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ART Del LaGrace Volcano: 'About Face' photographer on works, 'gender terrorism'
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2019-08-07

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A variety of artists are exhibiting provocative works at "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art"—an exhibit at Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave.

Among them is the redoubtable Del LaGrace Volcano, a genderqueer artist who has been showing their works for four decades. ( "About Face" curator Jonathan David Katz called Volcano "a world-class genius photographer" when talking with Windy City Times. )

Windy City Times: How did you become part of this exhibition?

Del LaGrace Volcano: Jonathan curated a retrospective seven years ago at the Leslie Lohman [Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, in New York City]. He's known my work for a long time, and I've been doing this for 40 years.

Jonathan—who is like a little brother to me—has an incredible capacity for people, as do I. I work by making images of people in my community, in the queer diaspora. I was a street kid; I ran away at 14. I had a hard family life, as many queer people do. Then, I got it together and got a scholarship to go to art school. I then came out in art school, and was rejected by my teachers and students; [to them,] it was fine to make edgy work—but when I started documenting my own community, which was leather dykes and others in the Mission District [of San Francisco], that was not cool. If it sounds like I hold a grudge against the San Francisco Art Institute, that's absolutely true.

Now, I live in Sweden, and have been outside of the U.S. for more than half of my life. I'm 62.

WCT: I was wondering about your residence; a 2017 article described you as "a non-binary, intersex American photographer."

DLV: I'm a dual citizen now; I'll be American until I die. I'm an American who lives in Sweden. I'm a non-binary, intersex, queer activist-artist. My 7-year-old and my 4 1/2-year-old call themselves non-binary ( and it's "icke-binÃĪr," in Swedish )—and came out that way in a documentary. Both of my kids were assigned male at birth, and they're regularly considered to be girls and we roll with it. We don't care about pronouns, but in Sweden there's a gender-neutral pronoun that we prefer people use. [Note: The video can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sPj8HhbwHs.]

WCT: On your website, you're described as a "part-time gender terrorist." What does that mean?

DLV: It comes from an experience at an airport in London—when I had a long-distance relationship with a queer psychologist ( before my current partner ). I was wearing a mini-skirt, platform boots, boa—I was flamboyant, and I was meeting my flamboyant lover. People complained, the police was called and I was asked to leave. I guess I was scaring people because I was being genderqueer.

When I came out as intersex and let my beard grow, I felt that people saw me as disgusting or repulsive. I dealt with that for a year, and then I started taking testosterone. I can pass as male now, but I choose not to. Most people still see me as a man in a dress, or a trans woman.

WCT: I went on a tour of the "About Face" exhibit, my favorite work of yours was a montage of photos of you ['Gender Optional: The Mutating Self Portrait"].

DLV: Ahhh, yes. It was made on the very last hour of the last day of the last century, actually. In four years, my husband, Johnny Volcano, was clicking at my instruction while my other lover was doing the makeup.

WCT: Is there an overall message to your work?

DLV: Yes; it's about conformity. The first system we're subjected to, in terms of regulation, is the gender system. People are called "bad boy" or "sweet girl." Their genders are constantly reinforced. It's about what's available to you and what's not. The theme is "Resist—and be fabulous."

WCT: I mentioned to Jonathan that you seem to be everyone and no one in "Gender Optional."

DLV: I don't decide about what I'm going to look like when I wake up. I just put on the clothes that feel right to me in that moment. I just care about staying safe; I have been queer-bashed. You have to alter behavior in some places.

WCT: With this exhibition title, what do you think of when you hear "Stonewall?"

DLV: When you asked me that question, what came to mind was something else. I first thought about The Duchess, where I hung out in New York City. It was a lesbian bar that was very close to Christopher Street. I rode my motorcycle cross-country in 1981, and I spent a lot of time at The Duchess. I was recruited to work at writer Kate Millett's farm in Poughkeepsie [that year], and I ended up hanging out at The Duchess. It was an amazing time.

I also think about appropriation. I think about the commercialization of the whole concept of Stonewall. I'm in a number of Stonewall exhibitions, and it feels like a lot of straight institutions and media are trying to catch the wave—but what about the next 50 years?

I have cult status in my community, but I now need economic validation. It's good to have your work valued. The people who value my work are also marginalized and disenfranchised; they're not valued. The queer community—especially those in the lesbian and trans-masculine part of the spectrum—value my work, but the straight world see my works as niche. Why are we relegated to Pride Month and not seen as valuable to the mainstream?

"About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art" will run at Wrightwood 659 through Saturday, Aug. 10. See wrightwood659.org/ .


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