Hard Truths at The Cock Gallery

7.1.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

Dan Pillers' latest show, 'Fuel for Thought,' explores marriage, life, and death.

Marriage has always featured in Dan Pillers' art, but it hasn't always performed the same function.

The Oregon-based artist's earliest work revolved around social rejection and then, a little later, the AIDS crisis, an event he estimates took 300 different people from him between 1982 and 1997.

"Over the past few decades, my art has largely focused on overcoming adversity and what it means to be gay in America," Pillers said during a recent interview. "Twenty years ago, AIDS was a death sentence and there was a certain level of helplessness and desperation that engulfed our community. Much of my work was a direct response to the scores of friends who had died or were dying. A mixture of grief, defiance, and survival dominated my world."

("All-American Pastime.")

One of his most talked about pieces, from 1994, saw Pillers sitting in the middle Portland Courthouse Square shredding red ribbon from massive bolts and asking passersby, "What do you know about AIDS?" The performance, called "Private Pain in the Public Eye," lasted for 12 hours. That same year, Pillers put on a performance called "Dinner for One," in which he portrayed the Queer Widow, a character who has shown up in his work for years, including in 2001, when Pillers organized an exhibit titled Life After Death: Embracing the Queer Widow for the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco.

"I created art that addressed the gay widow before same sex marriage was possible," he told me ahead of his latest show, Fuel for Thought, opening Thursday at Portland's The Cock Gallery. But whereas the widow represented the loss of love, his latest works use marriage as a beacon, something to run toward. It's something living, not dead. "My current work has a little more room to breathe."

SLIDESHOW: DAN PILLERS'S "FUEL FOR THOUGHT"

That's not to say death and violence don't figure into the narrative. They're just diffused. In "It's About Time," a same-sex couple, the shroud of death hovering above them, waits patiently for their turn at the altar. "Fuel for the Thought," his current show's titular piece, contains sticks and stones that are broken down and set in a 5-foot-high structure resembling a skyscraper, encased in glass and disarmed. Coupled with the text, etched glass is a "subtle whisper that invites the viewer in to discover its deeper meaning." The wood, taken from crown molding and other architectural remnants, as well as other found objects "add a heightened sense of history" to what Pillers calls "reliquaries with an opinion."

"I'm creating larger and more elaborate sculptures that play off one another as the next chapter in an ongoing dialog [about] the second class status of our relationships," he explained.

("Fuel for Thought" and the 'faggot' detail from that same piece.)

Pillers knows firsthand the turmoil of the nation's hodge-podge of marriage laws. He and his husband, Ryan-Michael Riel, have been together for 15 years. They were married in 2004 in California, during that brief moment when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized same-sex nuptials there, but those marriages were voided. Then, after having moved to Oregon, where he and Ryan entered a domestic partnership, the couple went back to California to get married in 2008, before Proposition 8 ended that blissful moment. Though that marriage remained legal, they still have to fight for rights from Oregon State, and the Supreme Court decision last week didn't change that.  "Alas, we are still second-class citizens."

But there's no denying marriage equality is the wave of the future. That said, Pillers' work, once about persevering in the face of death, has become about building new lives, about the quest for freshness and fecundity.

As times continue to change, these wood and glass structures will become less pieces of protest and more artifacts from a different era, reminders of where we came from, and about how we got there. But those days are still a long way off, and until then Pillers's work will stand in opposition to the bigotry and discrimination he's fought for decades.

Dan Pillers's "Fuel for Thought" will be up at The Cock Gallery, 625 NW Everett St., Portland, from July 4-July 27th.

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