Pillbox

We have a future, perhaps

Credit: Gowri Sunder/ Credit: Gowri Sunder/

Audre Lorde wrote, “History is not kind to us / we restitch it with the living / past memory forward / into desire / into the panic articulation.”

Queer women don’t get to grow up seeing their own history, and so they don’t find validation and inspiration in those like them. In the summer of 2015, Hayley Kiyoko released the music video for “Girls like Girls.” For me, this was one of my first introductions to the possibility of queerness and fantasy. That same year, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the United States. In the context of this sweeping social change, the music of artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, and Halsey created spaces in pop music for girls to explore this idea of fantasy and self for those who couldn’t relate to the dominant brands of heterosexual feminine fantasy like Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran.

Since 2015, the political landscape has of course changed, with Trump quoted saying that Mike Pence wanted to “hang them all” in reference to gay rights and Betsy DeVos rolling back the Obama administration’s protections of LGBTQ students. In the face of policies driven by ignorance and hate, queer artists have refused to be silenced and are claiming their spaces with greater confidence.

It was from this mindset that Summer Leavitt began the work for her solo show We have a future, perhaps at The Frame gallery. After the election, she began to wrestle with her identity as a lesbian artist in the context of Trump’s America. She spent the year working with her own experiences and memory to use her work as an artist to immortalize a piece of queer history. In her statement, Leavitt quotes Ann Cvetkovich: “In the absence of institutionalized documentation or in opposition to official histories, memory becomes a valuable historical resource, and ephemeral and personal collections of objects stand alongside the documents of the dominant culture in order to offer alternative modes of knowledge.”

And so, this show is about memory and nostalgia. Entering the gallery space, you are hit with the smell of soft perfumes and musk. The show is carefully curated, with minimalistic swatches of colors and intentionally placed pieces, intended to evoke all the senses with cola flavored lollipops and tactile paintings and performances. The gallery is colored like Valentine’s Day, with a palette of pinks, reds, blacks, and purples. Leavitt herself pulls together this palette, clad together on a opening day in a bright red suit with matching lipstick.

This is fitting, perhaps, as this show is about working with performance. Her piece “Untitled (Wish You Were Here)” presents ongoing project where she exchanges a postcard with lipstick kisses with a lover. The back room holds a video piece entitled “The Mannish Strut of a Particularly Confident Woman.” Her work plays with the memories of self, lovers, and love.

On opposite ends of the room are paintings that draw from the era of Rothko and Pollock, artists who once represented pure American masculinity. Leavitt has used these beautiful gradient pieces as self-portraiture, the first “Untitled (Spring, 2015, Mixing Fluids and Dreaming, Ad Nauseum)” reflects on a relationship she had with a woman during her time in Paris, whose perfume she would wear when she woke up with her every day. The painting is layers and layers of scent, trying to preserve the memory of this relationship by recreating her partner’s perfume.

On the opposite side of the room is a soft blush painting, made from canvas dyed with red wine, entitled “Untitled (Love Potion No. 3).” Leavitt talked about how she wears perfume and lipstick every day, so the presence of these materials in her work was essential to her work with selfportraiture. The perfumes in this piece, in contrast to her first painting, is layered perfume and essential oils that she wears every day. This piece then emphasizes the question of self and immortalizes a routine vignette of her life.

In this way, the show is romantic, nostalgic, and longing. And as much as it is a beautiful glimpse into this intimate memory of the artist, the show is also conscious of the power to turn artists into cultural icons. At the same time as I was trying to understand the private world these pieces evoked, these performances and stories also allowed me to imagine more vividly the way my queerness could add richness to my own life — in terms of experiencing love as well as in confidence and exploration of the self.

Art history is filled to the brim with male fantasy, and it is so exciting to see artist such as Summer Leavitt explore the possibilities of fantasy and memory in the context of femininity and queerness. With the continued absence of queer history, it is still novel and invigorating to see gay women living vibrant, exciting, and complicated lives.

Art is about finding greater complexity in the world, the spaces and lives we could not previously explore. And so, for its tender and confident moments through the expertise of medium, I recommend seeing this show before it closes on Nov. 20.