‘The vastness of queer identity’

Lansing Art Gallery exhibit is a quiet riot of themes, media and emotions


To get an idea of the variety, exuberance, weirdness and joy of the Lansing Art Gallery’s second annual exhibition of art by LGBTQ+ artists, you have to go back to the opening reception, where musician and artist Lorelei d’Andriole gave a unique performance.

Lorelei d’Andriole
Lorelei d’Andriole

D’Andriole is both a musician and an artist, and she loves to multi-task. She played a guitar while slathering it with wet plaster, gauging the plaster’s effect on the sound as it dried, adapting her touch on the strings to the shifting timbres and changing volume.

You can see one version of the resulting sculpture, complete with a tiny amplifier, tucked into a quiet riot of paintings, prints, sculptures and unclassifiable objects at the Lansing Art Gallery that plumb the highs and lows of LGBTQ life, and life in general.

The amp actually works.

“You can turn it on, strum the strings and it makes sounds,” d’Andriole said.

As the plaster dried, d’Andriole added decorative streaks and swirls with crayon, marker and paints, coating the instrument in a festering, yet festive, frosting of confetti-white ooze.

“I’ve been a musician for most of my life,” d’Andriole said. She plays drums and guitar and has toured the country in punk bands in venues of all sizes. She’s now an assistant professor of electronic art and intermedia at MSU and plays in the bands Danger Cat and Pet Me.

“There’s only so many ways you can play a guitar before it gets kind of boring,” she said. Mashing up music with visual art is what really stirs her drink.

She discovered that guitars have personalities and a boundless potential for metaphor. They have heads, necks and bodies, and bodies go through a lot. They get roughed up, change, adapt, suffer, persist, yet they play on.

“That guitar, as a body, is getting all this baggage put on it, this plaster, all these marks, put on it by an outside force, and all of that is contributing to some creative expression,” d’Andriole said.

Mackenzie Sheehan-D’Arrigo, another artist whose work is on view at the exhibit, listened and watched in amazement as d’Andriole went to work.

Mackenzie Sheehan-D’Arrigo
Mackenzie Sheehan-D’Arrigo

“She slowly started to fill the guitar with plaster. The strings became immobile and you couldn’t really use them, only towards the bottom, but she knew just where to put it and how to change the sounds, but still have it work,” Sheehan-D’Arrigo said.

Sarah Hopkins, the Lansing Art Gallery’s exhibitions and gallery director, said that the body is a major theme for many of this year’s artists.

“Letters from America,” by Chelsea Roberts
“Letters from America,” by Chelsea Roberts

“What I see a lot in this year’s show is artists having conversations about the body and how that relates to their identity, whether it’s a celebration of the body or maybe a questioning, or sometimes they touch on ideas of body dysmorphia.”

Sheehan-D’Arrigo saw the semi-smothered yet playable guitar as “a beautiful comparison to the body and the ways we can change it.”

“Maybe we lose parts of ourselves in some ways, but gain so much more in others,” she said.

As d’Andriole created the sculpture, a former student in her sound art class, Abby Behan, assisted her on the loop pedal.

“I said, ‘Hey, I need another queer artist to show up and help me compose with these tools,” D’Andriole said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Fun is a word many people don’t associate with art.

But who hasn’t wondered what a guitar would sound like under a glob of plaster, or admired a beetle’s adhesive foot parts and longed to see them rendered in ceramics? Who doesn’t aspire to spider sex? Who doesn’t love the golden crust of newly baked cornbread? All of these stimuli, and many more, can be found at this spectacularly diverse exhibit. Fun takes many forms, some more serious than others.

“There’s this stereotype of the suffering artist and the suffering musician,” d’Andriole said. “Good golly, we’re suffering everywhere else. Why do we have to suffer in our art, too? We work all day, we hear the news, everything can be so hard. Why would we make art hard also?”

You get up in the morning, go to the bathroom, pour a cup of coffee. An uninvited voice in your head whispers, “OK, it’s showtime.”

Jessie Gott’s “Cheese,” the cover image of this week’s City Pulse, depicts a squashed face contorting into a forced grin, baring a row of starkly decayed teeth.

The horrible teeth are offset by a soft color gradient of pink and coral in the cheeks and forehead.

“I love contrasts,” Gott said. “There’s this push and pull between a happy and sweet image, and a scary or ugly one.”

The best word to describe this challenge — for queer folks, for artists, and for everybody else — is “presenting.”

“Many folks experience this pressure to present a certain way, inside and out of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “This piece, and others I have done, explore how you present yourself to the world, and what you choose to let people see about you, versus what you choose to keep guarded or hidden away.”

Gott got her BFA in studio art at MSU in 2022 with a concentration in painting.

“I’ve always been interested in art,” she said. “I was a kid in school who was always doodling in the margins of my pages.”

A light came on when she took her first painting class, via Zoom during COVID in 2019, sitting in her one-bedroom apartment.

“I enjoyed it more than I expected to,” she said. “It went from a requirement to the class I really wanted to take.”

“This show feels like a safe space,” she said. “Art can be really intimate. It can be a window to who you are as a person, what your experience is, how you walk in this world. This show is a wonderful way to talk about yourself and also learn so much from others.”

Working alone in studios, Gott said, artists often feel isolated and become overly obsessed with their own ideas.

“It’s really great to take a step back and realize what a large community there is around you, and this show is illustrating that wonderfully,” she said.

“Nearby,” by  Lindsay Skvarek
“Nearby,” by Lindsay Skvarek

Lindsay Skvarek vividly visualizes a troubled, beautiful, struggling body and soul in “Nearby,” a mixed media sculpture that’s half ceramic, half quilt, one of the most forceful, thought-provoking and cryptic pieces in the exhibit.

Lindsay Skvarek
Lindsay Skvarek

All of Skvarek’s art is based on feelings of gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia, deep currents of discomfort and unease about her body.

She got interested in ceramics about the same time she began to question her gender “and have only gotten more committed to it since transitioning.”

“Sexual Dimorphism,” By Evie Dahmer
“Sexual Dimorphism,” By Evie Dahmer

She built the complicated top half of the sculpture from the bottom up, improvising layer by layer, to build a pulsating mass with cutouts inspired by unicellular organisms.

“The shape comes from feeling like an amorphous blob that’s not quite put together,” Skvarek said.

The oblong decorations embedded in the folds also resemble eyes, mouths and other human features, abstracted in the manner of Picasso.

The quilted bottom part intentionally resembles a skirt, “a feminizing piece of clothing.”

“The fabric is thrifted — second-hand scraps,” she said. “It took me a month to get all the shades of blue I wanted from the store.”

“Don’t Wake Me,” by Jenelle Austin
“Don’t Wake Me,” by Jenelle Austin

Skvarek grew up in Ann Arbor, studied art history at Wayne State University and became interested in ceramics there. She is about to start graduate school at the University of Tennessee Knoxville in the fall.

“There’s not a lot of trans people in art, in positions of influence over people in a positive way,” she said. “That’s a big reason why I want to teach.”

Bodies are front, center and everywhere in between in the colorful work of recent MSU graduate Gustavo Uriel Ayala.

Gustavo Uriel Ayala
Gustavo Uriel Ayala

Male wrestlers in tight clinches, with hands and faces in close proximity to sub-equatorial regions of the body, dominate two vibrant screen prints, “Subordinate 1” and “Subordinate 2,” and a drawing made with acrylic paint and colored pencil, “Holding Pattern.”

While studying for his MFA at MSU, Ayala was drawn to the theme of wrestlers “as a metaphor for all kinds of struggle — internal struggle, external struggle, wrestling with identity, sexuality, feelings of shame, isolation and loneliness, all of which, I guess, are informed by my own background as an immigrant, and a gay man.”

He became interested in sports because “it’s a place where masculinity is taught and modeled for younger boys,” he said.

When he narrowed his focus to wrestling, the seemingly contradictory themes of being a model “jock” and feeling “different” or “isolated” came together in his mind.

“The wrestler has to endure so much pain, struggle, so much tension,” he said. “When I think about my childhood, I think about this sense of tension.”

The placement and poses are ambiguous — this is wrestling, after all — but Ayala said the images “have a “certain eroticism to them.”

“I find it charming or funny when people are oblivious to the more suggestive interpretation,” he said. “Some people just see it as an everyday depiction of sports. I’m not trying to say that the sport is inherently gay coded or anything like that. I just appreciate the tension between sports and homo-eroticism, as a kid who joined in some sports and always felt out of place.”

Ayala discovered that the formal qualities of printmaking, especially color, were perfectly suited to make the inherent tension of the images jump off the wall.

Instead of reproducing the colors of the original scene, he deliberately used screaming color contrasts.

“They attract your attention, but at the same time, the color makes it difficult for you to linger in any one place very long, difficult to read the image at all,” he said.

Jesse Amburgey
Jesse Amburgey

The entire exhibit at Lansing Art Gallery is awash in bold and inventive colors. Thick, dripping reds and yellows drench the canvas in Jesse Amburgey’s double portrait, “Manly Love of Comrades.”

“Manly Love of Comrades,” by Jesse Amburgey
“Manly Love of Comrades,” by Jesse Amburgey

Amburgey is an assistant exhibitions producer at the MSU Broad Art Museum.

The portrait of two men sharing a cigarette looks completely modern, but Amburgey said it’s a transfer of a Civil War photograph from the Congressional Archives.

“The idea is to bridge that idea of veiled and hidden queer relationships, and the ways we find to make them more open, more obvious, and find ways to express that sort of love,” he said.

Erin Brott
Erin Brott

Bittersweet consciousness of a body that is no longer there suffuses Erin Brott’s “Love Used to Live Here.” A lush bower of roses frames the featureless silhouette of a seated figure, rendered in luminous yellow.

“Love Used to Live Here,” by Erin Brott
“Love Used to Live Here,” by Erin Brott

The gorgeously rendered non-portrait celebrates the loving relationship between Brott and a longtime partner while mourning their divorce.

Art makes the impossible possible. Despite the breakup, the portrait enabled Brott to return to bask in “memories that feel safe, places that feel safe, people that feel safe.”

“For me, yellow represents love, even in the absence of a person,” Brott said. “You still have those memories that kind of bring that love back to life.”

Look more closely and the yellow void comes alive with subtle gradations and shadings.

“A lot of times, words can escape me, so I use color to describe how I’m feeling in my work, painting certain things a more realistic color, and then really changing the hue to show a different feeling or mood, telling a story with just color,” she said.

As Ayala did with his wrestlers, Brott made the colors pop to convey maximum emotion and impact.

“Especially with queer love —there’s a lot of color in our community,” she said. “We use the rainbow spectrum to represent us. So as an artist, I’m always trying to explore and push color a little further.”

Alongside more conventional paintings, prints and sculptures, the Lansing Art Gallery exhibit is spiced with surprising and non-traditional media, from d’Andriole’s guitar entombed in plaster to a ceramic cast of an automobile tire, a commercial light box, busts encrusted with punctured cloth and a strange, floating scroll made of melted pink vinyl.

That is no accident, according to Emily Burkhead, creator of the pink vinyl scroll.

Emily Burkhead
Emily Burkhead

“It’s about trying to reject or subvert traditional art mediums and materials, which is a very queer thing to do, in my opinion,” Burkhead said.

“I Don’t Think You Understand,” by Emily Burkhead
“I Don’t Think You Understand,” by Emily Burkhead

Burkhead’s amorphous sculpture, “I Don’t Think You Understand,” is inscribed with fragile, stringy text that twists and floats at the viewer’s eye level like congealed thought.

“Holy Trinity 2,” by Ray Kelley
“Holy Trinity 2,” by Ray Kelley

Burkhead graduated this spring with an MFA in fine arts from MSU. Her sculpture focuses on a messy moment of uncertainty and difficulty, when the deadline for her thesis project was looming and she was fighting off feelings of inadequacy.

She used a 3-D printing pen (found at a local thrift store) and a sheet of pink vinyl to create a “visual journal.” The cursive (and discursive) threads of congealed vinyl are hard to read, but bold block letters that read “ignorance,” “incompetence” and “rejection” convey a clear message of distress.

The pink vinyl reminded her of comforting childhood objects like Polly Pocket toys and pool floaties and bubble gum.

“The campiness of it is obviously alluding to things like drag aesthetics,” she said. “On a more personal note, I think queer people oftentimes have a sort of different connection to their childhood, due to things like alienation, growing up, feeling different.”

The cursive text is hard to read, but the feeling of desperation comes through loud and clear.

“I don’t even remember what I wrote,” she said. “It was just a way to get my feelings out.”

The wild variety of media at the Lansing Art Gallery exhibit is matched only by the variety of subject matter.

Mackenzie Sheehan-D’Arrigo’s “Coleoptera” was inspired by a magnified view of the foot of a beetle.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from nature,” she said. “I love to zoom in on little details like that.”

Browsing through an Instagram page on bugs, she was amazed by their endlessly varied colors and patterns.

“I zoomed in on one, noticed that shape and it looked like a vessel to me,” she said. “So I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

Even with four years of ceramics work under her belt, it was a bit daunting to get the colors, textures and forms right. The stains and glazes she used were experimental.

“I fell in love with the crunchy matte textured look with the gloss and the drips,” she said. She painted over the glaze in some areas and let the glaze flow over the lines in others.

“I fell in love with the crunchy matte textured look with the gloss and the drips,” she said. The result is both scary and beautiful — “like life,” she said.

Her second work in the show, “Devil’s Law,” is inspired by the Devil’s Claw, a seed pod commonly found in Arizona, where she grew up.

“Devil’s Law,” by Mackenzie Sheehan-D’Arrigo
“Devil’s Law,” by Mackenzie Sheehan-D’Arrigo

To create this surreal swarm, she sculpted dozens of individual, three-pronged ceramic pods that took on a life of their own, forming a coral-like cluster that combines airy delicacy and inner strength.

“It spoke to me,” she said.

Micah Sweezie
Micah Sweezie

A pot’s throw away from “Coleoptera” and “Devil’s Law” is a smaller but no less stunning bit of ceramic wizardry, Micah Sweezie’s “Reclaimed Tire Bowl.”

“Reclaimed Tire Bowl,” by Micah Sweezie
“Reclaimed Tire Bowl,” by Micah Sweezie

The bowl is a successor to an ambitious undergraduate thesis work at the Art Institute of Chicago, a set of four full-scale porcelain replicas of Michelin tires. (The work is on display at the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts.)

Sweezie, who is Vietnamese-American, said their recasting of rubber tires in porcelain refer to the long and dark history of forced labor, slavery and kidnapping in rubber plantations of southeast Asia.

“I’m remolding the form, recasting it, almost reclaiming the process,” they said.

To make the bowl, he cast thin porcelain slabs, using plaster molds made from a real Michelin tire. The slabs are so detailed they show tread wear and tiny copyright print.

Sweezie pieced the bowl together without concealing any of the seams, leaving curled edges and even their own fingerprints. The result is a compelling fusion of mechanized manufacturing and loving handicraft, leaving the uncanny impression of a bowl made of salvaged patches of tire rubber.

“The goal was to create an object that holds food, sustenance, gives longevity, out of a form material that has traditionally imposed violence onto Vietnamese people, onto my people,” they said. “It’s trying to re-create something that is more fruitful and supportive and feeding, as opposed to something destructive and harmful.”

Sweezie’s work highlights the diversity of the art on view at Lansing Art Gallery.  “Reclaimed Tire Bowl” is concerned mainly with historical themes (and material craft) and does not overtly touch on LGBTQ+ concerns.

Other pieces in the show, like Skvarek’s sculpture-with-skirt, clearly do.

“I feel like it can be not a little too on-the-nose to have LGBTQ artists make work about LGBTQ topics,” Sweezie said. “I am queer and I made the artwork, but I’m not intentionally putting it into the artwork. Everyone’s so much more expansive than their gender or their identity or their sexuality. So much more than that makes people.”

Exhibition Director Sarah Hopkins said the jurors were not asked to favor art with content specific to LGBTQ concerns.

“The content doesn’t have to be directly related to the experience of, or the expression of, an individual who is a member of that community,” she said. “But when the work does have something along those lines — whether it’s in the content of the work, the idea behind it, or the use of materials — I think that adds to the show.”

Artist Michaela Nichelle said the exhibit strikes a perfect balance.

Michaela Nichelle
Michaela Nichelle

“In Black studies, we talk all the time about how Black culture is not a monolith, and the same is true for queer culture,” Nichelle said.

Nichelle’s entry in the Lansing Art Gallery show is an evocative, collage-like print, “All That Glitters Comes Out When Golden,” was formally a part of “We’re Losing The Recipes,” a March 2024 exhibit at MSU’s Union Gallery exploring themes of food, family and community.

“All That Glitters Comes Out When Golden,” by Michaela Nichelle
“All That Glitters Comes Out When Golden,” by Michaela Nichelle

Nichelle graduated from MSU this spring and will begin studying for her MFA in fine arts at the University of Michigan in the fall.

The mixed media print centers on a snapshot of her great aunt, presiding in front of the stove, with a golden round of cornbread rising in the cast iron skillet in front of her. She fixes the viewer in a piercing and steely gaze, as if caught in the midst of a sacred moment.

Another photo in the print depicts Martin’s mother at two years old, eating at the table. Boxes of Jiffy mix and other kitchen ephemera surround the snapshots, graced with touches of gold leaf that underscore the image of the kitchen as a sacred space.

“I love using gold leaf for little details, to enhance the piece, not as the central thing,” Nichelle said. While applying the delicate layer of gold, she thought about cornbread coming up golden, and the inestimable value of kitchen life and family recipes.

Although the piece is dear to her, she debated whether to submit the piece to an exhibit of art by LGBTQ+ artists.

“I decided it was important for me to recognize that while my family might not be queer, they are so much a part of me as a queer Black person,” she said. “While a lot of queer artists talk about their queer identity, for me, my art really is based off of my blackness, and my queerness comes along with it.”

Nichelle agreed with Sweezie that LGBTQ+ artists should not be expected to produce art that is “on the nose.”

“Not all queer artists are focusing on their queer identity,” she said. “Some of them are focusing on other topics that are really important to them. Sarah did a really great job of showcasing the vastness of queer identity.”

LGBTQ+ Artist in Michigan

Through June 29, 2024

Lansing Art Gallery & Education Center

300 S. Washington Square, Ste. 100

(517) 574-4521

Photos throughout this article by Raymond Holt or Courtesy of the Lansing Art Gallery


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