words up illogically and overlay them with obscuring patterns, as in one painting whose message we eventually decipher as, “Our kinship is sacred vital lube ritual.”

Luzaka Branfman-Verissimo, “Collective survival part three: our kinship is sacred vital lube,” 2022 acrylic paint, flashe, wood, hardware 48” x 24” x variable dimensions Photo by Luke Myers

This piece is intriguing because of the interactivity the work forces as we try to figure out what it says and what it means. But others resembling amateurishly painted (again, perhaps intentionally so) sandwich boards are less engaging.

Natasha Woods and Marcello Martinez’s video “Lavender Country” is basically a profile of Patrick Haggarty, the producer of the first all-gay country album in 1973 (the film’s title) and, he claims, the first person to be kicked out of the American Peace Corps for homosexual behavior. He’s an interesting subject and holds a nuanced perspective on country music’s roots. It’s accomplished, but essentially a 13-minute talking head documentary rather than an art video.

ODD VIEWS, UNEXPECTED MATERIALS

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“Surfacing” is unconventional in a different way. For Jarid del Deo, “oddness” manifests in his quirky perspectives and compositions, as well as in his choice of subject. You could say his paintings are “queer” in the sense of being idiosyncratic, even eccentrically, strange. “Night Moves,” for instance, is a view of the back of a truck that is transporting logs on a highway. It exudes that off-putting feeling you get when you’re behind one of these semis, as you imagine one of the tree trunks slipping off the flatbed and through your windshield.

Jarid del Deo, “Night Moves” Photo courtesy of the artist

It’s not what we might think of as usual subject matter. Yet its quotidian – almost banal – theme still manages somehow to be beautiful in its geometries, its dusk light and the way each trunk’s rings are lovingly rendered to telegraph their uniqueness.

“Zuma” and “Brown Haiku” feel like tongue-in-cheek twists on traditional still-life painting in their resolutely unlikely combination of objects viewed from above. In “Zuma” we see what looks like the cover of a book on Lakota leader Crazy Horse, a yellow tape measure and two rocks (one possibly obsidian, the other possibly a chunk of concrete with green paint on it).

In “Haiku” he assembles a green rock (jade? emerald?), a twig and a dish of pinecones. Both sets of objects appear randomly – perhaps consciously artlessly – arranged. They both seem to assert the “ho-humness” of the normal, but in doing so end up inviting us to ponder unlovely, unremarkable objects more closely and, perhaps, with more respect.

Mali Mrozinski, “Your Weave is Broken: I will never fix you” Photo by J.E. Paterak

Mali Mrozinski’s textile works can be very affecting. “Your Weave is Broken: I will never fix you” looks initially soothing, with its monochromatic natural linen colors and organic shapes. But as the meaning of the title dawns, we can experience it like a person’s heart torn and mended again and again during its passage through life. In our tumultuous times we might even come in contact with our own feelings of being constantly torn apart and put back together.

“Distressed Flag” (diptych) is a circular-shaped piece that intimates a target rendered in earth tones, while below it is a square of various shades of black fabric that looks as formalistic as a Josef Albers painting. Viewing it through the prism of its title gives depth to the beauty of the dual works, which suddenly seem stand-ins for First Nations peoples (the earthy, sand-toned circle) and people of African descent. Each is contemplative and elegant on its own merits, yet the possibility that each could also represent an experience of brutal displacement imparts a certain melancholy.

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Meg Hahn, “Cool on Warm” Image courtesy of the artist

Meg Hahn seems intent on disrupting the formalism of the grid. Almost all her paintings consist of a matrix of a harlequin-like diamond pattern into which she introduces a variety of interventions. Often the intervention is what looks like a deliberately random color treatment of individual diamonds that disturbs the grid’s regularity.

But often there are more jarring intrusions. In “Cool on Warm” she bisects the panel vertically with a line of deep blue dots, which string together other shapes – circles, ovals, rectangles, triangles. Or she will overlay the harlequin grid with another shape, as in “Window Overlaps,” which indicates an arched two-panel window with an incongruously cerulean dot two-thirds of the way from the top margin.

This is not to say we need to like anything in either show. But in their own individual ways, these artists ask that we challenge the impulse that gives rise to our positions about what is normal versus abnormal.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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