“Reversing Vandalism”
at the San Francisco Public Library
Reviewed by Richard Meyer

Early in 2001, librarians at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library began to discover books that had been slashed by an anonymous vandal and then shoved beneath the shelving units in the stacks. Almost all of the slashed books focused on lesbian and gay issues, HIV/AIDS, or women’s sexuality and self-representation. In all, some 607 books would be destroyed before the vandal was identified by an off-duty librarian and apprehended by the police. Virtually all of the slashed books had been so badly damaged that they had to be withdrawn from the library’s circulating collection and slated for disposal with the hope that future monies for replacement copies could be raised. The lost books were valued at approximately $24,000.

Rather than allow the episode to end there, however, Jim Van Buskirk, a staff librarian and Queer Caucus for Art member, and Sandra Ortiz-Taylor, a San-Francisco-based book artist, conceived of a remarkable response. They put out a call to artists and other interested citizens to create works of art from the remains of the slashed books. Almost 1000 people, most from the Bay Area but others from throughout the country and the world, answered the call and, working alone or in pairs, created pieces from the mutilated remnants of the books.

Over 200 of the resulting works are currently on display at the San Francisco Public Library in the exhibit “Reversing Vandalism.” The show, arranged in three different locations throughout the library including a large window at street level, constitutes a powerfully collective response to vandalism. It contests the destruction of books about queer and female experience by remaking those books into a diverse array of sculptures, paintings, collages, and mixed-media objects. In some cases, the artists in the exhibition have literally sewn or bandaged the sliced pages and covers of their assigned books, as though to repair the damage wrought by the vandal.

Among those contributing to the exhibition is the lesbian artist, writer, and Queer Caucus for Art member Harmony Hammond. Hammond responded to the slashing of Representing Women, a volume by the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, by crafting flesh-like, latex rubber covers which both protect and house the remains of the book. On the front cover, the artist has painted the words “Represent Women: A Primer Nochlin + Hammond +.” The cover thus directs us to continue the feminist project of making art and scholarship about women’s lives. In fainter print, Hammond has inscribed the word “erasure” and then partially occluded it beneath a brushy patch of red pigment. Like the “Reversing Vandalism” show of which it is part, the work challenges the vandal’s violent act of erasure both by rendering that erasure visible and by creating something entirely different from it.

“Reversing Vandalism” remains on display at the San Francisco Public Library through May 2, 2004. “Insight Out,” a smaller exhibition of works drawn from the same anti-vandalism project, opens at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico on June 4, 2004.


“The Queer Art World”
Panel at Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA), 18 April 2004
Speakers: Ernesto Pujol, Maura Reilly, Barbara Ann Levy, moderated by Roberto Ferrari and Sherman Clarke

Roberto Ferrari introduced the session with an illustrated overview of the topic. His description and images addressed “what is queer art?” and speculated about looking with modern eyes and reading intent and content into historical art.

Ernesto Pujol in “Queer expectations” described two projects that used books and libraries as a starting point. His 1999 installation “Memory of surfaces” at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (in partnership with Providence Public Library) focused on the public library user community and played on the homophonous link between surfaces and services. The project used deaccessioned monographs of harmonious earth-tone colors to create a 100 x 30-foot carpet of publications. The carpet of books was the setting for a table with ink wells, book press, and a rubber-stamp tree, as well as a bust of Abraham Lincoln, a plaster cast of a librarian’s hand, and other objects evoking our collective past. The work was accompanied by an audio recording of children reading. “Becoming the land” (2003) was installed at the Salina Art Center in Kansas and chronicled the interaction of people and their environment. Pujol also showed some of his studio work, some of which is more overtly gay. He also talked about how he presents himself as an artist first, not hiding his gay identity but allowing his role as artist to be primary in his interaction with the community.

Maura Reilly in “Querying queer art” argued for the continued addressing of queer art through critical writings and exhibitions. She recently co-curated “neoqueer” at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle for the Queer Caucus for Art and “Citizen Queer” at the Shedhalle in Zurich. She discussed Courbet’s “The sleepers” depicting two women engaged in an apparent lesbian sexual liaison which serves as an undeniable testimonial of power relationships encoded in the male gaze. She also discussed the refusal of an artist-run gallery in NYC to host an exhibition of queer art during the “InterseXions” conference in November 2004. The Guerrilla Girls website has a letter suggesting that the gallery did not go far enough: not only is “queer art” passé but so is painting, or even exhibiting. To illustrate her talk, Reilly selected about 30 images which flashed past us more or less randomly, as Barbara Ann Levy pushed the “next” button.

Barbara Ann Levy then discussed her gallery and other art projects. She now runs a seasonal gallery in Cherry Grove on Fire Island. Levy talked about the works of several artists, both those who do work with explicit GLBT content and those who don’t (or both), and including George Towne, McWillie Chambers, James Teschner, Jason Seder, Christine Callahan, Albert Charles Schweitzer, and Janet Cooling. Levy is also an art therapist and talked about the relationship of art and mental/emotional health.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion period in which the panelists and audience elaborated on the themes addressed by the panelists.

Reported by Daniel B. Payne,
Ontario College of Art & Design,
abridged by Sherman Clarke

[full version included in conference proceedings at http://www.arlisna.org/conf2004/proceedings/sessionxi.html]

Queer Caucus for Art newsletter, May 2004
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