It was 1996 when John Chaich first saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out at D.C.’s National Mall—the last time the quilt was able to be displayed in its entirety due to growing size.
As a then newly out young gay man, he recalls the experience as “incredibly formative in connecting with larger queer history, through this poetic textile display.”
Decades later, Chaich would conceive Queer Threads: a group show celebrating LGBTQ artists working in fabric and fiber. Queer Threads debuted at New York City’s Leslie Lohman Museum in 2014 before showing at MICA in Baltimore and Boston Center for the Arts in 2016. Chaich also released a coffee-table book of the same name with Todd Oldham in 2017.
A very specific version of Queer Threads opens this Friday at San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. This iteration of Queer Threads contains “an almost entirely different group of artists,” Chaich says, including several who are West Coast, Southwest and Northwest-based, or otherwise have Californian ties. A handful of artists have been with Queer Threads from the start, such as Nathan Vincent, whose “Locker Room” is a knitted, life-size replica of a men’s locker room, from showers down to urinal cakes.
One couple whose work appeared in previous Queer Threads exhibits has a tie to the venue itself. Chiachio & Giannone––the collective name for Buenos Aires artists Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone––had their first United States exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in 2011, titled Eden Re-Imagined. Over time, the duo have journeyed from their individual painting careers into fabric and embroidery work as a shared medium.
Their current piece on display, “Californian Family In Six Colors #1,” came into being during Chiachio & Giannone’s last U.S. residency, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. The 6×7 self-portrait uses squares of fabric as mosaic tiles to depict the two men sitting next to each other, bound by rope, in a surreal living-room space with posters on the walls and an American flag, bearing multicolor stripes reminiscent of both the titular six-color Pride flag and of aguayo fabric, the colorful woven blankets traditional to South American indigenous communities.
Choice of material can carry particular significance in textile and fiber arts, serving as a tangible connection to a larger geographical history or chosen lineage. Some of the newer, regionally based additions to the Queer Threads lineup ground the power of their work in the specificity of deeply personal materials. Los Angeles-based Kang Seung Lee’s “Untitled (The Future Perfect)” contains fossil leaves, meteorites, 24k gold thread and a small ceramic vase made of Californian clay mixed with soils from two South Korean parks and UK’s Prospect Cottage. Inside are dried flowers from a place identified only as “Homie Garden.”
Angela Hennessy, an Oakland-based artist who teaches at California College of the Arts, crocheted natural and synthetic hair—including her own—into “Black Rainbow,” which spans 10x15x5 feet and unravels into small cascades on either side of the arc. For textile artists working in conversations around identity (in Hennessy’s case, identity as a queer Black woman), elevation of personal items and blurred boundaries between “synthetic” material, the natural realm and the body can tell a myriad of stories about self-invention and public survival.
Hennessy will be one of four artists speaking on a panel for the show’s opening weekend: San Francisco’s Alexander Hernández, Oakland’s Angie Wilson and Seattle’s Molly Jae Vaughn will be in conversation with Chaich on Saturday, following the previous evening’s official (and free) opening reception.
Alongside this collection of individual artists’ work—with many pieces created in the last three years—the exhibition’s inclusion of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt weaves a story of communal history, as vibrant and connected as each colored stripe on the Pride flag.
“Today, I remain so moved by the anonymity of all the hands that made that quilt, in order to honor the individuality of every person represented on each quilt panel,” Chaich says. “For me, that has a very personal entry point into Queer Threads as a monumental, collective work of queer making.”
Opens Fri, 5:30pm, Free
Quilts & Textiles Museum, San Jose