Manhattan has the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and Richmond has the Iridian Gallery. Beyond that, the East Coast has slim pickings for art spaces focused on the experience of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
Diversity Thrift maintained a gallery presence nearly since its 2000 inception. But its re-branding in 2015 resulted in renewed commitment to the gallery, marketing it separately and enlisting the guidance of Richmond’s artistic community to take over programming.
For any city, these communities have always played a significant role in the arts, Iridian Gallery’s co-chairwoman, Lora Beldon, says. The gallery is an extension of Diversity’s work to bridge communities and highlight commonalities.
“They see this gallery as another way to represent LGBTQ people,” she says — “[to] support artists, curators and groups who are doing great work, and are involved in telling stories through art that mean something to this community.”
The 2017 schedule leads off with Paige Critcher’s “Hinterland,” the first photography show exhibited at this iteration of the gallery.
The photos are decidedly rural and filled with images of isolation: dead leaves on a wire, a snow-covered field, bushes surrounding an abandoned structure and a man in his yard with a leaf blower. The landscapes came out of Critcher’s desire to work in her own backyard — at that time, a rural area whose inhabitants knew all about her while she knew nothing of them.
“The idea of crossing property boundaries became a metaphor for me,” she says via email from Egypt, “especially when mixed in with how the locals identified with land ownership and my identification as a newcomer who might be accepted, but would never really belong.”
Beldon refers to Critcher as a master at her craft, hardly surprising given that the photographer spent a bit of time with another master, Sally Mann.
“I just called her up, asking if she needed help,” Critcher says. She was invited for a meeting, but Mann’s gallery decided that only she could print images to be sold. Afterward, Critcher’s visits were purely casual, though she did assist when Mann first began making her large Virginia landscapes.
“My involvement was quite minimal — albeit thrilling,” Critcher recalls. “Not an internship, only a few hours working with her in her darkroom on a couple of occasions. It was just a cool encounter with someone whose acquaintance I value very highly.”
She learned to stick with her vision, Critcher says, a viewpoint Mann espoused once she became globally famous and people expected her to keep doing work that was recognizably hers. “I remember her saying to me that she didn’t care what anyone else thought of her new work because they made her happy. It made a huge impression on me, coming from her.”
Rather than think of herself as a woman artist, Critcher sees herself as “an unabashed romantic, with head held high in the midst of the current trend of cool, informed documentary.”
- "River Nest"
The images in “Hinterland” are filled with longing and isolation, much like the state of her life then — after the dissolution of her job, lifestyle and partnership. Early on, Critcher learned to immerse herself in deep observation before she was able to discover what she was looking for, namely to find the emotion, however faint and however it revealed itself.
“Each time I look at these photographs, they remind me of someone who doesn’t exist in that painful reckoning anymore,” she says, “but who has turned into someone they were waiting to become.”
The series took four years, and when her circumstances finally changed, the images began changing. That’s when she understood the series was complete.
The Iridian Gallery is doing a valuable service by showing work that educates people about the issues surrounding this stratum of artists, Critcher says.
“I wouldn’t say ‘Hinterland’ is political in any way,” she says, “but subtle in pointing out the crossing of boundaries you don’t even realize you’re crossing.”
As for herself, Critcher knows that the photographs made her happy — even if no one else responds to them. S
“Hinterland, Photography by Paige Critcher” opens Jan. 6, 7-9 p.m., with an artist talk at 8. Iiridian Gallery, 1407 Sherwood Ave. diversityrichmond.org.