The Q.T. on Generation Q
by Steven Jenkins


Presiding regally over the expatriate proceedings in her legendary flat at 27 Rue de Fleurs, Gertrude Stein sized up the wayward ways of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and their coterie of Jazz Age fops and flappers, and pegged them forever as The Lost Generation. Some thirty years later, with an artistic and philosophical transition from the cafés of Paris to the dive bars and underground bookstores of San Francisco, Kerouac, Ginsberg and their hippy-poet hangers-on collectively coined and embodied their own bebop nickname, The Beat Generation. Fast-forward to the bland, bell-bottomed 1970s, when American baby boomers dashed the hopes of 1968's worldwide Velvet Revolution by selling out to the solipsistic Me Decade, during which a generation of navel-gazers took the money (and tantric sex) and ran.

Enter Reagan and the whining babies of the baby boomers, tagged Generation X by Douglas Coupland as the '80s crash-landed into apathy and AIDS. The '90s, which will be over before you'll learn how to correctly spell "millennium," offered up The Doom Generation as a sex-drugs-and-electronica vision of New Queer Cinema bad-boy Gregg Araki, whose celluloid trash-heaps of gay goths and lascivious lesbos nailed fin de siècle teenage terrors with bloody pomp and slutty circumstance. The kids of the kids whom The Who stuttered about in "My Generation" had found a generation of their own, and it was crazysexycool.

And here we are, at the dawning of a new blah blah blah, and gloom-and-doom posturing is beginning to look like yesterday's fish-and-chip papers: greasy and outdated. The times they are a'changing, as Jakob Dylan's dad once sang, and it's time once and for all to lose the Lost, beat the Beat, doom the Doom, and clear the dance floor for a new crew of movers and shakers. They're young, adventurous, smart, sly, giddy, a tad sad (who can blame them?) and absolutely, positively queer, with no apologies to anyone, thank you very much. Let's call them Generation Q, and let's look at their art.

Hailing from Russia, Canada and the U.S., the ten artists featured in Generation Q: The First International Queer Youth Art Expo  reveal themselves as surprisingly savvy observers and interpreters of their wide worlds and complicated lives. They are true internationalists who know quite a lot (too much? too soon?) about the ways in which asserting one's identity--sexual, cultural and otherwise--can invite persecution as often as it elicits admiration. While much of their work is not overtly queer--save for some decidedly homoerotic images--it's clear that these young adults (a term which I hope doesn't sound patronizing) understand all-too-well the personal and political consequences of asserting a minority perspective.

From surrealistic flights of fancy and sophisticated representation to beguiling abstraction and unflinching self-portraiture, these artists run the gamut of stylistic devices, while touching on themes of solitude, genetics, sexuality, the pandemic and pop culture. Perusing their vigorous, varied and always vital work, we might quip that this Generation's "Q" stands as much for "quirky" and "quixotic" as it does for "queer." In any event, none of these artists are the least bit quotidian.

Photography has proved a particularly rich medium for lesbian and gay artists in recent years, and several of the Generation Q participants employ both its capacity for veracity and its darkroom trickery as means of documenting exterior truths and interior secrets. Sherisse Alvarez plays with light's ability to act as both wave and particle in her eerie black-and-white portraits that deliberately conceal more than they reveal of their subjects (perhaps a metaphor for the deep, dark closet out of which gay youths must emerge). James Owens, Jr. similarly plays peek-a-boo with viewers in his fetching, androgynous self-portrait, while his stark black-and-white botanical studies transform nature into abstraction. Simon Thibault also turns his camera on figures with hidden faces who crouch and cower in otherworldly landscapes that the artist has embellished with scratches of paint and layers of subliminal meaning.

Just as this trio tracks the rocky terrain that must be crossed during the coming-out process, Mollie Biewald, Sara Davidson and Daryl Vocat navigate the equally confusing territory of adulthood as they attempt to figure out just what it means to declare oneself a (lesbian) woman and a (gay) man. Biewald's formally seductive three-dimensional constructions toy with gender roles. In Butch, the loaded phrase "I am a good girl" is adorned with pink hearts and domestic filigree (sugar and spice and everything nice), yet the smashed Joseph Cornell box of Seven Turns Broken suggests that this "good girl" has grown up bad and prefers the company of riot grrrls to that of good little boys. In her deliberately childlike drawings and collages, Davidson explores rites of manhood and learns that there's more to becoming a man (or woman) than learning to shave, to drink, and to knot a necktie. Vocat's transformation from boy to man comes courtesy the Boy Scouts, (though I don't recall seeing such, um, explicit diagrams last time I thumbed through their rulebook.) His intimate, elegant monoprint etchings convey the thrills of adolescent crushes and late-night circle jerks, and they poignantly equate lovers' vows with idealistic zeal.

The remaining Generation Q artists plumb a plethora of creative styles and provocative themes. Using acrylic and spray paint, Rocio Arteaga mimics the freestyle frenzy of graffiti guerrillas in desperately violent scenes, including Suicide, that mix the gallows humor of William S. Burroughs with the tortured loathing of Francis Bacon; somehow they also manage to be quite cheery. Victor Hsieh's computer-generated images, such as Zenith and Division of Relationships, resemble strands of DNA, and provide appropriate digital corollary to the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate. In his intricate, fantastical drawings, Viktor Kotelnikov presents a booby-trapped portrait of the artist as a young man (Recall) and a lepidopterist's nightmare (the butterflies-are-not-free scenario of Beauty of the Death). Finally, Aaron Sciandra gets down but not too dirty with his mixed-media assemblages of manipulated stroke books, leather whips and other accouterments of after-hours, behind-closed-doors behavior. (It seems that at least some members of Generation Q haven't abandoned the proud homo heritage of porn.)

Whether jazzing up wet-dream romance or politicizing the personal with ACT UP! urgency, however, it's abundantly clear that these Generation Q artists are minding their p's and q's when it comes to defining their youthful wants, human needs and visionary wishes for a world in which "queer" will no longer be considered a four-letter word by those bigots and bores who still fail to understand just how crucial it is to listen to and empathize with gay and lesbian youth. (Two words for the b's and b's to ponder: Matthew Shepard.)

If they're looking for a motto, the members of Generation Q might well consider an anonymous quote hidden in one of the exhibition's artworks: "Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching." The thing is, we are watching, and we like what we see. Please, kids, don't get Lost.