ArtRage Gallery’s ‘Queer Icons’ exhibit honors local LGBTQ+ people of color

Since 2011, Gabriel García Román’s “Queer Icons” series, whose portraits honor queer and trans people of color, has grown and flourished. The artist, based in New York City, initially did portraits of friends and friends of friends. Ultimately, the circle of subjects expanded to people in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities. And García Román has shown his artworks at numerous venues including Gallery Aferro in Newark, New Jersey; the Center for Photography at Woodstock, New York; and the Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco.

His most recent exhibit, consisting of 34 portraits, is currently on display at the ArtRage Gallery. The show draws from both past work and from portraits created during spring, 2022. In preparation for the ArtRage exhibition, García Román created portraits of ten Syracuse residents. Those pieces clearly supply a local component and also integrate smoothly into the series.

Each work, it should be noted, is a one-of-a-kind print. While some of the prints were created by digital printing on fabric, most come from a multistep process: taking a photograph, transferring the negative to a metal plate, adding patterns and color to the print. In instances where the artist invited a subject to contribute a handwritten text, the text is screenprinted. The final work appears within a handmade frame.

Viewers soon discover that every work reflects an individual design. For example, the portrait of Giselle Lian incorporates her image, her name and a reddish background; she, like other subjects, has a halo around her head. Rev. Freida’s portrait, meanwhile, combines lush purple color, faint text, and gold fringe on the fabric.

Variations are pervasive throughout the exhibit. García Román doesn’t ask subjects to follow a script when they submit their own writing; some muse, some reminisce, some comment at length. In the portrait of Syracuse artist Ellen Blalock, her image is accompanied by bird shapes, with the birds seemingly a metaphor for freedom. The text is very brief. Panda Dulce’s portrait wraps a poetic passage around her image. That poem begins with these words: “i am illegible and exquisite/scrappy + enduring/i am burning/a tenderhearted healer in search of healing.”

At the same time, the exhibition has unifying elements. García Román has indicated he finds inspiration in the portraiture styles of Flemish, Christian Orthodox, and Renaissance paintings, particularly the work of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van deer Weyden, both of whom lived in the Netherlands. In his artist’s statement, García Román says that “much as traditional religious paintings give a sense of safety and meditative calm on a home, the works in the series aspire to provide a similar sense of refuge that’s drawn from the inner grace of the subjects and projected outwards on a world that might not always be safe.”

The ArtRage show displays portraits of young adults, middle-aged people, and elders. Many of the subjects are artists and organizers, writers, volunteers with community-based organizations and healthcare workers.

That’s certainly true of the ten Syracusans whose portraits hang at ArtRage. A caption accompanying Jose Miguel Hernandez Hurtado’s portrait mentions his longtime advocacy for cultural opportunities for youth. He continues to serve as artistic director and dance instructor for La Joven Guardian which has performed over 21 contemporary and classical Spanish children’s plays.

And the caption running beneath Rahzie Seals’ portrait discusses multiple roles as a community activist: founding member of Black Lives Matter Syracuse who helped organize a 2020 rally that brought over 3,000 people to the steps of City Hall; recent appointee to the newly formed LGBTQ+ Advisory Board to the city of Syracuse.

The show also references the latest projects undertaken by Ellen Blalock and Kyle Bass. Her photo exhibition, “Home to Home: A Refugee’s Experience,” documents the journey of Salat Ali who traveled from Syracuse to a refugee camp in Kenya to visit his mother who he hadn’t seen for 14 years. The show is being displayed at Petit Branch Library throughout the month of June.

Bass, a playwright, wrote “salt/city/blues” which premiered at Syracuse Stage this month and runs through June 26. He’s written several plays including “Citizen James, or The Young Man Without a Country,” about the young James Baldwin. It streamed nationally in 2021.

In addition, the show presents the portrait of Hunter Kusak who identifies with the pronouns they/them. Kusak attends Syracuse University and has been a peer educator with ACR Health, an assistant educator at Reach CNY, and part of the Youth Advisory Board for the local Q-Center.

The local connection also includes the exhibit being dedicated to the late Nikeeta Slade, remembered as a community organizer and Black proletarian feminist. Her portrait, which was drawn by Laura Jaffee, is on display in the gallery.

Finally, the exhibit shows that the “Queer Icons” series is still dynamic and focused. It evolves as seen by the successful inclusion of a local component in the ArtRage show. It continues to feature vivid colors; even a casual viewing of the portraits reveals the artist’s use of red, brown, gold and an array of other colors. And it fulfills García Román’s commitment to honor his subjects, to see them as worthy of attention and their stories worth telling.

“Gabriel García Román: Queer Icons” is on display through July 8 at ArtRage, 505 Hawley Ave. The gallery is open from two pm to six pm Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and from noon to four pm on Saturdays. Admission is free. For more information, call 315-218-5711 or access www.artragegallery.org.

Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in the Syracuse area.

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