A MAN IN A BLACK LEATHER-AND-SNAKESKIN jacket and a magenta cowboy hat fringed with dangling knives looks like one dude you don’t want to mess with. But in this image of Texas-born visual and performing artist José Villalobos, taken by photographer Jeanette Nevarez, the man behind the piercing veil looks almost warily to his right. There’s a tenderness in his makeup-lined eyes. Beneath the leather is a bare and vulnerable chest.

Perhaps he’s invoking protection through his clothes. Maybe his outfit is a testament to machismo, or a reaction to the idea of what truly makes a man. Villalobos, a gay artist, counters the notion of an absolute duality between masculine and feminine presentations of self. In the image, his gender identity is much more fluid.

Queer identity is tough to define by firm boundaries of gender and sex. People who identify as nonbinary often face backlash, hate, and even violence. Take Inupiaq artist Jenny Irene Miller, whose image Imagining future self (pre-top surgery), in the artist’s words, counteracts any potential negativity with “the playfulness found in queer culture, the beauty and importance of gender-affirming healthcare, and the incredible joy found in queerness.” The photograph shows a non-binary trans masculine person who is contemplating top surgery. The melons positioned in front of the model poke fun at the idea of their breasts being chopped off during the procedure. Miller writes, “The portrait speaks to transformation and healing.”

José Villalobos, "Sin la ‘S,’" 2017. Courtesy of 516 Arts.

Miller and Villalobos are two of 13 artists included in Fluid Gaze, a show at 516 Arts, in Albuquerque, running through December 30. Their works display the complexities of gender through the lenses of artists who are marginalized by politics and society. The exhibition is an answer to the current politically reactionary responses to drag shows, drag queens, and the transgender community, as well as socially derogatory views of 2SLGBTQIA+ people (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual, plus any of the other ways people self-identify).

“Several of the works are autobiographical, and several of them are taken from a historical context and provide a communal rather than individualized perspective,” says 516 Arts curator Rachelle B. Pablo. “There’s a blend of methodology to the work and conceptual processes.”

Fluidity works as a metaphor for being, but also for creation in mediums that include textiles, beaded garments, scrimshaw, performance art, and virtual reality.

The exhibition features the work of Albuquerque-based artist sheri crider, who partners with Texas death row inmate Obie Weathers III. The collaboration includes Execution Date, a mixed-media painting. Weathers was convicted of murdering a bartender in San Antonio in 2001. The painting depicts a man seated with his legs crossed in meditation. He maintains an uneasy peace as the arm of time reaches through his bare cell, drawing inexorably closer. A rainbow of plantlike tendrils snake through the otherwise-monochrome composition from a bowl in his lap. What life is left in him rises, phalluslike, as he struggles to maintain the last of his vitality, his gaze diverted by the ever-present arm.

Obie Weathers III, "Execution Date," 2023. Courtesy of 516 Arts.

Execution Date provides another look at the fluidity of personhood: how it can be siphoned off, stifled, and negated. “I have taken this little torture chamber and converted it into a meditation cell,” Weathers wrote as a guest contributor to the Justice Arts Coalition, a resource network for creatives working in and around the criminal justice system. “Here I have grasped the extent of the suffering I caused and that was caused within me. This has also been part of my education: learning how humans cause one another so much suffering.”

On October 21, 516 Arts presents Shapeshift: Assimilating as Self Preservation, a public forum on integrating into American society as a form of survival. “It will address these layered identities, the intersectionality and multiple identities of the Two-Spirit, LGBTQIA+, and the Latinx communities,” says Pablo. “I myself, as an Indigenous queer woman, wanted to bring to the exhibit an authentic representation of society that’s broad and fluid in terms of cultural, sexual, and gender identity.”

While Fluid Gaze is centered on the contemporary moment, Out West: Gay and Lesbian Artists in the Southwest 1900–1969—on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe, beginning November 11—looks at the significant but underacknowledged contributions of regional gay and lesbian artists leading up to the Stonewall uprising in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Sam Kirk, "La Verdad Es," 2017. Courtesy of 516 Arts.

“I developed this exhibition because I wanted it to be historic,” says Christian Waguespack, the museum’s head curator and curator of 20th-century art. “There have been a lot of exhibitions about contemporary gay, lesbian, and queer artists, here and everywhere else, but nobody’s really looked at the historical section of that, which surprised me.”

The exhibition, which includes works by Russell Cheney, Marsden Hartley, Agnes Sims, and Cady Wells, recognizes the draw of the Southwest for queer artists. In certain communities, they could work unhampered by restrictive social conditions. “There were so many people working out here, and really contributing to the development of arts and culture of the Southwest, who were gays and lesbians,” says Waguespack.

Several works in the show, such as Wells’s painting Head of Santo (Head of Christ), circa 1939, and Hartley’s El Santo, an oil from 1919, reflect the cultural encounters of transplanted artists who drew inspiration from New Mexico’s Hispanic and Indigenous communities. Sims, originally from Pennsylvania, moved to Santa Fe in the late 1930s. She became known as a prolific sculptor and invented a resist process for painting on fabric. The exhibition includes her carved-wood sculpture Deer Dance, circa 1945, which reflects the greater milieu of the Hispanic tradition of wood carving but uses an Indigenous ceremonial dance as its subject.

Circa 1945, Agnes Sims’s "Deer Dance" is from an earlier generation of queer artists. Courtesy of 516 Arts.

Waguespack chose the Stonewall protests as his cutoff point because they marked a moment when the social dialogue around gay and lesbian culture shifted. By the late 1960s, more people around the country were coming out.

“We started to see a lot of artwork that was more self-reflective and more about identity and outrage, too,” he says. “We feel that a little less, particularly here in New Mexico, in the first part of the 20th century.”

Although many of the individual pieces in Out West lack overt gay or lesbian themes, several artists of the time were more open about their sexuality than people realize, says Waguespack. “I think about artists like Witter Bynner, Cady Wells, R.C. Gorman, and Laura Gilpin. They were all operating completely out of the closet, working within these social circles that didn’t seem to bat an eye.”

At 516 Arts, see Jeanette Nevarez’s photograph of José Villalobos. Courtesy of 516 Arts.

But the strong Catholic faith of northern New Mexico made acceptance into certain communities more of a challenge. Because of that, Waguespack says, some self-segregating went on outside of the worlds of modern and postmodern art. As an art subject, the faith of those communities was exploited, while the sources of the imagery, including New Mexico’s Catholic, Penitente, and Pueblo communities, were often kept at arm’s length. “I was looking for artists from Hispanic and Indigenous communities from this time period to include in the exhibition,” he says. “It was very difficult to find people who were out in those communities in comparison to the White transplant communities.”

With time, those conversations broadened and deepened in New Mexico. They forged the path for exhibitions such as Fluid Gaze, which features many Latinx, Hispano, and Indigenous artists. The show also demonstrates how far we’ve come as a society, in terms of acceptance and respect, from the pre-Stonewall era. Many 20th-century artists often had a  complex fight on their hands: not just to assert their identities as gay or nonbinary or transgender, for instance, but also as Native or Hispanic. At 516 Arts, all of these layers unfold with the fluid beauty and motion of colored silken scarves.

Read more: For the 50th anniversary of her Los Angeles installation, Judy Chicago invites 19 artists to transform a Belén house into a modern examination of family, gender, and power.

Fluid Gaze, through December 30
516 Arts
516 Central Ave. SW, Albuquerque

Out West: Gay and Lesbian Artists in the Southwest 1900–1969, November 11 through September 2, 2024
New Mexico Museum of Art
107 W. Palace Ave., Santa Fe