ONSTAGE Out New York-based comedian Matteo Lane didn’t dream of a career in comedy, growing up.
In fact, the “Moving On” (2015), “Crashing” (2018), and “The Comedy Lineup” (2018) star told 48 Hills that stand-up wasn’t even a draw for him, initially. That is until he discovered more inclusive, gay-friendly comedians like Kathy Griffin.
“I didn’t watch stand-up as a kid, because it didn’t feel like it was speaking to me,” Lane said.
“So I didn’t become interested in it till I saw Kathy Griffin, because she was the first comedian I saw who didn’t make fun of gay people like we were the butt of the joke. We were in on the joke. I was lucky to have women like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, and Joan Rivers lead me to comedy.”
As part of this weekend’s Clusterfest, Lane will be paying tribute to comedy queens Lisa Kudrow, Mira Sorvino, and Alan Cumming with the Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion Live Read alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova.
“I’m playing Alan Cumming’s part where they do the interpretive dance at the high school reunion where I think Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ is playing,” he said. “So I have to learn the dance.”
At the annual comedy and music festival, now in its third year and featuring Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Neal Brennan, Issa Rae, John Mulaney, Leslie Jones, The Roots, Chelsea Peretti, Courtney Barnett, and My Favorite Murder, among many others, Lane will also appear in Todd Barry’s Crowd Work Show, Saturday’s Chi Guys, and Sunday’s Patton Oswalt show.
I spoke to Matteo Lane about coming out with humor, relating to Alladin’s Jafar, and why he refuses to make Trump jokes.
48 HILLSMatteo, you went from being an opera singer and oil painter in Italy to a stand-up comedian. Do you ever imagine what your life would have been like had you pursued those other talents?
MATTEO LANE I just don’t think about it that way. Your life just happens as it happens and stand-up has allowed me to do all sorts of things including drawing because I have my comic book with Bob the Drag Queen called “Kickass Drag Queen” that we’re going to hopefully get made into a cartoon, and I’ve been able to do my own singing show, which I tour the country with.
I feel like none of those would have been possible had I not done stand-up, so in a way I don’t look at it as separate. I look at it as other ways to explore my creativity, so if anything it’s helped me be more of a singer or artist than I ever was.
48 HILLSYou have a bit called “Every Disney Character is Gay.” Do you really think so, or are you just trying to piss off conservatives?
MATTEO LANE I’m just trying to write material that makes people laugh. If we wanted to have an existential conversation about those types of characters, I’d say, “Yeah, usually the villain in a Disney movie doesn’t bend to the male or female roles, like the prince or princess. They’re somewhere on the outside, look different and feel different. They’re some sort of an other.
I think that gay people growing up often fall into that experience of being the other, at least in my experience. So I feel like I’ve always latched on to the villain, as most young queer kids do. I don’t relate to Princess Jasmine and Aladdin. I relate to Jafar.
But I don’t write my material to say, “Who am I going to get?” Or to do a bigger conversation about something. I’m doing it, at the end of the day, to make people laugh.
48 HILLSYou also talk about growing up on the same block as your 22 cousins in your act. When you came out, was your family supportive?
MATTEO LANE I am very lucky because my brother’s gay and my cousin’s also gay, so we’re all gay. [Laughs] I’m very lucky to have a very supportive family.
My mom had a very difficult childhood and my grandfather grew up in an immigrant family, went blind at the age of five, put himself through law school, and became a judge. So my family was able to see that there are bigger things out there than just being gay. So being gay was like, “OK, cool, pass the butter.”
My family communicates through humor, so I used humor to make it not this taboo subject we couldn’t talk about, and, as a result, I feel just like the rest of my cousins.
48 HILLS You’ve said before that while you don’t discuss Trump directly in your act, your “material in itself is a stand against Trump.” What did you mean by that?
MATTEO LANE What I mean by that is a technical thing. I’m not the kind of comedian who writes topical jokes about what happened or what I saw on MSNBC yesterday because the news cycle is going so quickly that even if I do a joke that’s funny about what Trump said yesterday, it’s forgotten the next week. So it doesn’t serve me or an audience in any way, because they’ve forgotten because he’s done something else that’s stupid since.
So I have some jokes that are political but I’m not a comedian who’s only interested in talking about Trump. So yeah, if I’m onstage in Ohio and I’m gay and talking to voters who may have voted for Trump, by me not living my life apologetically or editing or censoring myself to hundreds of people I’m performing for daily, that’s something. It’s better than me just sitting at home and tweeting about it.
48 HILLSGay material makes up a lot of your act. Do you feel like you’re a comedian or a gay comedian?
MATTEO LANE I don’t think about it as being a gay comedian. I think about it as doing good work and being as funny as possible.
But I probably am in the last generation who grew up not having the Internet and not having the easy access to a gay community. So now that it’s so prevalent, the only thing I think about is that it’s cool that young kids can look at the TV and see me or other gay comedians and it’s just normal.
48 HILLSCan you envision a day when your sexual identity won’t matter to audiences?
MATTEO LANE When I started stand-up, I would have thought, “I just want to be a stand-up and not have my sexuality determine who I am.” But now that I’m doing it and onstage and talking around the country, I’m proud of it.
I don’t care how anyone reads me — that’s a gay comic or that’s just a comic — because it doesn’t matter what someone else says. I know who I am and I’m proud of being gay and proud of being a comic.
I think where we start to go wrong is when we start labeling everything. So however you want to describe me, I don’t care. I think as we have more diversity onstage we can start having the idea of stand-up not being just for straight men. But I think it’s happening right now.
Editor’s Note: Word came Saturday from his wife and fellow writer Dodie Bellamy that essential SF queer writer Kevin Killian—poet, teacher, playwright, gossip, Kylie Minogue super-fan, heart of the New Narrative literary scene that electrified SF in the ’80s, and Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer—had passed away. Here, Alvin Orloff of Dog-Eared Books remembers the prolific writer. (Read a short, vital essay Kevin wrote for the Bay Guardian’s “SF Stories” issue in 2012 here.)
I met Kevin Killian by taking writing workshops with his wife, Dodie Bellamy, some 20-plus years ago. Climbing the stairs to their third floor South of Market apartment, I always felt anticipatory tingles for the fun and stimulation ahead. Dodie and Kevin’s small living room, cluttered with cats and books, felt like a refuge from the dull, mercenary forces that were (even then) erasing the old bohemian San Francisco, and the writers I met there were uniformly clever and charmingly offbeat. Many are still friends today. Within that enchanted bubble, wit, good manners, and the tough-minded analysis necessary to inculcate literary talent reigned supreme.
At the time, Kevin was workshopping a novel in progress that became Spreadeagle, a wryly twisted and rather noirish tale of literary celebrity, criminality, and perversion. I loved it so much I immediately read his earlier novels, Arctic Summer, Shy, and Bedrooms Have Windows, as well as his short story collection, Little Men. All terrific! (He published a lot of poetry too, which I’m told is also great.) It confused some people that Kevin was considered a queer author because he’d left his louche, homosex-y youth behind him and married a woman, but he and Dodie had transcended the constraints of such mundane, petty classifications.
Once I’d befriended Dodie and Kevin, I discovered a cultural milieu I hadn’t known existed. They and their friends were constantly rushing around between book release parties, poetry readings, and art openings. At such events one could always count on Kevin for a friendly smile, spicy gossip, or some delicious tidbit of information about Australian pop phenomenon, Kylie Minogue, with whom he was obsessed. Just the sight of Kevin, always ever so slightly disheveled with bangs falling boyishly over his forehead, was enough to raise my spirits.
Kevin was also prone to writing and producing hilariously wacky and absurdist plays for the Poets Theater using literary and musical celebrities as characters that he and his friends would play. I wasn’t alone in being mystified as to how Kevin, who worked a full-time office job, managed to regularly stage plays, attend seemingly all of his numerous his friends’ events, and still find time write.
More amazing yet, Kevin also found time to be a tireless promoter. He was forever introducing one to new authors, talking up someone’s latest work, and booking out-of-towners to read at some bookstore or gallery. As if that weren’t enough, he co-edited My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer and, along with Dodie, Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977 – 1997. He gave me a lovely blurb for my third novel and spoke of my writing in terms flattering enough I not only felt embarrassed, but tempted to question his sincerity. Kevin’s tireless championing of LGBTQ writers is justifiably the stuff of legend, and he (along with Dodie) acted like a social glue, bonding San Francisco’s more adventurous, if less commercially successful, writers into a community.
For all his myriad virtues, what I enjoyed most about Kevin was his mischievous sense of humor. For example, when he was recovering from a heart attack and too doped up to write, Kevin (at Dodie’s rather brilliant suggestion) tried to get back in the swing of it by penning Amazon reviews. These quickly progressed from a few words about books, music or movies to amusingly off-kilter mini-essays about random items like plaster pineapples or Lycra thongs. The reviews were eventually collected into a pair of zines that (who knows?) may well end up becoming the foundational texts of a new literary genre.
As the years rolled by, Kevin gradually began to get the recognition he’d always deserved. City Lights put out his hilarious collection of erotic short stories,Impossible Princess, which won a Lambda award, and Semiotext(e) reissued his out of print early works as an anthology titled “Fascination.” He got to quit his office job, began teaching creative writing, and started jetting off to attend panel discussions and symposia in distant cities.
Everyone was glad for him. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, came word came that Kevin, a mere 66 years old, had died. My Facebook feed instantly filled with more heartfelt tributes than I’ve ever seen, all of them extolling his talent, generosity, kindness, and good cheer. Kevin was, and I am being quite literal here, universally beloved.
In the days ahead, I see three duties for Kevin’s friends and fans. First, we must offer whatever support we can to Dodie. Let her know that the massive outpouring of love for Kevin belongs to her as well. Second, we simply must work to see that Kevin’s books are given their rightful place of honor in the queer literary canon. And third, we must try and be more like Kevin, allowing our lives to be guided by the love of writing and writers. None of these things will make up for the lack of Kevin in our lives, but they’re the least we can do to honor his memory.
Alvin Orloff’s memoir Disasterama: Adventure in the Queer Underground 1979-1997 comes out in October from Three Rooms Press. Learn more at www.alvinorloff.com
Michael’s white and Ben’s biracial. Michael’s older and Ben’s younger. Michael’s HIV positive and Ben’s negative. Michael’s a survivor of the AIDS era and Ben’s only heard about it. Michael’s stuck in the past and Ben’s looking forward.
At no point are this couple’s differences more apparent in “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” than when Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Murray Bartlett) takes his partner Ben Marshall (Charlie Barnett) to a dinner party, hosted by his more established ex-boyfriend and A-gay friends.
When Ben speaks out against one of the others’ transphobia, he gets piled on by the rest, all of whom survived the AIDS era, fought for gay liberation, and helped make it safer for gay men to walk the streets of San Francisco without being bashed, live longer lives (if they are HIV-positive), and bareback (if they’re on PrEP). His partner, Michael, sits by silently, afraid to get involved.
It’s tensions like these that make the latest “Tales”—inspired by Maupin’s classic novels set in San Francisco and picking up where the original 1993 PBS series “Tales of the City” and subsequent Showtime sequels “More Tales of the City” and “Further Tales of the City” left off—so provocative.
In advance of the 10-episode series’ Netflix premiere on June 7, I spoke to actors Murray Bartlett (“Looking”) and Charlie Barnett (“Chicago Fire”) about their excitement around the “Tales of the City” reboot, which also features Laura Linney, Ellen Page, Paul Gross, and Olympia Dukakis, reexamining their own socio-political biases, and their tension-inducing sex scenes.
48 HILLSWhat excited you most about joining the cast of “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City”?
CHARLIE BARNETT I was really excited to get to play a gay role. I haven’t had that opportunity too much in my career, so I was really excited, especially with a group of writers whom I knew were going to demand more than just the surface-level character exploration.
MURRAY BARTLETT It was a dream project for me. I came to San Francisco for the first time in the early to mid-‘90s from Australia, and the guy I was staying with had “Tales of the City” on VHS. After watching it, it really became intermingled with my first impressions of San Francisco. So I completely fell in love with the city and the show. It had a huge impact on me.
48 HILLSI think I can guess, but what about it appealed to you so much?
MURRAY BARTLETT It was one of the first things I’d seen, especially television, where these characters that were part of the LGBTQ community were living happily and freely and just being true to themselves. It was ahead of its time, so I became a fan and watched it many times over the years.
48 HILLSYou play an intergenerational couple on the new series, confronting and reevaluating your own biases about the LGBTQ+ community, particularly during the A-gay dinner party scene. What did you learn about yourself or your community in the process?
CHARLIE BARNETT I did a whole bunch of research about Stonewall and the riots and what the trans movement has been within the community as a whole, not just specifically the gay community. It opened my eyes incredibly. I hadn’t known how much of an impact they had on giving gay and lesbian people an opportunity, specifically the trans fight within that small quarter of history. Going on to watch the Marsha P. Johnson documentary, I could bawl just thinking about that…
I’ve learned and grown a lot just from having worked on that [dinner party] scene. I could tell you that walking into it, though, I wholeheartedly related to Ben’s position on that. As much as I understand and hear and can have compassion, in a certain sense, for what the older generation of gay men are talking about, I have a big problem with how gay men have pushed the trans community out.
Of course, I’m incredibly thankful to all of them for the struggles, the fights, their journeys, and what they’ve done for me. I couldn’t be in my position having this conversation with you without other gay men making those leaps and bounds.
MURRAY BARTLETT We had an incredible team of writers and that [dinner party] episode particularly stands out to me as such a beautifully written episode.
It presents two different views from different generations and I kind of agree and disagree with both of them in various ways. That’s what makes it so brilliant—that you see both points of view but no one’s completely wrong or right. They’re just different perspectives on the same issues.
I think then what we start to see with Michael and Ben afterward is that what’s really important is to bridge those perspectives. In a larger sense, in Michael and Ben’s relationship, what they’re dealing with is different perspectives of the world from different generations and I think it’s a universal theme.
It’s very important right now when there’s so much division in the US and the world, in general, to get beyond those heated conversations that happen at that dinner party and bridge and understand each other. We may not agree on everything, but let’s learn from each other and move forward richer for it.
48 HILLS Murray, on “Looking” and “Tales of the City,” you play the “daddy” role, but I first saw you on “Sex and the City,” playing the twink who temporarily lures Carrie Bradshaw away from her older friend, Stanford, in one of my favorite episodes. How are you embracing this new stage in your life?
MURRAY BARTLETT You know, my back’s a little sorer than it used to be, but apart from that, I like the wisdom and the perspective that come from aging.
I think we’re such a youth-focused culture and we’re in danger of missing all the jewels of what it means to grow older and wiser, so yeah, I definitely feel fortunate that I am older.
One of the perspectives that Michael has and it’s one of the things that makes him such a beautiful person is that he went through the whole AIDS epidemic and thought he was going to die and he came through it happy and lucky to be alive when a lot of his friends aren’t. I think he has his neurosis, but he really embraces every moment as moments that he might not have had.
If we can go into old age with that in mind, just loving every moment, what a wonderful way to live that is. That’s what I’m trying to do.
48 HILLSSo you both filmed some pretty racy sex scenes for the new series. I am confident that I literally saw-spit swapping in one extreme closeup. What can you tell me about shooting those scenes?
CHARLIE BARNETT I’ve had a lot of fun. Murray, of course, is incredibly handsome and it’s fun to roll around the bed with him. However, I am happily in a committed relationship and I love my partner.
When we were filming the scenes, we did have a deep desire to make the scenes more than passion and sex. We wanted people to see the passion beyond a physical nature, more of a relationship passion and a love for each other. For me, they were really incredible because they solidified our characters’ relationship.
Man Haters: SF Edition—June 5 Be grateful that this award-winning comedy show featuring all women and queer comics has traded its usual locale – the White Horse Saloon – for the Brava’s roomier digs. More people should have the chance to catch rising talents Dominique Gelin, Nori Reed and Irene Tu in-person before they show up in your Roku watchlist. More info here.
Precarious Lives—Opening June 6, runs through June 27 One of the highlights of NQAF for the last two years have been the Creative Labor visual art exhibitions at SOMArts, which put in dialogue work by emerging and canonical queer artists. This year’s exhibition— which is packed with work by Marlon Riggs, Barbara Hammer, Lordes Portillo, Rhodessa Jones, René Yanez, Michelle Tea, Tina Takemoto, Marcela Pardo Ariza and many more—focuses on the fundamental vulnerability of queer lives, highlighting the creative survival strategies, political demands, and coalitional ethics that emerge in the face of such precariousness.More info here.
How to Have a Body—June 12 Imagine living your life in a queer disabled body. That is the fundamental thought experiment at the heart of Gina Stella dell’Assunta’s multi-media solo theatrical show, which invites you to take up her position as a proud femme crip. Based on her forthcoming book, Stella dell’Assunta’s show tours the urban spaces, both private and public, that comprise her experience of a city undergoing deleterious development while still offering strongholds of resilience. More info here.
Mother the Verb—June 19
Ivan “Ivy” Monteiro and Javier Stell-Frésquez aren’t here to be your mamas but the duo’s inventive, impassioned choreographic exploration of the necessity of matriarchy and mothering to post-colonial survival will likely give you life. Dazié Rustin Grego-Sykes, of The Deep Dickollective fame, starts off the evening with a reflection on his own mother’s passing. Bring offerings; bring Kleenex. More info here.
Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth: The Queer Intifada—June 20 – 22 The next global battle to overthrow Western imperialism will be decidedly queer, fought by glittering aliens and glamour zombies and lead by drag generals. That is the vision laid out in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s multimedia performance. Bhutto, who has hit various stages as Faluda Islam, pulls equally from their drag bag and archival research to deliver a spectacle of speculative futurity that you didn’t know you needed. More info here.
The Manifesto Project—June 21 San Francisco Mime Troupe and Beach Blanket Babylon veteran Rotimi Agbabiaka is one of the Bay’s most spellbinding storytellers, combining raw charisma, whip-smart writing and unexpected directional choices. His latest solo work doubles as a group therapy seminar and tent revival: Agbabiaka—donning multiple guises – leads the audience in developing a manifesto for 21st century theater of liberation.More info here.
Those with the chance to visit “Forever, A Moment,” the SOMArts exhibition curated by Yetunde J. Olagbaju and Kevin Bernard Moultrie Daye that opens Thu/14 will not be experiencing the sterile white walls we’ve come to expect of the art world. Instead, the pair present a series of works and ritual spaces created by Black artists with strong ties to the Bay Area, a meditation on the ways that Blackness translates from the past to the future, with an essential stopover in the present.
Enriched by Moultrie Daye’s background as an architectural designer, Umar Rashid a.k.a. Frohawk Two Feathers constructs a tent inviting entry, bedecked with signifiers of indigenous culture that speak to the artist’s work reimagining and reassessing colonial history. Oakland creative and art educator Lukaza Brandman Verissimo’s “As Bright As Yellow” explores the bounds of color therapy, objects arranged on a sunny background that opens up to the possibilities of rite.
Though such real-life spacial reimagining may be the immediate energy grab, “Forever, A Moment” is not without its more traditional, wall-hung works. Exhibition previews highlight the mixed-media collage of Kasmir Jones a.k.a. POETIC, expands the Black body, quite literally altering perspective with unexpected physical ratios.
Such an undertaking required deep investigation from its participating creatives. But it also asks for an amount of reflection on the part of attendees to absorb the implications of a Black futurity presented free of whiteness’ accompanying yard stick.
We connected with Olagbaju and Moultrie Daye to find out the past, present, and coming implications of the show.
48 HILLSWhat did you know in advance of this project about the other curator’s work that made you eager to collaborate with them?
YETUNDE J. OLAGBAJU The thing that excited me the most about Kevin’s previous experience was more so surrounding his ability as an architect and creator of spaces. I was interested in collaborating for this very reason. What Kevin brings to the table is his expertise on how to truly make a space nonlinear and a dedication to investigating how deeply physical space can affect our sense of possibility and memory.
The sensibility is crucial when thinking about how art inhabits a space and how it also might alter it.
KEVIN BERNARD MOULTRIE DAYE When I met Yetunde, I didn’t know about her art practice! The more I learned however, the clearer it became that although our approaches and attitudes are different, we are interested in the same things: How we, as human beings, orient ourselves in space and through time. How memory and possibility is embedded in our landscapes and specifically, how black people can leverage the spaces we occupy and the time we are given to heal and thrive.
48 HILLS The artists in the exhibition all have ties to the Bay Area. What are some of the overlying truths/impressions about Blackness in the Bay being expressed by “Forever, a Moment”?
YETUNDE J. OLAGBAJU One obvious truth is that we are a dwindling and dissolving group of people. Those of us who are able to stay are often doing so by the skin of our teeth and are having to balance our need to survive with our desire to to create/heal. I believe we would be hard pressed to find a Black artist in the Bay who is not consistently worried about their bills or stable housing opportunities.
The other truth that I feel “Forever, A Moment” truly addresses is the pressure that is placed on Black artists in the Bay to talk about specific topics through their work. I believe that many Black artists experience this phenomenon of walking into the gallery and have their work be digested in ways that puts Black relationship to White Supremacy at the forefront of the viewers experience. Blackness, Black art, and Black memory should not be defined only in its approximation to Whiteness. This, in itself, is racism and forces artists to place limitations on their artistic expression.
For me, those were some of my main intentions when considering artists and work to included in “Forever, A Moment”. I wanted artists whose work expands upon Blackness in a way that challenges our established art historical narratives, allows us to reimagine our place within that timeline, and that ultimately distorts this timeline in new and exciting ways.
KEVIN BERNARD MOULTRIE DAYE Standing in the gallery it think there is an overwhelming sensation of ownership of this place, the Bay Area. A feeling that this is somewhere where the history and legacy of Blackness is so established, it does not need to prove itself or position itself in relation to Whiteness or anything else. And so, the work is given the freedom to dive even deeper and covers quite a broad spectrum of questions: from the relationship between Greek myth, Renaissance ideals and the modern-day athlete, to the connection between cannabis culture and what it takes to survive in the world today.
48 HILLSWhat kind of/are there questions attendees to the exhibition should ponder BEFORE they arrive at SOMArts?
YETUNDE J. OLAGBAJU If you’re a Black artist, I would love for you to come questioning what your Blackness means to you within your art practice. Do you see work that resonates with how you orient yourself within memory, legacy, and time? Is there such a thing as “Black collective memory”? If so, what lives in those archives? And finally, what can those endless possibilities provide for you in terms of your own healing?
If you’re not a Black artist, I then ask how you are creating opportunities and resources to Black artists and elders in the Bay? Do you feel a responsibility to do so? Could “Forever, A Moment” be a revelatory moment for you? I surely hope so.
KEVIN BERNARD MOULTRIE DAYE Have I ever been in a space that was completely designed for Black people? How many ways have I allowed Blackness to express itself? Have I treated Blackness as a monolith? If nobody told me that this show was 100 percent Black artists and curators, what would I have expected to see? What do I expect to see now?
FOREVER, A MOMENT: BLACK MEDITATIONS ON TIME AND SPACE Opening reception: Thu/14 6-9pm, free Exhibit runs through April 6 SOMArts Cultural Center, SF More info here.
“For me, her work sort of stops me in my tracks,” Garrels said. “You see a piece of hers, and it’s not something you can say, ‘I’ve seen it, I get it, I’ll move on.’ With Vija’s work, you want to spend some time. It makes me very aware of my own process of looking and understanding.”
Garrels first saw Celmins’ work in 1982 at a New York gallery. He remembers particularly the arrangement of stones called “To Fix the Object in Memory”. Her 1992 mid-career retrospective at the Institue of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia “kind of totally sealed it for me,” he said.
When he was at the Hammer Museum, Neal Benezra, the director of SFMOMA, asked him to come back to San Francisco, Garrels told him he would want to work on a show of Celmins and Benezra supported the idea.
The artist had not had a major U.S. retrospective in 25 years. When Garrels approached her with the idea, she was open to it, but was busy putting together a show with New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery. Garrels says SFMoMA’s “To Fix the Image in Memory” has been simmering for about 10 years and he’s been actively working on it for four, meeting and talking with Celmins as well as working with Ian Alteveer, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is co-organizing the show.
Celmins is an exceptional artist, Garrels says, and in a world inundated with images, her work encourages people to take some time.
“Most of us are kind of grazing – we don’t live in a culture that encourages slow looking,” he said. “There’s this, there’s that, and you move on. We’re kind of on cruise control. She’s one of the artists that just slows it down and rewards spending time with any work. It’s just fascinating and you get interested in the way they’re made. I find it extraordinary that an artist like Vija can sustain that decade after decade.”
Garrels says he enjoys the way Celmins thinks about art, her humor, her rare ability to consider a question carefully, without canned, pat response.
Garrels describes Celmins’ work as intimate rather than big and showy. A lot of her work is in private collections and she’s somewhat under the radar — a compelling reason to do the show, he thinks, and give people a chance to see more than just one or two pieces.
“She’s not lost interest in what it means to make a work of art,” Garrels said. “When she declared herself an artist, she felt compelled to grapple with fundamental issues of what a work of art is, and that’s just as intense now as at the beginning of her career, and she’s kept that intensity and invention, decade after decade.”
VIJA CELMINS: TO FIX THE IMAGE IN MEMORY Through March 31 SFMoMa More info here.
At the refugee camp where he lived with his family after the Gulf War broke out in their native Iraq, Wesaam Al-Badry thought the photojournalists who came to the camp were heroes.
“They were these saviors coming in to tell our stories because our story gets out, we get help, the UN comes in, we get identification cards so we can go to the doctor,” he said. “Then you grow up and realize not all journalism is what you think—there is exploitation and voyeurism behind the lens. And at an early age I understood I didn’t want to be the kid with the runny nose in the photograph.”
And yet he retained a fascination with photography, trading his shirt and a bag of marbles with another kid to get a camera. Now Al-Badry, who has a BFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute, studies journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His work includes photos of women whose sons have been shot and killed by police and Iraqi refugee women. Al-Badry says he never thinks of the people he photographs as subjects, but as people.
“I always think, ‘How would I want to show my mother in an image and how would I want to be seen?’ Nobody wants to look weak and pathetic,” he said. “I’m not interested in fetishizing somebody’s misery.”
After spending several years at the refugee camp, Al-Badry’s family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. During high school, he worked at fast food places, and after graduation, he held a variety of jobs, including meat-packing, asbestos removal, and laying concrete. Still dreaming of being a photographer, he took a class at the local community college. That led to stints at Al Jazeera and CNN before he eventually landed at SFAI and Berkeley.
Now, some of Al-Badry’s photos from his Al Kouture series are in the Contemporary Muslim Fashions show at the de Young Museum (through January 6). They show women wearing scarves from major global fashion brands like Gucci and Chanel as niqabs. Al–Badry says the idea came to him when he joked with a friend who loves branded items that Louis Vuitton was selling a prayer rug for $3,600.
His photos ended up in the de Young exhibit because he had donated some work to be auctioned by SF Camerawork, an organization that gave him a show early in his career. Those photos caught the eye of Julian Cox, the de Young’s former curator, who wanted them to be part of the Muslim fashion show.
Jill D’Alessandro, who curated the de Young exhibit along with Laura Camerlengo, says Al-Badry’s helps round out the show by addressing political and social issues. “He’s very insightful,” she said. “He’s very giving and intellectually curious, and he’s a journalist, so he does all this research for his work.”
D’Allesandro says she and Camerlengo have been tracking the exhibition on social media, and Al-Badry’s work is heavily commented on. “It’s one of the most reposted,” she said. “I think it’s the visitors responding to the visual strength of it and these subtle statements it makes.”
Al-Badry wanted the curators to understand that this work is meant to critique Arab consumerism and Western fashion houses. Originally he was cautious about the idea of a Muslim fashion show, but he changed his mind after meeting the curators, who he thinks took a risk by doing the show.
“The Muslim is seen as the other in American society,” he said. “In the Trump era, you have a Muslim contemporary fashion exhibit while the Muslim ban is in effect. Think about that. In a way, it’s a soft protest. You’re pushing, but in a creative way. Nobody thinks Muslims have fashion—everybody thinks Muslims just wear burkas.”
Al-Badry, who was recently awarded the Dorothea Lange Fellowship, doesn’t really differentiate between his work as a journalist and a photographer. Before the midterms, he was commissioned to design a billboard for For Freedoms‘ 50 State Initiative—the largest public art campaign in American history.
Currently, his projects include working with a family in Standing Rock, another project in Mississippi, and taking photographs of the devastation of the Camp Fire in Paradise (rare for him in that they don’t feature people). He’s always thinking about what’s next, Al-Badry says, and he’s doing what he always has wanted to do.
“There’s that love and enjoyment in it,” he said. “I don’t see it as a job. I’m going to go to a place that’s 20 degrees below for a week, then I’m going to go to another place that’s 15 to 20, then I’m going to go to a place that’s 70 to 80. But this is an important thing—it’s important to tell stories.”
CONTEMPORARY MUSLIM FASHION
Through January 6 de Young Museum, San Francisco More info here
The amped-up promo video for Cirque du Soleil’s latest big top show Volta (at AT&T Park, through February 3) had me thinking we were in for a full-throttle EDM extravaganza, a Mad Max ultra-rave, perhaps, with glowstick-flashing hands in the air and spandexed limbs flying all akimbo. It seemed a bit overwhelming!
So it was a surprise when this extravaganza turned out to be a sweetly beguiling evening—still brimming with jaw-dropping feats of human prowess, of course, but tipping away from strained, arena-zazzing grasps at relevance into that special, if often lampooned, French-Canadian magic of the pre-Vegas Cirque shows of yore. (The premiere earlier this month was already a surreal scene, with audience members donning masks against the toxic cloud, and Mayor London Breed awkwardly pushing her way through the casts’ curtain call to get to her next event.)
Don’t worry, there aren’t any jars full of rainbows or mimes with their crotches in your face. And Volta kicks off full-speed, with a Hunger Games-like game show featuring a blindingly toothy figure named Mr. Wow, deciding the fate of various performers, while both an army of cell-phone obsessed drones and a camouflage-clad population of outsiders represent a dystopian society on the fringes of the action. (The costumes, by Lady Gaga costumer Zaldy, add to the trademark Cirque combo of Thunderdome-meets-Jazzercise a bit of super-hip designer Raf Simmons and classic Burning Man—plus tons of feathers.)
It’s in this competition, which cleverly introduces us to Volta’s performers and features a astounding Tron-inspired double dutch routine, that we meet gentle protagonist Waz, who wows the Mr. Wow crowd. But Waz soon reveals a trait that gets him marked an outcast who must find his own form of comfort in a cold and uncaring world. Most of this is achieved by a retreat into childhood memories and welcoming encounters with fellow freaks, until he realizes the power of difference.
That’s about it for the cliche storyline, but who’s bothering to follow along too closely when there’s so much happening onstage? Once the pyrotechnics of the opener are over, the hypnotic score by Anthony Gonzalez aka electronic pop giant M83 (I gasped) takes over—to my ear, an ’80s-tinged mashup of Pat Benatar and Enya, with some early Seal thrown in—and the segments breathe with the dreamlike pace of nostalgia. Numbers cleverly open up and spread out: I wasn’t aware we were watching a fabulous unicycle number or a dirt bike ballet until we were in the midst of things. A trampoline-based parkour romp through a revolving cityscape gently teases attention in different directions, a short story with supple plot twists.
Entrancing, yes, even ruminative at points (an inexplicable but perfect Buddha-themed acrobatic dance by Daniel Blim was definitely a highlight, as was a laidback tumbling routine featuring stackable hexagons.) But you’ll hardly be lulled asleep—plenty of sparks flew from another dirt bike-based number, this one featuring plexiglass ramps and gonzo flips, and several acrobatic acts, one featuring a pair of bright white sculpted twins. As always, Cirque drops a good old-fashioned clown into the mix, and Wayne Wilson was a brilliant physical comedian, especially in a hilarious laundromat kerfuffle bit.
It’s all held together by the wonder and perseverance of Waz, played by Torontonian Joey Arrigo, who has cited his gay identity as helping him connect with the role of an outsider. He brings his own set of skills, including making passages that should seem schmaltzy appealing. In the end, it’s the overwhelming charm of Arrigo, the free-spirited roller skater Ela, and rest of the cast that plugs Volta in—although I missed the slightly more complex gender dynamics and design of Cirque’s previous show here, Luzia, which featured a female soccer wiz, pantomime animals, and a splash of androgyny. It’s still a pretty full night of wow.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL’S VOLTA Through February 3, 2019 Big Top at AT&T Park, SF. More info here.
FALL ARTS PREVIEW The light is deepening, the food is getting heartier, harvest is bringing much good grape and green, and fall arts season is lighting up the longer nights (and brighter days). Before we jump into everything, I want to plug two awesome 48 Hills events that you should hit up. First is the naughty one, on October 17: A party celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US publication of the great homoerotic illustrator Tom of Finland. It’s part of the sprawling Litquake festival (see below) and is called, what else, Beefcake: 50 Years of Tom of Finland, featuring dancing, live music, a lookalike contest, and some outrageous surprises at the Eagle bar.
The second great upcoming 48 Hills event is a live music fundraiser—we need your support to keep going! Come to the Bindery October 18 to see literary-musical supergroup The Deadliners: A rockin’ 48 Hills benefit!” Hobnob with some cool peeps and soak in the Haight Street vibe. On with the show!
There’s so much going on! It’s great. This weekend sees the huge Oktoberfest by the Bay, Fri/21-Sun/23, so soup-up your steins. Folsom Street Fair usually kicks off the fall season with a bang and a jangle September 30, followed a week later by the more wholesome Castro Street Fair, October 7. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free civic treasure, will swamp Golden Gate Park with music fans of all types October 5-7. Litquake, the citywide parade of literary lights, takes over tons of SF venues October 11-20.
Grab a (compostable) fork for the SF Street Food Festival, October 13 at the Potrero Power Plant. The Moby Dick Marathon features 100 authors reading the white-whale tome, October 13-14 at the Maritime Museum. Schlep out to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin FestivalOctober 13 and 14 to see some o’ them giant gourds. Super-cute, and featuring all sorts of homegrown entertainment, is the Potrero Hill Festival, October 20. Then it’s time for warmer indoor holiday thoughts at the massive Dickens Fair, starting November 17 at the Cow Palace. Already???
Ongoing museum shows you should run to right now (or in the near future): “Bay Area Now 8” (through March 24) is the latest installment of the triennial survey of young Bay Area artists, and it is fantastic, from the homo-imp photographs of Jamil Hellu and the knockout paintings of Cate White, to some incredible installation work that blew my mind. “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” (through November 18) at BAMPFA shows oodles of incredible photos from one of the quintessential artists of the AIDS era, and balances super-hip portraiture with stunningly austere yet intimate landscapes and street scenes. “Ficre Ghebreyesus: City with A River Running Through” at MoAD (through December 16) is the first museum showing of the paintings of Eritrean American artist Ficre Ghebreyesus (1962-2012), who fled conflict in his country and made his way to the United States as a political refugee. And “Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (through January 6) is one of the rare SF shows of fashion that goes beyond fancy sponsors to actually document a vast cultural movement.
Upcoming visual arts? Pair the CJM’s show with the tremendous-looking “Contemporary Muslim Fashion” at the de Young (September 22-January 6). “Wesley Tongson: The Journey” (October 12-December 15) at the Chinese Culture Center looks at the fascinating work of the schizophrenic Hong Kong ink artist, who died in 2012 and toward the end of his life abandoned brushes for his fingers and nails. And check out the talents of one of our polymath politicos as he debuts several works of collage-painting in the “Matt Gonzalez: Derivations in Color” (October 4-27) show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
The 20th SF International Hip-Hop Dancefest, as always presided over by dance guru Micaya, brings the noise to the Palace of Fine Arts, November 16-18. Before that, though, you’ll want to clang clang clang your way through San Francisco Trolley Dances, October 20-2, and gasp in delight at the absolutely gorgeous dances of Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu’s can’t-miss “Hula Show”(October 20-21 and 27-28) at the Palace of Fine Arts. Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Pepperland” (September 28-30), with Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, celebrates 50 years of the Beatles Sgt Pepper album, and Zaccho Dance Theatre give a free performance at the Bayview Opera House to celebrate the neighborhood, called “Picture Bayview Hunters Point,” October 11-14 and 18-21. Want to get in on the physical exertion (albeit in a relaxed, literary way)? Bikes to Books(October 13) celebrates five years with “our signature bike tour of Literary San Francisco, from South Park to North Beach, Jack London to Jack Kerouac.”
The play’s the thingie: “Barber Shop Chronicles” at Cal performances “eavesdrops on conversations in six different barbershops in London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Kampala, and Harare over the course of a single day.” I’m stoked about ACT’s production of Men on Boats, Jaclyn Backhaus’ gender-flipping play that notoriously features no men and no boats. “The Homophobes: A Clown Show” at Counterpulse (October 18-20), directed by photographer Dino Dinco, is “a transcendent trans-comedy of errors featuring mad ministers, divine interventions, confused angels and maybe even the antichrist.”
“An American Ma(u)l,” at Brava Theater October 18-November 11, is playwright Robert O’Hara’s “scathing and hilarious political satire about the creeping return of enslavement in the 21st Century.” Definitely go see surrealist improv geniuses the SF Neofuturists’ “Infinite Wrench” show every weekend at Piano Fight. And finally, the impeccably titled Problematic Play Festival at Z-Space, October 12-14, seems just right for our times.
SFFILM, the organization that brings us the packed San Francisco Film Festival in April, doesn’t hibernate in the other months. It’s got heartthrob actor-director Rupert Everett popping in for a tribute and a preview of his new Oscar Wilde bio-pic The Happy Prince September 26 at the Castro Theatre. Then there’s the cinematic fireworks and flying fists of the Hong Kong Cinema series (September 28-30) at the Vogue Theatre, which ” the gamut in tone and style from hard-hitting drama to social realism to pulse-pounding action.” And October 4-21 pays tribute to a great Indian director with Satyajit Ray: Intimate Universes at the SFMOMA. Ray’s Apu Trilogy is such a landmark of modern cinema, it will be a treat to see his other work as well on the big screen.
The Mill Valley Film Festival, October 4-14 goes gaga for serious star power and ace flicks, while the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, also October 4-14, may have you tapping in your seat. Roxie Cinema hosts the SF Shorts Festival, with shorts from 25 countries (deceptive name!) but some from here as well, October 18-October 20. The 21st Arab Film Festival comes to screens October 13-22, bursting with news from all over the Arab world. Plus the Roxie is also putting upon of my favorite films of all times in a new restoration: Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire, October 26-30. That library scene! That streetcar scene! That falling scene!
The folks who bring you the SF Indie fest aren’t sleeping amongst the golden leaves either: Not only are they presenting brand new festival of provocative short films SF Indie Shorts, November 9-11 at Alamo Drafthouse, they’re also returning for the 15th year to scare the bejeezus out of you at the Another Hole in the Head Festival of horror and terror, November 28-December 12, at New People Cinema.
The Treasure Island Music Festival (October 13-14) is always a hoot, and a good gauge of who’s who on the current festival circuit. But first you might want to dive into September 30’s SF Music Day at the War Memorial, which “showcases the dynamism and diversity of Bay Area music, from string quartets to jazz combos, new music pioneers to chamber groups steeped in musical sounds from across the globe.” The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s New Music Ensemble plays much from one of my favorite composers, Steve Reich, also on Sept 30. And the SF Symphony launches into a “Rebellious Beauty” celebration of one of departing conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s favorite obsessions, composer Igor Stravinsky’s whirling complexity, September 21-30.
Some major reunions and rejuvenations of note: Australian psyche-jangle dreamers The Churchplays the Chapel October 1 for the 30th anniversary of their Starfish album. Also at the Chapel: 30-year-old drone metal pioneers Earth come though October 12, and psychedelic-pop-shoegazers Mercury Rev slide in October 16 for the 20th anniversary of their Deserter’s Songs album. Hey, stop feeling old! Maggie Rogers with Mallrat, certainly one face of the future of music, comes to the Fillmore October 15, as does Lykke Li on October 17 and Tune-Yards October 20. Catch reverb-pop rebooter Wild Nothing October 27-28, British trip-rappers Young Fathers November 10 and 11, and, OK we’re getting retro again and delightfully so, The Orb November 15, all at the Independent.
September 30 is the Folsom Street Fair, so you will probably want to plant yourself at the Stud all weekend for the dancing fallout, including Pittsburgh’s notorious Honcho Crew September 28, electro warlock The Hacker September 29, and all-day dance floor craziness full of proud pangender perversity on September 30. Nightlife legend Justin Vivian Bond returnsfor their one-person show “The Boys in Trees!” at Oasis October 3 and 4, singing “songs of people I want to f*ck!” (Followed by my favorite drag act ever, Varla Jean Mermanat Oasis, performing October 4-7.)
San Francisco’s native funky techno sound gets a rave-up October 6 when the classic Qoöl crew celebrates 111 Minna’s 25th anniversary, burning for 13 hours. From there you might want to dial up the 1-800-DINOSAUR party, October 6 at Public Works, with a DJ set from wheedly heartthrob James Blake. Bop time in the park time October 14, with the annual As You Like It Picnic in Golden Gate Park, with Chicago DJ Chrissy. Dub godfather Lee “Scratch” Perrylaunches you into space at the Chapel October 18. The glorious pairing of enormously popular house DJs The Black Madonna and Honey Dijon aka Black Honey with blow down August Hall October 19. And one of the best house DJs ever, South Africa’s Black Coffee, touches down at Halcyon October 28.
Before you know it, Halloween will be upon us, and what could be better than a haunted house hosted by a drag queen? With Into the Dark: TERROR VAULT, which kicks off Peaches Christ takes over the Mint for all kinds of scary shenanigans, and probably some dancing mummies, too. Meanwhile, you’ll want to dance yourself on actual Halloween night: Go big at the ginormous Barco Fantasma, October 26 and 27 at the new SVN West, or more intimate but equally insane on Halloween night, as underground sensation Violet plays the Honey Soundsystem party.
November 9 sees our soulful house lodestar, DJ David Harness, celebrating his 50th birthday with an all-night affair at Great Northern. Ross from Friends, an actual (and actually great) techno musicmaker, comes to 1015 Folsom November 15. And, for the dedicated heads, Crystal Method toots into Public Works November 17.
ART LOOKS The video and dance performance coming to the Asian Art Museum, Planet Celadon: Our Receiver Is Operating, features scuba gestures, air traffic signals, Busby Berkeley-style dancers with vases on their heads, and a tap dancer wearing flippers.
Artist Genevieve Quick, who created Planet Celadon, says she was looking at a Korean moon jar in the museum’s collection—fashioned in the jade green, transparent celadon pottery style—when she started wondering where its planet was.
“I was looking around and everything was made of celadon, and I thought maybe it’s Planet Celadon,” she said. “Celadon migrated all over Asia, so there’s Japanese celadon and Korean celadon and Chinese celadon, so it can sort of stand in for being Asian American.”
Quick, who got her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute and has done residencies at the de Young Museum, MacDowell, Djerassi, and Yaddo, also found inspiration for this piece in Carl Sagan’s The Golden Record, which he made for the 1977 Voyager mission as a way to communicate about life on earth. It included images as well as the sounds of wind, surf, thunder and bird and whale songs, as well as greetings in more than 50 ancient and modern languages.
Busby Berkeley, another inspiration for this performance,was known for his over-the-top dance numbers (Quick calls them “amped-up gender play,” in pieces such as Carmen Miranda‘s “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat“)
Planet Celadon has a science fiction narrative about communicating with a distant place and culture. Quick has always loved the genre.
“I love the way it fuses historical records with futuristic speculations,” she said. “Like how in Star Wars when Hans Solo and R2D2 are at this sort of outcast bar with Chewbacca, and their costumes look like they might be Mongolian or Egyptian, and there are these historical references built in.”
For this performance, Quick created a character, the Asianaut, to communicate between earth and Planet Celadon.
“Part of the project is about dislocation,” she said. ”Being an Asian American growing up in the United States, there’s this push and pull, and you feel displaced in a way. I wanted to take thechallenges of communicating across cultures and extend that to the challenges of communicating intergalactically.”
Quick spoke about the upcoming performance in her Bayview studio, with the costume for the Asianaut (a futuristic version of the traditional Korean hanbok) hanging nearby, along with a couple of the white scuba diver costumes. At one point, she got up from her stool to demonstrate the air controller motions and the scuba gestures that will be incorporated into the dance.
Quick, an interdisciplinary artist who does sculpture, video, photography, and drawing, has used dance before in her work. But this is the first time she has hired a choreographer: Liz Tenuto. And Quick is learning to tap dance for the 30-minute performance. There will also be six dancers with vases tied onto their heads.
“The dancers have sort of drag mannerisms with full green faces and bright red lips and vases on their heads,” she said. “They’re sort of Asian women and sort of aliens and vases—they’re all three things at the same time.”