Visual ArtCurrently Hanging: The Conjoining of a Gay Man and a Straight Man
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 12:57 PM
All images courtesy the artists
Anthony Sonnenberg, with Rodrigo Valenzuela behind the camera.
It must have seemed a bit of a stretch when Anthony Sonnenberg and Rodrigo Valenzuela pitched a collaborative exhibition called Self to Gallery4Culture. The middle of the Venn diagram describing the way their selves overlap is pretty much limited to the fact that they both found themselves at the University of Washington's art grad school in the 2010s. And that neither of them is from Seattle. Otherwise, think up a bunch of differences and they probably apply, starting with gay/straight, Texan/Chilean, native English speaker/native Spanish speaker.
Sonnenberg's from small-town Texas. As an artist, he performs in costumes and gives taxidermied animals new baroque skins. And as his quilted, sparkly self-portrait in the front window of Gallery4Culture reveals, he's both a cherub and a bear of a man. An out gay bear of a man, working up the gumption to be proud of it, from the looks of it.
The self-portrait on the quilt is full-length. It has presence. It hangs from two white ceramic hands, gripping it delicately in the fingers, that the artist sculpted (based on his own hands) and attached to the wall. They are more than just hangers. They hold the quilt as if they're showing it to someone: you. But they also leave space behind the quilt. There's the suggestion that something's behind there, or if this is Hamlet's arras, that someone could be back there. A more "real" or everyday Sonnenberg, maybe? But there's nobody. The quilt is a beautifully prepared surface showing you its surfaceness. Sonnenberg calls it Vera Icon, in reference to Saint Veronica, the woman who wiped Jesus's face with her cloth as he made his way up to the cross. Jesus's face stayed on the cloth, a true or "vera" in Latin icon, as well as a testament to the truthfulness of images, an icon of truth.
On this quilted surface the nude Sonnenberg is outlined in white and off-white beads and shells and freshwater pearls, with flower buttons for nipples. Because the fabrics are every color and pattern, his figure is somewhat camouflaged, his flesh (referred to specifically as white by the choice of beads and buttons) also becoming the quilt. His pose is based on a Roman sculpture of Hercules, the ultimate figure of something way beyond pride: power, unlabored-over. Sonnenberg's trying on the pose. Throughout Self you see Sonnenberg trying something on, as if trying something on is an intrinsic part of who he is.
Valenzuela in two deserts at once.
Valenzuela's identity is displayed next to Sonnenberg's self portrait Vera Icon in that front window of the gallery. He's showing a large black-and-white photograph, fairly tough-guy stuff. He's out in the middle of a desert splaying out his arms in a pose like an airplane. He's taken his shirt off and he's showing brown skin and muscles. It's all tall, dark, handsome territory.
But at the same time, he's perching on top of a deflated car tire. It's been discarded in the desert. His airplane, apparently, is going nowhere. Plus, he's playing for the camera, it's a kid move to make an airplane on top of the legs of a parent. This isn't the serious stuff of classic male performance art or classic male land art. It hasn't entirely abandoned those muscle-bound bullish traditions, either. In contrast to Sonnenberg's trying-on self-portrait, Valenzuela pictures himself doing something (even though the effectiveness of this doing is in question), while taking clothing off.
Valenzuela's photo also embodies a geographical dislocation at his core. He's from Chile. He came to the US illegally in 2005 (he's now a US resident). Pictures like this one are fabricated from two locations stitched together, north and south—Eastern Washington, say, and Chile, Peru, California (you probably wouldn't notice this unless you knew his work from his past shows; I wish he'd include some deeply but firmly embedded cue).
Aside from these two self-portraits, the rest of Self is a series of videos starring Sonnenberg. Valenzuela is behind the camera. He is the silent partner, a shadowy presence (strong silent type?). The artists said Sonnenberg created objects, Valenzuela created actions and environments.
It's hard to walk with a mirror in front of you.
In one video, we see Sonnenberg in a room in a house in blue early-morning light, pulling on a button-up shirt, khakis, and a pair of Ferragamos. In a companion video, Sonnenberg traipses backwards through a lush and mucky forest, muddying those Ferragamos. His body is outfitted with an armature that holds a mirror up to his face. Rather than seeing what's in front of him as he walks, he sees himself, and what's behind or past. The blue light of the house and the green of the forest are like the quilt, fleshing out the character, the self, but while remaining foreign, their own selves, the unseen Valenzuela at work.
A third video is double-sided, projected on two sides of a screen. One view is claustrophobic, the other romantic. In the claustrophobic view, you see Sonnenberg red in the face and sweating. He's working at something, and his head is encased in a big mask of some kind. The camera's inside the mask, watching him work.
In the romantic view the mask is explained. It's a huge, maybe 8-foot object he's wearing on his head. It wobbles a little and looks heavy. It resembles a tulip or a jester's hat. Sonnenberg makes his way down a path through a grassy field, then past the point where there's any path anymore, then straight into a swamp, where he submerges himself and finally gets free of the headpiece in a baptismal sort of scene.
The headpiece looks like something John Grade might make. But there's nothing queer about Grade's objects, unless you consider that strapping a pair of sculpted horns onto the front of your pickup truck and driving through a desert (as Grade has done) is a sort of thespianic version of strapping a pair of horns onto the front of your pickup truck and driving through a desert to prove you're a big man who killed a big animal. Sonnenberg's and Valenzuela's version is burlesque. The tulip is both floppy and hard. Male artists often shy away from making work about identity, about "self," these days. Maybe that's what's so refreshing about Self.
Seen individually, the videos in Self are actually a little confounding and unsatisfying, minor parts of a bigger thing. That thing is the conjoining of two men. Their actual Venn diagram is just coalescent enough to be interesting but it's never quite defined. All the edges are blurry—the shared ones and their own—and I get the sense there are some places where they really don't come together, or where they come together completely uncomfortably. They remain two very different and each-his-own men. Even in the comparatively less homophobic art world, gays and straights don't often collaborate this intimately without some kind of overarching structure or narrative that the audience is told about—say, we went on a trip or we're brothers from another mother or we're enemies, ha ha. Or if we're talking in Hollywood terms, there's the buddy comedy and the bromance. Nothing like that is happening here. In this show, each man allows part of his own self to be depicted through the other.
What feels like the missing link is their two bodies ever appearing in the same physical space. There is an electrical charge in the window where the two self-portraits vie for attention, each self offering his own best performance. How could these possibly come together in the same frame? I'd have loved another moment that added that question to Self's hall of disembodied/embodied videos.