Finding Unity Through Art

For senior lecturer in photography Gabriel Martinez, receiving an invitation to take part in the Woodmere Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “A More Perfect Union? Power, Sex and Race in the Representation of Couples,” offered an opportunity to contextualize aspects of queer history that he has spent several years researching and integrating into his art.

“I’m really proud to be part of this exhibition,” Martinez says. “The timing is perfect because of the political reference in the title, but really it’s about the depiction of couples throughout art history, and my work was chosen to represent the theme of the exhibition through the lens of a particular queer perspective.”

  Installation view of “Live Hard” (left) and “Bayside 1” (right), from Martinez’ recent “Bayside Revisited” exhibition at The Print Center.

Installation view of “Live Hard” (left) and “Bayside 1” (right), from Martinez’ recent “Bayside Revisited” exhibition at The Print Center.

The exhibition opens Saturday, Feb. 4 and runs through May 21. An open house will take place on Saturday, Feb. 11 from 4 to 6 p.m., with a gallery talk to follow.

Martinez has spent his recent years researching the period of American queer history between the Stonewall riots of 1969, which marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement, and the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in the summer of 1981.

“It was an incredibly creative time, a time of experimentation and protest, but also a time of coming together and finding unity. Many folks from small towns flocked to metropolitan areas during the ’70s in order to express themselves freely, and so gay communities began to develop and flourish—The Castro District in San Francisco, for example, The Village in New York, Philadelphia’s Gayborhood.”

While conducting research at the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives at the William Way LGBTQ Community Center, Martinez unearthed three boxes filled with silver gelatin prints by Harry Eberlin, the first photographer for the Philadelphia Gay News, that document Philadelphia’s part of this rich history.

What resulted from this discovery was a sequence of photographs titled “Archive Series,” three of which are part of the “More Perfect Union” exhibit. To create them, Martinez photographed his archival-gloved hands holding the weathered prints up against the Archives’ cold utilitarian background. The resulting photos foreground what Martinez describes as “vintage images held warmly by these pillow-like cotton gloves, creating an allusion to protection, mending, and healing.”

Gabe Martinez,  Finding Unity Through Art

Preserving the past so it can be appreciated in the present is a responsibility Martinez takes seriously as a mid-career artist situated between the older generation of gay people—those who lived through the vivacious turbulence of the 1970s and the devastating AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s—and the younger generation, who are navigating a different cultural landscape.

“I find myself in the role of an intergenerational mediator of sorts, a conduit, translating and re-contextualizing documents from the past for a younger audience’s attention.”

Despite the historical subject matter in Martinez’ work, his aesthetic is resolutely contemporary, embracing multiple modes of artistic expression.

“Like many other contemporary artists, my practice is ultimately multidisciplinary. It’s not about medium anymore; it’s about concept, and whichever methods, materials, or strategies most effectively engages the audience. One minute it could be an installation or performance, the next it could be a linoleum cut.”

I find myself in the role of an intergenerational mediator of sorts, a conduit, translating and re-contextualizing documents from the past for a younger audience’s attention.

Senior Lecturer in Photography Gabriel Martinez

The classes Martinez teaches at the School of Arts & Sciences and Penn Design span different themes, but “The Body and Photography” is the one closest to his heart.

“In that class, we explore all aspects of gender, sexuality, queerness. Our discussions frequently address the many modes of intersectionality: the intersection between ethnicity and politics, for example, or between race and gender. I’ve been teaching it for about 15 years, and as the conversation has evolved, I’ve evolved too. I learn as much from my students as they do from me.”

Commenting on Penn’s ongoing inclusion in Campus Pride’s “Best of the Best” list of the country’s top 30 LGBTQ-friendly campuses, Martinez says the recognition is well-deserved, noting, “Penn’s campus and community are very supportive of LGBTQ causes.”

Unfortunately, the wider community does not match Penn’s presiding spirit of inclusion.

“The thing I feel most at odds with in my society is the thing that I express myself with as an artist, and that is being gay. And as a teacher, I’m really touched when a gay student wants to confide in me about problems they’re having. Being able to be a mentor of sorts for young LGBTQ people—to help them on their journey—adds another dimension of urgency to the role of mediator and mender that I’ve found myself taking on in my art.”

  • Text by Christina Cook
  • Photos by Gabe Martinez and Scott Spitzer