Riva Lehrer's career in portraiture has been long, and over time her discomfort with it grew.
"It was really clear to me from the beginning that the people I was working with shared a really formative experience in my own life, which is that we'd almost all been stared at and screamed at and insulted and abused on a regular, life-long basis from the word go," Lehrer recalled. " As someone who had never been comfortable being looked at, I kind of knew instinctively that asking someone to let me look at them was going to be uncomfortable for them."
Lehrer excels in multiple fields. Her art has been exhibited in numerous venues across the US, including the United Nations, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Portrait Gallery. She's presented on her work at a wide range of universities and conferences, including on multiple occasions at the Society for Disability Studies.The two disciplines were not always married, but when Lehrer started doing portraits of other people, particularly other disabled people, she found herself questioning the process.
"What I"m interested in is how someone's body influences their production," Lehrer explained. "So from the very beginning, the people I was picking were all people who were making work that was interesting to me. I was asking people for their stories around what their work was about, or biography, or most often, those two things together, and I was also doing something else, which was continually asking people for permission. The main thing I wanted to do was to not replicate the pain of the aggressive gaze, and what that had done to everyone that I knew."
Still, it wasn't enough. Over time, her doubts grew into a desire to involve her subjects in the work's creation. "Even though I was asking people this permission for what we were doing, all of the final decisions were always mine, all the marks were mine. I've certainly had people be ambivalent about a portrait after it's been done," Lehrer said. "I don't always know how they really feel."
"The Risk Pictures"an exhibition on display Friday, May 20, at PrintWorks Galleryrepresents a culmination of Lehrer's concerns and subsequent radical disruption of the portraiture process, featuring both disabled and non-disabled subjects. Lehrer would invite her subjects over for sessions, and at some point leave them alone with their in-progress depiction and art supplies to do what they would with the portrait. The risk was not merely artistic: Lehrer stressed that subjects were alone in her house and space, and thus she was becoming vulnerable as well. "The risk had to be as much equalized as I could make it," she explained.
She also had to accept the possibility of her subjects ruining the work. "I specifically didn't want a skill level, I kind of wanted to wrestle with something that would be as off the rails as possible, intentionally," she said.
As much as Lehrer works at a high level in both disciples, she wishes that the art world recognized the value of the conversation she's trying to start.
"In disability culture I am a tiny gorilla. In the art world, it's really not the same," Lehrer said. "We're in a period where work about other kinds of stigma, primarily racial identity, but also sexuality, are getting their very very overdue and necessary attention. This is critical, but still disability is 99.9-percent left off of the conversation.
"There's a 40-year precedent for assuming work about disability is only therapeutic: it has no cultural, societal or conceptual bearing. There is no demographic that doesn't contain disabled people. And yet, we are still largely invisible in that kind of discourse, or the representations are often just not helpful. In the art world, if you were asking someone to pay upward of $10,000 for a piece, if they think the issue you're working with is of critical importance and you're saying something necessary about it, they're going to feel like they're participating in a crucial cultural dialogue. If they think your work is therapeutic and not particularly germane, they're going to be a lot more resistant to putting you in a collection."
Stigma has always been Lehrer's focus as an artist. She started out working in the realm of lesbian sexuality, but her focus shifted to what she found the more difficult identity.
"For me, frankly, being a lesbian has been a lot easier than being a crip," said Lehrer. "When I came out it was in the '70s, there was movement, a national movement. So I walked into something that had context. There was nothing for disability. Plus, I had been stigmatized around being a crip from the time I was the smallest child. If you were a lesbian there was fashion, music ... no context other than hospitals for being disabled. And being a lesbian was about pleasureabout desire and pleasure. There was nothing positive to move towards at all, in terms of identifying as a disabled person. There certainly were positive things waiting for me being a lesbian. And also, frankly, if I wanted to pass, if I didn't feel like being an obvious lesbian on any given day, I could mostly pass. I've never been able to pass as anything other than a crip."
Lehrer hopes to resume the Risk series in the near future: all of them were drawings, and she felt she needed to get back to painting. However, there's one special subject that Lehrer wants to focus on soon. "My partner really really wants me to do her portrait, so I"m going to be a good girlfriend," she said.
Riva Lehrer's solo show "The Risk Pictures" opens Friday, May 20, at Printworks Gallery, 311 W. Superior St. The reception is at 5:30-7 p.m., and is free; no RSVP is required. See WWW.RIVALEHRERART.COM/ for more information.