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A new show at Iridian Gallery honors Pride Month with art that’s hard to categorize 

click to enlarge "Earth 2 Earth" by Alisa Sikelianos-Carter.

"Earth 2 Earth" by Alisa Sikelianos-Carter.

For his new show, curator Tom Condon says his intention was to engage viewers with an unexpected giggling fit or smile before they even walk in the door.

"I don't know about you, but I can't stop myself from laughing every time I say the title out loud," he says.

The show is called "Spirit Fingers and Jazz Hands" and runs at Iridian Gallery through Sept. 15.

While there's no unifying theme or media that binds all the work in the show, Condon approached it with the intent of bringing together makers who would celebrate and honor Pride Month and the LGBTQ community through their work. He sees the diversity of creative practice and expression as the glue that holds "Spirit Fingers and Jazz Hands" together.

"These artists cross institutional boundaries and challenge our ability to comfortably place their work within the traditional parameters of a singular media," he explains of objects and images that hold a number of different identities, purposes and meanings challenging formal identification. "Specific pieces are chameleonlike in the way they slip between classifications, avoiding the trappings of becoming objectively one type of artifact."

For example, the exhibit includes a tintype woven on a loom and a drawing that is sewn between two transparent planes of fabric to create a three-dimensional form instead of simply providing the illusion of one. An animal pelt, hand-embellished with rhinestones, is nested in a gilded frame like a painting. 

Condon, who received an undergraduate degree in painting from Virginia Tech and a master's degree in photography and film from Virginia Commonwealth University, sees the artists as invaluable members of his extended community. There are longtime friends he shared studios with, some are fellow educators, some are former students who continue to inspire him through intense dedication to their practice and some are artists he met working as a staff-artist for the Vermont Studio Center.

"The artists participating in 'Spirit Fingers and Jazz Hands' have collectively been advocates, allies, champions and flag-bearers for the LGBTQ community. They just happen to be ridiculously talented makers as well," he says.

One of the questions Condon asks in the show's statement is what might be gained by questioning societal assumptions of normality and identity assignment. 

"I think it's important to reflect on how and why we name objects, behaviors and groups," he asserts. "That said I'm not interested in being overly directorial with others' experiences. I hope the audience will engage with the art on their own terms and the strength and quality of the [work] being shown will spark a valuable exchange with all visitors."

Michael-Birch Pierce has several pieces in the show. The largest, "Picking Up the Pieces," marries hand-embroidered rhinestones, sequins and beads on leather, organza, and nylon mesh. "My work is about layers of identity, artifice and masculinity," he explains of mixing natural skins with plastic and glass, concealing and fracturing his figures to obscure identity. "So many people have fought for decades for my rights as an out, proud and very queer person. The two most important parts of my identity are my roles as an artist and a member of the LGBTQ community. To use my embroidery as a means to give visibility and a voice to my community and to help celebrate their achievements is very important to me."

All three photomontage and glitter pieces Alisa Sikelianos-Carter has in the show are part of an ongoing series called Crowns in which she reconfigures traditionally African and black American hairstyles out of images from the internet and catalogs to create masks and heads of a re-imagined Afro-futurist Godlike species. Sikelianos-Carter, who identifies as a gay, black femme woman, sees these beings as her response to a world that demonizes the black aesthetic with the aim of eradicating it.

"The hairstyles act as armor and weapon, protecting and repelling wearers from white supremacy and misogyny," she says, describing them as a marriage between the divine beings black people will transform into as a result of the culture of anti-blackness they currently live in and the majesty, magic and tradition of their ancestors. "I'm thrilled to be a part of an exhibition that explicitly highlights and uplifts queerness in all of its exquisite variation."

Because "Spirit Fingers and Jazz Hands" represents an ensemble of distinctive and unique voices brought together to honor the LGBTQ community, Condon sees it as an ecstatic chorus celebrating the creative voice of a diverse group of contemporary artists.

And if that requires a new vocabulary, that's fine by him.

"Perhaps the work is moving into a nonbinary space where previously comfortable nouns no longer adequately characterize these art objects." S

"Spirit Fingers and Jazz Hands" opens Aug. 24 and runs through Sept. 15 at Iridian Gallery, 1407 Sherwood Ave. diversityrichmond.org.

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