Staring, though usually deemed impolite, is not only accepted but encouraged at “The Art of Disability Culture.”
On display at Ruth’s Table Gallery in San Francisco through May 20, the exhibition features several works from 12 artists, each with at least one visible or invisible disability. Their creations invite attendees to connect with the Bay Area disability community and to enter a relationship of understanding with disability culture as a whole.
Upon opening the doors, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to a 6-foot tall painting of a nearly life-sized man, glowing in an outline of pastel acrylic paints against a dark blue backdrop. As the viewer attentively scans over the man’s bare feet, his short right arm and the two fingers protruding from his left shoulder, they are met with gentle eyes staring back at them. The gaze of Bill Bruckner’s self-portrait looks at the viewer with the same sense of curiosity, beginning an exchange of mutual interest and vulnerability.
Bruckner painted many self-portraits such as this one as a way to embrace his own corporeal existence before turning to portraits of others. In the gallery, near his image are three paintings from his series “Portraits of People with Disabilities.” Authentically depicted as their everyday selves, each painted person interacts with the viewer through their gaze, opening a moment for shared eye contact and building a sense of understanding that sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition.
From a video depicting American Sign Language as a full-body dance to colorful drawings of medication bottles lined with deep indentations from the artist’s heavy hand, each artwork uniquely expresses the various realities of living with a disability.
Though many disabilities appear in detectable, physical forms, invisible disabilities such as chronic pain must be communicated to others if accommodations are needed. This imperceptibility is often tied to negative stigmas associated with weakness and laziness, which can lead to gaslighting. Disabled queer artist Rachel Ungerer works to shatter these stigmas by artistically constructing pieces that bridge understanding across diverse lived experiences.
With jeans as her canvas, “Will I Lose My Dignity, Invisible in Your World?” features Ungerer’s unconventional approach to painting and storytelling. Invisible disabilities enter the physical realm as a brightly painted woman hunches over on a bus, pain evoked through her tightened facial expression, only to be acknowledged by an older woman with a cane. The other bus riders practically disappear in the blue jean background, seeming to exist in a world separate from the vivid blue wheelchair-accessible sign that hovers over the two women with differing disabilities.
History weaves its way into many of the displayed pieces, celebrating the work that paved the way for modern laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Anthony Tusler’s black-and-white photographs powerfully document the 1977 disability rights protest in San Francisco through groups of wheelchair and standing protestors holding signs with phrases such as “We Shall Overcome.” These images contrast with his contemporary colored photographs of disabled people casually taking part in spaces, such as the stage of a 2017 dance performance.
Additionally, to shape the present as more inclusive, QR codes accompany the caption of each piece at the exhibition, taking attendees through an optional auditory experience of the works — many intimately spoken by the artists themselves. Braille guides and large print materials are also available, extending the accessibility of the artworks and redefining the types of relationships that can be had with visual art.
Though change continues to take place, Michaela Oteri’s 2020 self-portrait explicitly communicates that there is still work to be done as she sits in her wheelchair with a shirt that reads, “The future is accessible.”
As differences continue to divide humanity, “The Art of Disability Culture” sets forth an opportunity to unite. Each artwork emanates a safe space to connect with the perspective of a fellow human being with vulnerability and compassion. It’s a much-needed reminder to move through the world with a curious mind and open heart — to step away from averted gazes and unnecessary divisions in favor of an integrated society willing to grow.