In a recent conversation with a straight person who doesn’t live in New York City, I was trying to explain how tiny it can feel. The social networks we belong to here are much more bounded than most people imagine when they think of a place with a population approaching 9 million. It doesn’t take long at all to encounter the same people over and over. For straight people it’s possible to use romance as a pretext to hop the boundaries of the familiar and enjoy the illusion of self-reinvention by choosing partners outside their immediate circles. But for queer folks, the even smaller networks in which we operate make it harder to fly the coop without actually leaving the city.
In my experience of queer communities in New York, someone always knows the person you’re dating, or you know or have shared intimacies with the person who is dating the person you just broke up with, and on and on. It’s a stereotype that is particularly ascribed to queer women, as well as trans and non-binary networks, but it comes from a reality in which sex, intimacy, friendship, art-making, and activism are deeply linked and constantly overlapping; a reality that creates a laden ground in which to build and rebuild the self.
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And so it was no surprise that in LJ Roberts’s solo show at Pioneer Works, Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits, curated by Gabriel Florenz, I saw many familiar faces in the lovingly stitched portraits on display. For someone who writes about art, that familiarity is also accompanied by a rushing tide of conflicts of interest. There are people pictured in Roberts’s embroideries who have sat in my living room, who I’ve gone on dates with, who I’ve attended protests with, who have dated people I’ve dated, and who I know primarily because we’ve been in the same spaces over and over.
Roberts’s work taps into a long history of portraiture by queer artists, yet the project steps outside of the more typically dualistic relationship between the artist and their sitters. In Carry You With Me, the artist’s first solo exhibition, we get the chance to spend time with their embroidered depictions of compatriots, loves, and fellow travelers, but something more is happening when you take in the show as a whole. While the sentiment and care that Roberts holds for their individual subjects is exquisitely evident in both the work and the writing they share in the book that accompanies the exhibition, what struck me most about the show as a whole is the way in which it depicts some of the complexity of queer New York.
The title of the show says it beautifully: Carry You With Me. Roberts chose that name because the many hours required to complete each of these portraits, and the portability of their format meant they quite literally carried each work with them for months, across boroughs and borders. On the cloth surrounding the embroideries, outside the ghosted embroidery hoops, oil and dirt from Roberts’s hands remains as subtle stains revealing contact. We all carry our experiences of each other with us across our lives, in significant and seemingly insignificant ways. Roberts’s writing about those depicted, including two people who have passed since the artist began their portraits — the scholar José Esteban Muñoz and the artist Frederick Weston — provides a small glimpse of the ways Roberts’s subjects influenced their life. And a couple of the essays included in the book contain similar reflections, but from the subjects and the worlds they occupy in tandem with Roberts.
Many traditions of craft and handiwork are directly linked to ideas of devotion, both religious and sentimental. The works in this show, as well as Roberts’s larger-scale pieces, which also address queer community, come across as just that: devotional. These portraits, displayed so that we can see both the front and back of each piece, are beautiful testimonies to interconnected existence, shared impact, and love, in all its contradictions. As one of Roberts’ subjects, Theodore (ted) Kerr, says in his essay, “The longer I look at my portrait, the less I see of me, the more I see of us.”
LJ Roberts: Carry You With Me: Ten Years of Portraits continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through November 28. The exhibition is curated by Gabriel Florenz.