Lily Binns sits down with artist Pilar Gallego to discuss the importance of mentorship within community and the role it plays in creative production.
Pilar and I have lived across the street from each other in Flatbush for a couple years. The first time I came into real contact with them was when they walked into my living room several months ago to meet with me and my friend and colleague, film director Ira Sachs. In 2010, Ira and I started an independent program called Queer/Art/Mentorship (QAM), which pairs and supports advanced- and early-career queer working artists in New York City. Pilar, with short combed-back hair and black glasses, was coming to meet with us, as one of the fifteen fellows admitted to the program. The painter and curator Nicole Eisenman, a founding member of Ridykeulous, had chosen Pilar as her mentee, and Ira and I were welcoming Pilar to the program and getting to know them a bit.
I find Pilar’s art to be suggestive of stories, of time and change. Most often the work explicitly expresses a yearning for the trappings of masculinity, while complicating and hyperbolizing the longing itself. As we talked most recently, I learned how that impulse is evolving in Pilar’s current work. The conversations made us both reflect on the inextricable interconnectedness of our art and our personal growth at this moment in our 30-year-old lives, as we build bodies of art and community, and work to understand our bodies and identities themselves.
Lily Binns Could you take me on a virtual tour of the space where you make art?
Pilar Gallego It’s a pretty great space. I share a large studio/workspace with my housemates, who are also visual artists, in our apartment in Brooklyn. We each have our own corner and I’ve created my personal space by setting up shelves that house art reference books—of queer and feminist art, as well as art that’s more concerned with play and pop culture design (like Tom Friedman and Evan Gruzis)—as space dividers. The entire room was painted a dark greyish blue and wasn’t suitable for the kind of lighting I needed to draw, so I recently painted my corner white. Aside from providing the light I want, it just makes me feel good, like a blank slate, exactly how I want to feel when I’m sitting down to make something. I also recently got a drafting table large enough to lay out various projects and reference materials. (Although for some cryptic reason the table can’t be exposed to natural light!) On the walls, I’ve put up works in progress and an arrangement of my embroidery hoops, which I find stimulating and inspiring.
LB How are these arranged?
PG Like, how their shapes relate to each other, their sizes, and what was on them. A few years ago I was on this embroidery trip. I was obsessed with the work of Megan Whitmarsh. She does really fun(ky) drawings and embroideries and I just loved them. Her work made me want to pick up this craft that has been perceived traditionally as feminine. I suddenly wanted to translate drawings I was working on onto fabric. I am still very interested in crafts and folk art, but I’m focusing more on drawing now. I do hope to pick up the needle and thread again sometime soon. Anyway, this creative space is very new to me. Before it, I used to make art on my bed.
LB How did you do that?
PG I used a drawing board with a clip. But my pencils would get strewn about my bed and get lost under blankets and my eraser would get cat hair stuck on it. It was not very practical and kind of painful. So I’m way excited for my little studio space now.
LB It’s interesting that you said you wanted to translate your drawings onto fabric. I’m picking up on a lot of translation/transfer/morphology in your work and in the progression of your work. Recently you started transferring images from magazines onto your drawings, right? So that’s literal transfer.
PG Yes, it was such a revelation! The process of transferring and manipulating images in this way. The transfers have the quality of drawing I love.
LB And then there’s a lot of progression from one stage or place or point to another, in a more narrative way, such as your series of drawings rendered from government ID cards. Can you describe that series?
PG When thinking about the project, I was interested in capturing the various gender identities I’ve embodied, knowing each of their performativities, whether I happened to be wearing make-up in my passport photo in my late teens or appearing more androgynous with a faux-hawk and earrings on my student ID, or passing as a young guy or ateenage boy on my benefits (food stamps) card. ID cards carry a lot of personal information, and this brings about major concerns for transgender and gender-variant people who fuck with the facts presented on identification cards. While making a correlation to the common practice amongst the transgender community to document one’s transition, I was thinking about what ID cards represent—a submission to authority—and how that authority is undermined and challenged, most of the times at the expense of the ID card bearer. Case in point, the new fucked up Canadian airline screening regulation states that no air carrier is allowed to transport a passenger who “. . . does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents . . .”
LB In that series of drawings (the first is your passport from age 18, the second is your student ID card from age 22, and the third is your government benefit card from age 29), your self-portraiture style goes from realistic to . . . how would you describe it? Caricatured? Or stylized?
PG I guess I would describe the progression as “stylized,” but I hadn’t thought about it that way. I mean, I guess technically I’d say stylized, but the way I thought about the rendering from one ID card to the next was . . . deterioration.
LB There’s definitely change there. Both in the literal transition as well as in the form and style of its representation. You made an attempt to render the first photo very realistically; by the last one, you’ve created a completely new style, a self-created style.
PG Yes! Totally a “self-created style.” That’s what I was going for: to show that the identity shown on ID cards may pass as stable to whatever government institution or authoritative power structure, but that we as individuals have the agency to create and re-create ourselves as we choose to. I wanted to show the freedom that being genderqueer offers. So in that series I saw the stability forced on my gender crumbling, but it’s funny you also bring up caricature because that has been a technique I often employ, especially when rendering my character Mouth-Head.
LB Yes! Mouth-Head! I want to talk about Mouth-Head! Where did he come from? What will Mouth-Head transition into?
PG To be honest, Mouth-Head is sort of on hold.
LB Why? You put him in that recent drawing I saw.
PG Yes, I did. I guess “on hold” is not really accurate. Mouth-Head is changing . . .
LB —into what?
PG Hopefully into being less caricatured, less simplistic. He is in the midst of exploration and experimentation, and I’ve come to learn that I need to give him space to develop, despite my eagerness. I don’t want him to lose his flamboyance during this period of growth, and I don’t think he will, but I want to see him grow and discover his world.
LB Is he maturing?
PG Yeah, I think so. To go back to where Mouth-Head came from—he is sort of my alter ego. And as I feel myself growing, thinking in new ways, so does he.
LB I think when we begin to come out with queer identities—sexual, gendered, or otherwise—we reach for known quantities first, caricatures, and then develop into more nuanced, complicated, personal, and ultimately real selves, less recognizably categorical, more individual. So I think it’s really interesting that your drawn character is literally doing the same thing. Where were you when you first gave life to Mr. Mouth-Head?
PG Figuratively, I was struggling with insecurity in my ability to pursue the art thing, which brings up the topic of privilege.
LB How many years ago?
PG Three or four years ago. But literally, I was in bed at my old apartment. I was actually commissioned to do a drawing for the cover of Michelle Tea’s queer fashion zine she was going to publish. It was going to be called Germajesty. But the zine never got published.
I’ve never read her stuff, I have to admit. But I’m reading her pregnancy blog and it’s really captivating. I didn’t think I’d be into it.
LB To me she represents some of the best of the queer artists half a generation above us, the pioneers of radical Third-Wave feminism. Michelle Tea is such a specific documentarian of the world she lives in. She narrates with humor, and includes herself in the humorous portrait, never taking herself too seriously. I admire that.
PG For sure. I love the super crazy/absurd, which is why I tend to have an immediate response to Surrealist and Dada art. I think queer artists are inherently surrealists in the sense that we are constantly trying to create a world beyond mere tolerance, a world where not only queerness but difference in all forms is embraced.
LB Do you consider Ridykeulous’s various work Surrealist, speaking of our boundary-bursting queer feminist forebears?
PG I know Ridykeulous more as a curatorial team, and know of their interest in pushing feminist and queer politics to an extreme where anger, frustration, and humor coalesce. I understand that gesture as Surrealist. I can probably talk forever about Ridykeulous and LTTR. I actually wrote my final paper last semester for my contemporary art class on a zine of K8 Hardy’s, fashionfashion. My paper was an analysis of the art that came after the Bad Girls exhibit at the New Museum in 1994 (which surveyed relevant visual, performance, and media artists addressing gender issues) and the questions being asked by some of today’s working young feminist and queer artists. I looked into the work of Kathe Burkhart, K8 Hardy, and Leidy Churchman, and how these three artists simultaneously investigate the ways by which queer imagery is created and the way in which art history is queered.
LB That community of artists always strikes me as being very supportive of each other’s work. What’s your community feeling like these days?
PG It’s like a family.
PG I am lucky that the people in my life now are people I can trust and really appreciate. I think that’s because at this point in my life I am the most honest with myself and others. Growing up I didn’t have many friends because I felt that if I couldn’t come out to them as gay or queer then there was really no honest friendship.
LB The community gets tighter as people open up more, give more, need more.
PG Totally, and when there’s that kind of intimacy, facades drop. I think about facades a lot in my work, or at least that’s what I want to explore in my work.
LB What questions are you trying answer?
PG How does the normal see the freak? I mean this dichotomy extends to race (whites/minorities), class (rich/poor), and so on, but as you can probably tell by looking at my work, I am deeply invested in how that dynamic plays out between heteronormativity and queerness. How society perceives a readable genderqueer person, how discrimination based on surfaces plays out, and what’s hidden under our surfaces. A new challenge I’ve given myself is to expose what’s under the queer facade.
LB I’ve heard you say that you believe seeing and creating art through a genderqueer lens is a gift.
PG Yes! It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s really an amazing perspective we’ve been given to view life and experience life from this side of the fence.
LB Being queer is an inherently creative way to live life. It requires choice, perspective, and style every step of the way. It always comes with an arch of an eyebrow and a wink at the world. Like there’s a secret that is indeed a gift to hold. Plus, these days, in Brooklyn, I feel there is a tremendous amount of love and openness in the community.
PG I think it’s funny that in queer discourse we queers have positioned ourselves as the oppressed and straight people as the privileged. And of course in many many ways that’s true, but I also think to be queer is a privilege. How do you feel about being queer in Brooklyn? I read your Trespassers story, in which you—or your character—is new to Brooklyn.
LB It’s a character—totally not autobiographical, I promise. Besides the fact that riding my bike makes me high.
PG I could tell from your story!
LB And the fact that I feel androgynous and invincible when I’m on it, and I tried to convey that feeling in the story.
PG I liked feeling the sense of newness the character felt. I remember feeling that way when I first got to New York. And it made me think about the possibilities offered here.
LB In terms of being queer in Brooklyn, I used to be insecure about not reading or presenting as queer enough. But I got over that. I have some issues with identifying as femme: I worry that I can’t live up to the archetype well enough, that there’s something caricatured rather than individual about it, that people project their assumptions onto it, and that the characterization doesn’t include my masculinity as well as my femininity.
PG Right, right! That’s the thing about signifiers that I’m especially interested in. The signals we send off to the world, in particular to the small community we inhabit, by the codes we choose to communicate with. I am concerned namely with clothing and personal queer style. We all know what a butch looks like and we know what a femme looks like, but like you said, these are archetypes, and we now have a community that plays with those models, or rejects them while still claiming the identity. I am interested in these nuanced messages, how they are like animal mating calls. There’s a lot we disclose about ourselves by the things we wear; I want to capture all that’s exposed in this way and complicate these signals in the work I make.
LB I guess I gave up on communicating that way because I was never very good at it, and I started believing in my own ability to communicate what I really think, and in my ability to be giving and caring, which go a long way.
PG Then there’s actual language, and that’s when contradictions begin to reveal themselves.
LB What do you mean?
PG I mean, intimacy. And where I want to go with Mouth-Head. I really need to find him a better name. Mouth-Head has been removed from community—in the way I’ve depicted him, I mean. Isolated in the picture plane. I’ve been meaning to provide him a context, a community, with relationships . . .
So let’s talk about your role as curator of Queer/Art/Mentorship. Where did the idea come from?
LB It was my co-curator Ira Sachs’s idea. He had it a few years ago but says he didn’t know how to figure it out without a collaborator. He was inspired by watching his friends mobilize during the first Obama campaign. He saw how a small community could activate and effect powerful change. but he didn’t know how to mobilize a mentorship program so he sat on the idea and started Queer/Art/Film first, his monthly series at the IFC Center that Adam Baran co-curates. They invite a queer artist to present a film that has inspired him or her or them in some way and then discuss it afterward.
PG What are some films that’ve been shown? And who have been some presenters?
LB The first one I attended was when Ridykeulous presented Times Square. Were you there?
PG No, I’ve seen the film though. It’s the best!
LB Nicole Eisenman—your QAM mentor—and A. L. Steiner were great—they wore trash bags and projected tons of photos of giant vaginas on the screen before the movie.
So anyway, I was backstage at the Joyce Theater in the summer of 2010 with the dance company that I collaboratively run, Pilobolus, and my colleague Itamar Kubovy, the Executive Director, mentioned that his old friend Ira Sachs was looking for help curating a new queer artists’ project. I wrote Ira a dorkily enthusiastic email saying I would love to work with him on the project, not even fully knowing what it was. When he explained that the idea was a new mentorship community, I said, That’s for me! I love mentorship! I’m sure it comes from a desire to belong, be noticed, be valued, root down, to hear stories and pass them on, to connect myself to generations older and younger than me. I have been mentoring a 16 year old for two and a half years and the experience has become one of the more important things in my life.
PG That’s so great! Tell me about that. How did that relationship start?
LB She’s Tibetan and her family has refugee status here. She lives on Newkirk in Flatbush with her family of seven. Brilliant kid. She’s totally going to make it and go to college, I know it. We got hooked up through the International Rescue Committee, but the mentorship relationship has worked not because of the program, which petered out, but because we both have a giving spirit and are committed to each other.
Ira and I met each other at the Waverly Diner for breakfast many times during the fall of 2010, and discussed how we were going to go about doing this. We had informational meetings with many people who are involved in running similar programs. Creative Capital, the Rolex Mentorship Program, Macdowell, the Six Points Fellowship, Sundance. And everyone we talked to about it was resoundingly enthusiastic.
PG It makes me so happy that such a program now exists! And why didn’t this happen sooner?
LB I am hoping that the funding community will react in the same way, and I’m confident that they will. At a certain point in early 2011, we knew we had to stop researching and discussing and just set a start date. So we did, and we asked over 75 arts professionals around the city and country to recommend two to four talented artists at the beginning of their careers. We invited about 200 people to apply, and about 85 did. We had primarily invited mentor artists who had presented in the Queer/Art/Film series with whom Ira already had a working relationship. A few others were people around town who he or I knew would be great mentors—they had that spirit—so we invited them as well.
PG So the mentors were also selected via invitations?
LB Yes, and then the applications came in, and they were all incredible. A lot of applicants who I talked to said that the application process was community building for them, or good for them personally—an unusual experience.
PG It’s exciting to know there is all this great talent about to burst.
LB That’s exactly how I felt being on the receiving end of the applications, which was certainly a privilege. So many special stories, so many queer stars in the sky.
PG I wish I knew them all! So were you guys ever ambivalent/nervous?
LB I was nervous when I had to meet with all the mentors without Ira because he was filming his new movie, Keep The Lights On. Can you imagine?
PG I can! I’m biting my nails here! How was that—your meeting with the mentors?
LB The best moment was when Jennie Livingston said to them: “I want all of you to be my mentors!” That hit it—that we want people to get involved with each other throughout their peer groups, mentor to mentor, fellow to fellow. We are trying to build intentional community that way.
PG I like that fellows also are able to access other mentors within the program. I think that’s such an invaluable resource.
LB There are many more opportunities here than I think people even realize. It’s all what you make of it.
PG What do you see the program being like next year? Do you think about that?
LB Yes, I am in the process of starting the next cycle (while still trying to figure out what the second half of the first year looks like!). I really see this work as my service, my activism, and my art.
PG I was wondering about your history of activism/community-building when you were telling me about how you met your own mentee.
LB It’s just in my blood. I have never been a super political activist. I feel that the most change that I can effect is on a local, communal, familial level. By supporting people, by being engaged, and being interested, I’m doing good around me, making the world around me slightly better. And in theory, if people are part of a supportive and creative and healthy family, they will be best positioned to do their own good work in the world.
PG I think that defines the collective queer consciousness. It’s the things we all come to experience and know to be universal in our experience living life. We all know what it feels like to fall in love or to have our hearts broken, or what it feels like when our love is unrequited. Or to be afraid to come out. Or what discrimination based on our appearance feels like. All that to say, I believe queers share similar experiences and traumas.
LB There are the similarities, which are alternately comforting and funny. And there the unique experiences, which generate good material for new art—the singularities within the collective.
PG New stories, new narratives.
To learn more about the Queer Art Mentorship, or to apply to be a mentor or mentee, visit the website here.
Lily Binns is Co-Director of Queer/Art/Mentorship; Co-Executive Director of Pilobolus Dance Theatre; co-author of The Hungry Scientist Handbook (Harper Collins, 2008); and author of the fiction chapbook, The First American Wilderness (JR Vansant, 2011). She has also worked as Managing Editor of Saveur magazine and as a cookbook editor at Ten Speed Press.
Pilar Gallego is a Brooklyn-based artist, curator, and queer community activist. They are interested in exploring and developing a visual language that speaks to and of gender, feminism, and minority representations. Pilar is a graduate of Pratt Institute, where they studied fine art and creative writing. They have worked with Leslie/Lohman Gallery as co-curator of Pink & Bent: The Art of Queer Women, with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project as organizing committee member for the Annual Small Works for Big Change Art Auctions, and as curator of various queer film & video screenings. Pilar hopes to build community through art.