Situated in the corner of Goodman Gallery’s Viewing Room, is Brett Charles Seiler’s latest installation. Black walls and a raised floor demarcate the unenclosed ‘Closet’. The title, a play on the notion of ‘being in the closet’, is just one of the many overt references made in the show. Described by the artist as a “coming of age narrative”, Seiler claims to thematically engage longing, distance and nostalgia.
At first glance, the installation, peppered with painted works both small and large, seems intriguing. A mélange of text and image seem to escape the confines of the canvas – with words about god and heaven strewn about. The floor features the dusty grain of thinly laid footprints which carefully navigate their way around the works. Forms are rendered in bed with shadows and while the embrace between lovers depicted in the figurative paintings is tender, I find other aspects of the installation troubling.
Upon closer inspection, the chalky white scribblings denote phrases like, “boys avoiding their fathers”, which does perhaps provide an entry point to a valuable and necessary conversation around masculinity. However, it is simply left there, inscribed on the floor. Other sentiments including, “Gays can’t reach heaven” and “Gay god tell me you’re out there” clearly speak to a yearning around acceptance in religious spaces – despite drawing on a similar rhetoric of said spaces. It is undeniable that the process of ‘coming out of the closet’ is often a difficult and even traumatic for many people. However, what concerns me is the particular narrow lens and frame of reference depicted in this exhibition.
I’m always weary of nostalgia. A longing for what, exactly? Nostalgia often is tied more to an anxiety about the present/future than it has anything to do with the past. In the installation, an outline of a milk glass is drawn on the floor besides the words, “Harvey’s Milk”. This reference is to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. As an activist for gay rights, his career in politics was short lived after being assassinated in the late 70s. Allen Ginsberg and his poem ‘Howl’ (1954-1956) is in the minds of many considered a literary masterpiece, and too is referenced by Seiler. While both of these men are notable icons in their own right, their presence in the work points squarely to the kind of experience Seiler longs after. A white-washed romanticised fiction, waiting for a Kill All Your Darlings moment that is never going to come.
Furthermore, there is great danger in idealising these kinds of exclusionary histories – ones without any acknowledgement of the black and brown queer people who paved the way for LGBTQIA+ rights. There is further evidence of this in a chalk outline of the rainbow flag and adjacent, “You can’t spell flag without fag”. This sentiment further centres Seiler’s experience in the community. In addition, the hand-drawn flag outline is missing a colour – which perhaps is just a metaphor for the queer erasure in this installation. In another work, Seiler writes, “I’m sad about the TV because I never saw gay people on there”. In a sense there is great irony that the artist reproduces the same absence he critiques.
The only ‘nod’ to the queer community is a painted work entitled, Lesbians Are The Veterans Of The Gay Community (2019). On the one hand, this a gesture of acknowledgement, on the other, the discourse has developed beyond this and it reads as trans-exclusionary. While I appreciate that we should only speak from a place of our own experience, and it is not my intention to police the artist’s mode of expression, the show illustrates a lack of awareness of Seiler’s positionality. Had ‘Closet’ in fact been a closet, then perhaps all the problematic aspects of this installation would have stayed veiled in the dark.