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Queer Threads: CURIOUS SPACES is indeed set up in curious spaces. The collaborative exhibition, put on by Transformer, is a kaleidoscopic mash-up. It builds on a 2014 exhibition organized by John Chaich, Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community, which focused on cheeky, unconventional fiber art that explored the textures of queerness, at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Later, Chaich published a coffee table book with the same name. CURIOUS SPACES, which Chaich also curated, celebrates the project’s sixth anniversary through online talks, a “curious cabaret,” and two energetic solo installations, separate but thematically linked, by emerging artists worth keeping tabs on.
Those installations are majorly affected—like every other aspect of life—by the pandemic. Both sit behind windows, where they’re visible to viewers from the sidewalk like a cross between a holiday retail display and a diorama. It’s wonderful to be able to see and engage with the work from the relative safety of the outdoors. But it’s nothing like seeing the work normally. How could it be?
When I made it to André Terrel Jackson’s display “Crowns,” set up in the community window of The Corner at Whitman-Walker at the intersection of 14th and R streets NW, the most startling distraction was sound. Across the street, beeping cement mixers and industrial equipment screamed. Weekday traffic on 14th Street NW whizzed past. Outdoor diners at the Bluestone Lane cafe talked and laughed. The second was light: I’d arrived around noon, and it was hard to see anything but my own reflection in the south-facing windows. Focus didn’t come easily. When it did, it was rewarding.
Jackson’s display—three metaphorical crowns fit for queens, tied together by a large photographic print in the back—is mesmerizing. The bay window invites viewers from three angles, and it’s situated in front of a parklet with benches and landscaped shrubs, where one can can sit and consider it from a distance. Their use of unconventional materials almost makes the viewer want to put their face against the glass, trying to figure out which parts of the headpieces are sequins, which are fiber, and which are metal. In the pieces, Jackson makes metal look organic, sequins seem like pearl, and fiber shine like glass. Their work is inspired by Black femme aesthetics and churchgoing culture, and the three pieces specifically pay homage to icons: the Williams sisters, Nina Simone, and Alice Walker. And those hand-crocheted feats, despite being accomplished on their own, are elevated by the commanding self-portrait of the artist in the background, naked other than a woven hood over their head.
Next up was Zoe Schlacter’s “Darn,” visible through the storefront window at Transformer near 14th and P streets NW. Schlacter’s installation is larger in its size, its variety of materials, and its number of pieces. Overall, it’s a visual smorgasbord, featuring chaotic textures, bright colors, and a number of dramatic dildos. Schlacter’s work isn’t interested in focusing on queerness as a burden or a site of academic posturing. They dive straight into the whimsy and pleasure of embodiment, taking the viewer along with them. You can get a glimpse of all their work by moving around to the corners of Transformer’s large front window, and if you spend enough time staring, details from the back of the space make themselves known—a tapestry declares “My body is woven” as “fingers” grow out of colorful blobs, making cats’ cradles out of yarn. The playful, colorful sexuality of Schlacter’s work is funny, wry, and above all welcome. When Capital Pride comes down P Street NW in June with babies in strollers and rainbow Lockheed Martin banners, that display has very little to do with what Schlacter’s putting on the windowsill. Here, queer sexuality thrusts into the public space of the sidewalk.
But the sidewalk is not made for considering art. It’s an inherently transitory space, and it makes a viewer feel rushed along. I missed with sudden fervor the stark walls and angled lighting of a gallery. They don’t just recede from the art—that could be achieved with softer colors and angles. They create a space that refocuses our attention, eliminates distraction, and heightens the senses. Most of all, walls like that mark a space where you are meant to take your time. I held my ground on the parklet bench outside The Corner and the smaller zebra-striped bench in front of Transformer, but every moment I felt the tug of daily life pulling on me, telling me to walk away. When I did, I left with the distinct feeling I was missing something. It was no fault of the artists—what was missing was normal life, the quiet hum of a gallery, and the hand-in-hand feelings of leisure and seriousness that come with seeing art.
So when the sun shining on the windows made it hard to see anything but my own reflection, it felt like an on-the-nose metaphor. I couldn’t walk into a space where the art came first. I had to look past myself—past the noise, past the foot and car traffic—to see it. It’s an unambiguous plus for the city that these two artists still got to share their work, but while the windows might attract the attention of more people than an indoor exhibit would, they’re too easy to glide past. I’ll be endlessly glad when we can next stroll through a gallery safely.
“Crowns” is on view at The Corner at Whitman-Walker to Oct. 24. 1377 R St. NW. (202) 745-7000. whitmanwalkerimpact.org/the-corner.
“Darn” is on view at Transformer to Nov. 14. 1404 P St. NW. (202) 483-1102. transformerdc.org.