Harvey Milk Photo Gallery celebrates legacy, considers uncertain future of queer resistance

Ryan Tuozzolo/Staff

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At the welcome reception of the “Stonewall 50 Years Anniversary Art Exhibit,” the doors of the Harvey Milk Photo Center were propped wide open, the soft breeze of a San Francisco summer afternoon wafting into the room from the adjacent Duboce Park.

It wasn’t what you’d expect from the opening evening of an art gallery. Sure, the pieces were posed carefully, just so against the white walls. But the usual markers of exclusivity were missing. Guests arrived not in business casual, but in whatever they pleased — matching blue plaid shorts and button-up, self-made get-ups of netting or, in one individual’s case, nothing at all.

It felt less like a formal gathering and more like the organic coming together of individuals invested in the celebration of queer art; an atmosphere accentuated by the fact that the opening included a DJ, Carlos Sandoval, and a full drag performance that included San Francisco’s own Peaches Christ.

“(It’s) supporting the community with having the show here,” said Dave Christensen, the photo center’s director, to the Daily Californian. “It is a community gallery,” he said.

There was the local community, the longtime Bay Area residents who had congregated to participate in the eccentric, colored celebration of art that Urban Remedy and skyscrapers have begun replacing at an alarming rate. 

The exhibition also marks an achievement for the 50 artists (“50 artists for 50 years,” Christensen explained) whose work Christensen and his artistic team selected from hundreds of submissions. Many of the names behind the included works demonstrated their dedication by attending the opening — even if they had to come from the East Coast or, in one case, Europe.

The gallery commemorated figures who have paved the way for LGBTQ+ communities, honoring contemporary queer voices and laying the groundwork for future generations of marginalized artists. The theme of transformation, of proudly displaying one’s authentic self as an act of breaking free of constraining norms, provided the skeleton around which Christensen and his collaborators developed the body of the gallery.

Fittingly, the first piece of the collection to be hung in the gallery and the face of the show, features a butterfly. Designed by San Francisco-based teaching artist Gordon Silveria, the butterfly sports a heart-shaped thorax and proudly displays its rainbow-striped wings. The illustration is bright and simplistic — but its transgression of ideals of respectable art is part of the point, Silveria said.

Though the gallery proclaims itself a celebration of the New York Stonewall riots and their cultural legacy, part of its mission is to remind audiences that landmark acts of queer resistance took place before 1969.

Hank Trout, a longtime writer, San Francisco resident and AIDS survivor, proclaimed as much in his commemorative essay, featured prominently at the beginning of the gallery. Trout appeared at the reception in the flesh for a reading of the piece, titled “Stonewall 50 — and Before,” and softly yet firmly brought his written words to life. Trout brought to light the long legacy of queer resistance, highlighting the San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria riot led by trans women protesting their exclusion from gay bars. The piece served as an apt warning against oversimplifying the long, complex history of LGBTQ+ activism.

That theme of remembrance is echoed in the work of Michael Johnstone and David Faulk, both of whom were featured in the exhibit itself. The character Mrs. Vera, a drag queen in neon garb created by the duo and played by Faulk, smiled down from a full-size painting the length of the wall.

Johnstone expressed disapproval of the notion that gay activism has completed its work. Ms. Vera, capturing the spirit and joy of all those who perished in the AIDS crisis, is a visual symbol of memory and of the ongoing fight. As Johnstone put it, “You have to remind them.” He gestured at the hills sloping upward past the park, explaining that the atmosphere of the city has veered away from activism and toward complacency. He doesn’t want the urgency of vital conversation to fade away.

Much of that conversation around LGBTQ+ art and representation also concerns histories of intersectionality, a theme featured in several works. Arthur Tress, a veteran photographer, presented a never-before-exhibited portrait collection of LGBTQ+ children with their parents in various California towns. One depicted a son turning back as his father placed a hand on his shoulder — a moving gesture of compassion.

Though the monochromatic images are lent a timeless quality, Tress emphasized that the conversation surrounding those parental relationships remains a fraught topic. He confirmed that he did not have difficulty finding his subjects, including friends and acquaintances who agreed to pose for each picture. Each snapshot merges the distance between two individuals — one who grew up before the Stonewall riots, one who felt its aftermath during their formative years — and brings them together in a cohesive, intense manner.

“This is not like the commercial galleries,” said Tress, whose work has also been shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “There’s a nice full spectrum of art that is heartfelt.”

Ryan Tuozzolo is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].
Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].