Openly gay artist Frank Pietronigro will no doubt invite controversy with his newly installed exhibit at Johnston Gallery on Market Street in the Castro. Prominently seen on one side of the gallery's front window, and across the sidewalk outside, are words that have been used to degrade LGBT people.
Pietronigro, has taken anti-gay slurs from the present day, and from decades past, and stenciled them onto the street for all to see. Salt was used in the process, he says, because salt represents the salt rubbed into the wounds of the many LGBT people who've been hurt by the use of these words.
The gallery's other window will feature words, chosen by the artist, which have a healing effect upon LGBT people. It's the artist's way of healing from the hurt caused by decades of being subjected to anti-gay slurs.
Inside the gallery, more traditional works by Pietronigro are on display. A portrait of his former partner, waving a rainbow flag, two men kissing, and several abstracts are among the canvases available for public perusal.
Pietronnigo lives to create art. When in his presence it's easy to see the joy he finds in his work. He spoke with SF Weekly about what inspires his creativity.
SF Weekly: Tell us who you are.
Pietronigro: I have lived most of my life identifying as an openly gay man and member of San Francisco's queer community. I came out in 1973. I moved to San Francisco [from Philadelphia] in 1977, and was here to walk in the march the night Harvey Milk and George Moscone were shot. I sat in the Elephant Walk [now Harvey's] during the White Nights Riots and lived through "the party," and then the onslaught of the AIDS crisis. Today I share in the challenges of our world while living as an older queer man through what is for many an economic, quality of life, and living space crisis.
Can you describe your feeling about the arts?
The need of the arts and sciences are obvious to me so I wish to amplify the concept of changing STEM education to STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Music, and Mathematics). The reason for this is to foster greater economic equality between funding that goes to the sciences as being on a par with funding that is going to the arts.
Can you describe your experience painting in weightlessness?
On April 4, 1998, I flew from the NASA Johnson Space Center, aboard a KC-135 turbo-jet, to create drift paintings as my body floated within the 3D kinetic painting space facilitated by parabolic flight and microgravity. I painted by squeezing rainbow colored acrylic paints from pastry bags into the space surrounding my body.
A 75 inch high by 45 inch wide by 52 inch deep plastic bag was tethered to the interior of the jet using bungee cords and Velcro. This creativity chamber was to contain the floating paint while allowing for free float body movement within the space. I filled 10 inch, 14 inch and 18 inch pastry bags with acrylic gel medium, at the viscosity of toothpaste, and these tools were used to project the paint into the space surrounding my body.
I specifically decided to engage in flag dancing on both my parabolic flights. Theoretically, I knew it was significant and symbolic for me to dance within zero gravity by bringing authentic queer cultural production into those interdisciplinary sites. During my first flight I used blue silk flags. During my second flight I asked Gilbert Baker, creator of the Rainbow Flag, to sew for me two flags: a rainbow flag and an American flag. I asked him to collaborate with me because we have worked with one another since 1982 at various events I produced. This collaboration was called Flags In Space.
What inspires your art?
Creating art has always been a process of self-discovery between myself, the creative collaboration processes and the times and communities in which I live. Balancing time, space, resources, networks, and energy to foster quality creative time is a challenging necessity the artist faces. My art is inspired by such challenges coupled by a love for nature, levitation, color, texture, biomorphic form, queer culture, and a warm, glowing light.
Describe your Johnston Gallery exhibit. (Note: There's a tax preparer's office in the back.)
The challenge of branding artists and businesses and the visual and textural iconography associated with such branding in part unifies and yet challenges this exhibition. The mix of business space and art space sets a contextual tension
in which the work is experienced by amplifying the need for greater integration of the arts in all work spaces. The audience should ask: What does a tax office and a gallery have to do with one another, and what is the meaning of the confluence of all these symbols?
What is the significance of the words in the window?
"Documents" is an ephemeral installation of homophobic words stenciled
by the artist, using salt, onto the gallery floor. "Documents" at first invites the audience to absorb the magnitude of the verbal homophobia presented in the work, and then the audience is inviting with assisting in deconstructing that work by having the audience work on the art. What's left is a painting created by the footprints of everyone who walks on the text.
Any concern that passers-by will be offended by seeing homophobic slurs publicly displayed in the Castro?
The impact of Documents on the audience is very powerful as I have witnessed during many installations. It takes time to become aware, to feel, and then to understand this work and the visceral aspects of walking on the art becomes profoundly powerful. People sense and relate to their ability to destroy the words in many different ways, each of which becomes a beautiful moment of personal expression.
"Documents" is on display through Sept. 2014 at Johnston Gallery (2327 Market). There's a reception for the artist Saturday, June 28, noon-3 p.m.