Acrylic by Aurele Gould, 2017

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I took my girlfriend to see My Queer Valentine on a Monday morning; it was a date, I told her. We took the Metro down to King Street and walked to the Alexandria waterfront. Once we got there, we strolled into The Torpedo Factory Art Center’s Target Gallery, hands interlocked. 

For My Queer Valentine, the contemporary gallery’s spring show, the small space is filled with large-scale photographic prints, paintings on both large and small canvases, and sculpture. Visually, the pieces cover a broad range of styles, including a digitally influenced take on Abstract Expressionism, geometric interpretations of fire, Basquiat-esque mark-making and writing over photographs, sculpture with few references to recognizable forms, canvases made three-dimensional by the attachment of glittery found objects, and small silkscreen prints. Thematically, they may at first seem to not cohere, but that’s only because My Queer Valentine’s juried works cover a diverse and rich swath of queer life. 

As for taking my girlfriend, I had another motive that I didn’t say aloud, though she may have picked up on it. I wanted to enter that exhibition as a visibly gay person, and I wanted to see how that affected my experience of the art. It was the right choice. My Queer Valentine does more than curate work that examines what it means to be LGBTQ in the 21st century: It creates a queer space warm with the joy of recognition. 

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Some works speak directly to that joy, like artist Cat Gunn’s abstract canvases. Their dramatic patterns represent the harmony of being in a relationship where their partner sees them as their authentic, nonbinary self, they write in the wall text. There are glittering squares and wobbling lines moving back and forth across the plane, but things seem to be coming together the longer you look—parts that once made no sense have an internal logic that reveals itself with sustained attention and open mindedness. Recognition can be dangerous, and the closet offers safety, but it also means hiding behind a mask. The relief of dropping the charade and being seen is transcendent.

My Queer Valentine isn’t camp, not as a whole, but it’s full of artworks made by people who understand the humor and the wondrous pompousness of queer glamor. (That glamor and its high drama are knowingly self-important because there are still so many people who wish we didn’t have it.) The first pieces the viewer encounters play with the feminine trappings of artificial jewelry, glitter, plastic, and resin, all in bright, loud colors; one piece dripping with sequins invites viewers to “lick me until ice cream.” That kind of playful sexuality thrives in many of the works, even the more subdued ones. A beige canvas on the opposing wall asks the onlooker to “come (cum on my) back.” The half-joking, half-serious attitude toward sex is one of My Queer Valentine’s greatest strengths, highlighting the laughter and joy inherent in queer life and queer sex.

Linda Hesh’s “Kissing Booth” is another joyful artwork. It’s not a stunning feat of technique and construction; it’s just a wood and steel booth, like one you might see at a county fair in the ’50s. It advertises itself as, unsurprisingly, “KISSING BOOTH.” It’s not anchored to a wall. Instead, it stands out from a corner and beckons viewers to come in, where they might notice that its gingham pattern is made up of pictures of kissing same-sex couples. I’ll admit my biases here: I’ve always had a love for participatory art. But the booth’s standing invitation to come inside, to take a picture kissing underneath it, and to share that picture with the world is a brave act, even in 2020 in Alexandria—brave for the artist and the piece inviting those kisses, brave for the people who choose to do so. Even though queer desire is hypervisible in contemporary life, it’s not always recognized as a loving, human affect. By asking people to kiss, Hesh affirms the romance of the gesture and the genuine safety of the space around it. 

The most striking pieces were by D.C.-based photographer Matt Storm, a transgender man. His work is challenging, cheeky, and hard to look away from. The two images on display come from his Act of Looking series, where he returns to the same studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the famous gay vacation spot, to photograph his body “to create an expanded lexicon of ways to see a body, inclusive of ways to see my body,” he writes in his artist’s statement. In the first image, we see him standing naked, in a pose that looks relaxed but requires him to hold himself in place with his own strength. His muscles are tense but not flexed. His face isn’t overly expressive, but there’s a spark of playfulness in his eyes and a hint of a smile on his mouth. And his arm drapes behind his back, coming to rest between his legs, where he holds his fingers playfully—an obvious commentary on how, as he says, “my body is incongruous with how we are taught to see bodies.” In another, he clasps his hands in front of his crotch, fingers crossed. We can’t see his face, but we can feel the humor. The piece is titled “Crossing my Fingers, Getting Away with Something.”

But a different series of works stopped me in my tracks. Aurele Gould’s photographs pulled my gaze from the moment I entered the gallery. When I saw her triptych of an athlete putting pre-wrap around another girl’s thigh, I felt a lump in my throat. “A moment of transference is constructed, a care and an intimacy among women,” she writes in the wall text. Immediately I thought of Barbara Kruger’s 1981 piece “Untitled (You Construct Intricate Rituals),” which famously says “You construct intricate rituals that allow you to touch the skin of other men” over an image of men roughhousing. But I thought of it less because of its artistic impact and more because, for years, queer kids on Tumblr have been using it as a memetic reference point for jokes about the forbidden, magnetic pull of another person’s skin. In the three images of the piece, we see hands grab the inner thigh, let go to wrap the tape around, and return to place both hands on the partner’s leg. 

Likewise, I’d been primed to see Gould’s piece “Acrylic” before I walked in—it represents My Queer Valentine online—but I stopped myself from making a beeline to it. When I did make my way over and allowed myself to look, I noticed for the first time the two models’ sharp, long, matching acrylic nails gently cradling each other’s faces. That striking image is made more striking by those glittery nails. Gould knows this: “I like how thought processes can fold unto each other, like thinking about when stereotypes can be used and who they can be used by,” she wrote in the wall text. I felt a pang of recognition. I smiled. The two lovers in the photograph stared at me, nails shining, and I took my girlfriend’s manicured hand and stared back. 

105 N. Union St., Alexandria. (703) 746-4587. torpedofactory.org.

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