Queer Art in Portland’s Spotlight

In two Portland exhibitions, LGBTQ artists and their work are out of the margins and shaking the center.

Photographer Donna Gottschalk poses for a self-portrait.
Photographer Donna Gottschalk poses for a self-portrait.

On June 28, 1970, the first gay pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, marking the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village. The uprising against police brutality changed everything, empowering the LGBTQ community to thrust queer rights into public view. From the beginning, lesbian photographer Donna Gottschalk captured the public and private lives of friends, lovers, and strangers. In 2018, those photos were shown for the first time at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. In January and February, the same exhibition—Donna Gottschalk: Brave, Beautiful Outlaws—is on view at Blue Sky in Portland.

Gottschalk began her career as a teenager in the ’60s, around the same time she came out. When friends took her to queer bars in New York, she felt a strong desire to record the world around her. “I got my first camera at 17 and discovered all of these noble, marginalized people who were entering my life,” Gottschalk said in a 2018 interview with Wallpaper. “I forced myself to become brave and ask to take their pictures. Sometimes they asked me why, and my answer always was ‘because you are beautiful, and I never want to forget you.’ ”

These early images are represented in Blue Sky’s exhibition alongside other portraits from Gottschalk’s archive. Many images show women either sleeping or cuddling in beds, suggesting the safety of a community as well as the need for a space apart. There’s also a variety of crushingly sensual self-portraits—one taken in 1976 shows the artist herself lying in a bed, the light from a nearby window caressing her face as she gazes at the camera with self-possessed languor. The photograph is imbued with the exquisite detail and softness that only gelatin silver prints can impart.

The corn and deer in North (Our Sacred Ancestors) represent Edgar Fabián Frías’s Wixárika heritage.
The corn and deer in North (Our Sacred Ancestors) represent Edgar Fabián Frías’s Wixárika heritage.

Fast-forward from the ’70s to 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Some five million people attend the Pride parade in New York City, celebrating the breadth and success of queer culture while continuing to support the global fight for human rights. What was once portrayed in Gottschalk’s silent, black-and-white frames is now realized in luminous color and sound, sent far and wide on social media, projected onto walls, printed on fabrics, mixed and manipulated with ease. This is the realm of artist Edgar Fabián Frías, an L.A.-based LGBTQ artist currently living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while participating in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. Frías’s Nierika: Santuario Somático, an immersive installation at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in Portland, is on view in February and March.

Frías is a descendant of the Wixáritari, an indigenous Mexican people living throughout the Sierra Madre mountain range. Wixárika religious symbols—such as the sun, rainbows, blue deer, and corn—flow through Frías’s work; they are collaged and animated alongside representations of healing crystals, ginger, and strange alien-like figures. Mesmerizing videos often accompany the artist’s live performances and sacred, site-based installations.

For Nierika: Santuario Somático, Frías has produced a new body of work venerating the ancient Nierika, or “god’s eye”—a sacred, woven portal that serves as a spiritual map for traversing time and space. On a stage in Disjecta’s main gallery, Frías may engage in performative rituals and meditative practices and host a community flower-essence workshop. The exhibition comes at a reflective moment for Frías, providing them with a space to synthesize “the ways in which I am weaving my indigenous, queer, pagan, witchy, mutagenic, chimerica identities together,” they say. It’s serious business, but Frías’s creations and performances are infused with joy and mischievousness.

Their practices may be decades apart, but for both Frías and Gottschalk, histories of social cohesion, enlightenment, and survival are communal stories that must be told and retold.

Stephanie Snyder is the curator and director of the Cooley Gallery at Reed College. In 2019, her retrospective of the work of renowned queer activist and artist Gregg Bordowitz appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago.


• Jan. 2–Feb. 2
• Blue Sky, 122 NW 8th Ave., Portland


• Feb. 2–Mar. 8
• Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N. Interstate Ave., Portland

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