'Queer Geographies' exhibit evolving diversity in America

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Rafael Soldi is frequently asked to curate queer art shows. The Seattle photographer usually says no. 

“It doesn’‍t seem much different to me than putting together a show of people with blue eyes or people who are tall,” he said. 

But when the Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side contacted him, the Peruvian-born curator recognized the chance to enter the conversation surrounding queer art from a different angle. Thus, “Here & Now: Queer Geographies in Contemporary Photography” was born. The exhibit, which continues through Saturday, features the work of seven artists from across the country whose depth and complexity was the reason for Mr. Soldi’‍s change of heart. 

“Nobody’‍s artist statement read, ‘‍I am gay, and this is my work,’‍ ” he said, laughing.

With a striking range of style and location, the exhibit centers around the idea of a journey. Artists grapple with the evolving face and definition of queer America. For Richard Renaldi, constantly shifting landscape signals that search. His photographs on the right are the first to catch visitors’‍ eyes. Each has the backdrop of a hotel room and chronicles Mr. Renaldi’‍s 15-year relationship. In some, he and his partner, Seth, hold hands. In others, they sit on opposite sides of a table. 

“The constant really is about us and our relationship, so the background is always changing,” said Mr. Renaldi. “What you see is either our closeness or the distance between us. I do think you also see the changes, the aging.” 

Mr. Soldi loves the “banal-ness” of Mr. Renaldi’‍s work. “It’‍s just two guys who have been taking trips together for 15 years, and there’‍s nothing special or different about it. It’‍s just normal,” the curator said.  

The ordinariness of Mr. Renaldi’‍s “Hotel Room Portraits” provides a stark contrast to other exhibited work. Zachary Drucker put together the gallery’‍s only video piece, in which picturesque scenery is spliced with violent language to evoke the terror many transgender Americans often feel. Challenging traditional gender binaries, Ms. Drucker’‍s eerie 8-minute “Lost Lake” highlights the dialogue of witch hunts and hatred familiar to nonconforming individuals. “Here & Now” also features Elle Perez, who explores gender identity through a series of portraits taken across the country. 

In Silver Eye’‍s center room, an Apple computer sits below a wall of portraits of subjects ranging in age from 12 to 21. On the computer are slides with their first names, ages, hometowns and stories. This display belongs to the “We Are The Youth” project. Written by Diana Scholl and photographed by Laurel Golio, the series blends portraiture and personal narrative to document the experiences of LGBTQ youth. 

“We think it’‍s important that youth who are maybe just coming out can see these stories and know that they’‍re not alone,” said Ms. Scholl. “They say a picture’‍s worth a thousand words, but there are words it can’‍t say, so being able to let the youth speak for themselves is powerful.”

For four years, the duo has traveled to photograph and interview America’‍s youngest queer population. In addition to activist goals, Ms. Scholl notes that their work -- most notably the book they just released -- documents the experiences of LGBTQ teenagers and young adults in an era of rapidly changing politics and social norms. Ms. Scholl and Ms. Golio hope that such experiences will be radically different within a few decades. Ultimately, the project’‍s diversity ties it to the other artists featured at Silver Eye.

“There is not one way to be queer,” said Ms. Scholl. 

That idea is echoed in the work of Molly Landreth, who spent seven years driving across the country to explore and document the contemporary definition of queer. It is also found in the wall collage by #1 Must Have, two Seattle artists photographing within a 3-mile radius.

“On a macro and micro scale, people were taking these very intense emotional journeys to figure out: What was it about them that was different?” Mr. Soldi said.  

Those journeys might look very different -- from the international hotel rooms of Mr. Renaldi’‍s work to the hundreds of adult video arcades photographed by Michael Max McLeod -- and their scales vary from #1 Must Have’‍s Seattle neighborhood to Ms. Perez’‍s nationwide gender depictions. Yet each of the artists in “Here & Now” challenges stereotypical conceptions of queer identity. Ms. Scholl remembers Mr. Soldi charging each of them to look beyond themselves and contribute to a movement. He found power in both the extraordinary and the normal.

“I wanted somebody to walk in -- anybody to walk in -- and find one way to connect to the work,” Mr. Soldi said.

Emma Brown: ebrown@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3778.

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