Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The He(Art) of Chris Schiffelbein

Chris Schiffelbein and I began exchanging e-mails in March, after meeting on the Queer Justice League listserve. Chris sent me kind note of support after I had responded to a posting of another. He was one of two people (randomly, the other was ex-NJ-guv McGreevey) to send me a private response. It was brief, but its simplicity and implicit sincerity made an impact; I felt heard, accepted.

So, of course, I googled "Chris Schiffelbein," followed the breadcrumb trail of internet links, and, within 10 minutes, I was reading his blog, Queer on Paper, and being introduced to his art. Surprise, surprise. Turns out, this gentle, thoughtful soul is also capable of creating some balls-out, in-your-face "queer" art. After 20 minutes of "click-enlarge," "click-enlarge," I dashed off an e-mail to Chris, which including my version of kind support; I insisted we meet and figure out a way to get a "Chris Shiffelbein" on my wall.

It actually took three months for Chris and I to coordinate schedules, but we finally met tonight for Indian food at Mitali's on Sixth Street. Chris is currently living that part of the NYC "art hipster" experience, which requires one to simultaneously juggle school, partner, art and a table waiting gig. That notwithstanding, he arrived early, in good spirits and appearing well rested.

We sat down, ordered an appetizer of mixed vegetable pakoras (Chris has the heart of a vegetarian, but admits a weakness for the occasional steak) and started talking about the Queer Justice League's baby steps, queer advocacy, and our backgrounds. Chris grew up in Topeka, obtained his bachelors degree in Fine Arts from KSU and is currently working towards his masters in Social Work at CUNY Hunter College. His commitment -- artistically, personally and professionally -- is to the queer community. He is adamant and consistent regarding his use of the word "queer," unapologetically reappropriating it for himself and his people.

Before the pakoras hit the table, I insisted Chris open his portfolio. Several series emerged during my first look through. The first two draw from the same inspirational roots: the homosexualization and subversion of traditional religious imagery. This inspirational launching pad, though not uncommon among gay artists, can teeter towards triteness or careen into caricature when not carefully considered. Take for instance, Delmas Howe 's, recent show "Stations: A Gay Passion," which was at the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation earlier this Spring. The paintings in "Stations" bordered on garish. The subject matter (the Twelve Stations of the Cross) begged for intimacy, which would have balanced beautifully with the depictions he chose. It was as though he drew a sledgehammer, when a meat tenderizer would have sufficed.

Despite his relatively young age, Chris ably ambles this line, creating compelling pieces that retain a provocative quality without sacrificing subtlety. In a sub-series, which I'll call "Haloed Holies" (Chris tends to "untitle" his work), he gives us solo and partnered men, in various states of undress, but always halo and a hard-on; the gay male equivalent, perhaps, of the heterosexual male (or lesbian, I suppose) ideal of a "lady on the arm, whore in bed." The males, as depicted, are certainly do-able, but aren't those unattainable, over-idealized creatures dominating much of gay art. The pieces are, in a word, delightful.

The next sub-series, "Sacred Texts" (again, my name), includes collages of gay male sex created from pages torn from religious texts, including the Bible and Koran. [click right image]. They are studies in stealth genius; one is drawn in by the simplicity of shapes and deft use of line, and then repelled (or, for some, repulsed) as the words rise and the pages reveal themselves. They are equally engaging in both small and large sizes, in which he's executed them. One of the larger pieces was part of a recent silent charity auction, attracting a lot of interest and raising some nice coin for GLAAD. They are deliciously illicit.

The more I saw, the more determined I became to support this guy and his art; both of which I grew to consider wonderful and necessary additions to my life and this community. But how to choose? I finally decided on piece from a series I'm calling "Dukes of Bio-Hazard," [click left image] which is a title I think Chris would hate, thereby encouraging him to, perhaps, name them himself (wink, wink). The series evolved when Chris, who frequently uses discovered materials in his collages, "came upon" some medical lab test bags [it's pure coincidence that at the time he was working at a clinic as part of a Social Work related to his masters' work]. He felt drawn (bada bing) to them and was determined to incorporate them into his work. And incoroporate them, he did. The small (9" x 6") blue and yellow ink and acrylic paintings are inserted inside the clear bags, with the red bio-hazard box, which adorns each bag, cleverly marking the area of greatest hazard, in the the primary color scheme. So smart.

Besides the aesthetic appeal, I chose this for what it says, or actually for what it doesn't say that I thought it did. I'll explain.

At 30 and 41 respectively, Chris and I exist on opposite edges of the "AIDS gap" - that gap, in time and perspective, separating adults into two groups: those who were sexually active prior to the onset of AIDS and those who became sexually active later. While I was having my first sexual experiences in the late 70's and early 80's largely unaware of the virus, Chris came up and out with the virus as a known entity. Obviously, the gap affects all people, but in this context, I exclusively refer to its impact on the gay males.

This gap, I think, was responsible in large part for my first (gut, default, automatic) reaction to the bio-hazard bag works; I initially assumed they were another artistic response to the epidemic. For such a long time, too long actually, any medical reference in gay art, for me, has conjured the virus. And then I stopped and looked closer. I smiled when I realized I had presumed incorrectly. I asked Chris to confirm the same, which he did. I was completely humbled and felt myself move one more step forward on my journey, with my load lightened.

That voice in my head that often complains about my HIV status, the pills, the doctor appointments, the stigma, blah, blah, blah, was stifled for a moment. The pieces reminded me of the truth that love and sex is a risk for everyone -- not just me. It reminded me that the Universe hasn't singled me out for a tougher slice of love. That I share the reality of this risk with the world, and that reminder brought me back into relation with the rest of humanity.

And that, beautiful people, is what Art can do.

Thank you Chris. Thank you so much.

1 comment:

changapeluda said...

Oh Wow, this was pretty heavy, man...


Sincerity in cyberspace is kinda elusive (everyone is kinda on the "rock on!" bandwagon)but with QOP it's for real.
he's the one that sent me here by the way.