I'VE ALWAYS BEEN a little prejudiced against folks whose gender seems too fixed. I suspect manly men and girlie girls to be at best unimaginative, at worst intolerant or even dangerous. This I know is unfair. Conversely, it's always been easy to romanticize drag queens and kings as wise shamans with a deeper, more complete understanding of gender than the rest of us--sex-war truces on two legs.
But if there's anything one takes away from the The Genders That Be, a standing art exhibit and performance series continuing at Intermedia Arts through April 1, it's that gender identity is a very slippery thing--no less so for those serious enough about it to violate expectations for their biological sex. Take the series of Female-To-Male transgender portraits and self-portraits by Loren Cameron, himself a FTM. Along one wall, high-contrast black-and-white photographs of new men hang beside short autobiographical texts. These are a varied lot of men--some handsome, some not, some butch, some not. All talk about struggling to find some sort of acceptance. One intense-looking boy finds community in a hyper-masculine gay male bear bar. Another, a headbanger in a Metallica T-shirt with long hair and a little chin bristle, sitting astride a bicycle, worries about women, and the possibility that he'll be pre-judged as a sexist jerk (as he points out in his text, he's heard the way women sometimes talk about men). Others wrote about their fathers, male bonding, and late bar mitzvahs.
I found it quite touching, really, all this reverential questioning of maleness--its beauty, its capacity for brotherhood and quiet dignity (something easy to forget, especially during primary season). It sounds like a cliché, but rarely do you hear other sorts of men speaking this convincingly on gender. And here, as in the rest of the show, the emphasis is not on sex but on identification: How one either gets a bead on it, or learns to ride with the flux, depending on their preference. (Though not all are specified, there seems to be a fairly even split between queer and straight orientations among the artists and subjects--whatever precisely those terms mean when applied to trannies.)
As is the case with much identity art, the tendency among the works here is to focus on content in lieu of form. Cameron's photos are well-balanced and well-composed, but not particularly rich from a photographic standpoint. Overall the show seems more concerned with documentation than art per se--which is fine, since the richness of the subject matter generally makes up the slack. In Mahu's Garden is an installation by Kel Keller in tribute to the late Celie Edwards, who once described herself as "a transsexual lesbian thespian performance art diva living with AIDS." It's a multimedia memorial with walls crayoned by Edwards's nieces, a slide projector riffling old snapshots, two raw videotapes playing through small monitors (one a formal performance piece, the other showing Edwards at home in his tub reading from his memoirs), a series of photographic portraits (some collaged with Edwards's poetry), a bathtub centerpiece lined with memoir passages, and a book in which visitors can write messages to Edwards in care of The Great Beyond. Edwards was lovely--imagine a more elegant, feminized Billy Corgan--and hearing her recollections of being a 15-year-old drag queen running from violent homophobes in Loring Park, or of feeling faint at the beauty of a spring flower, one is grateful for the chance to meet an extraordinary person. But the response ultimately seems more to the person than to the art--a fuzzy distinction, I admit, as one can make a case for the transgender lifestyle as an artwork in and of itself.
Steven Grandell's work diverges from the rest. His large-scale oil painting and ink drawings transcend the show's predominant journalistic/documentary style, depicting fantastic androgynes amidst jungles of bones. In the way they look beyond the real world, they reminded me of the work of another transgender artist, the late cartoonist Vaughn Bode, creator of Junkwaffel and Cheech Wizard comics. It surprised me that Bode's name was mentioned nowhere in the show; indeed, Genders is largely ahistorical. Only in the transgender lit stacked up in the exhibit reading room, and in Grandell's video work StandStill, screened last Friday and Saturday, do we get a sense of how old the transgender tradition is, and how many cultures it informs. StandStill begins with a rabbinical scholar advancing the theory that Joseph (of Old Testament and Technicolor Dreamcoat fame) may have in fact been a queen, a transgender shaman with magical powers. It's a provocative thought, and one wishes the artists in The Genders That Be might have engaged more fully with The Genders That Were. As it stands, the show mainly asserts community--though making clear at the same time that there are about as many genders as there are people. Which means that a lot more stories, old and new, are waiting in the wings. CP
A free forum,"Gender Exploration and Relationships," will take place at Intermedia Arts Wednesday at 7 p.m. as part of The Genders That Be series. Call 871-4444 for program info.