Michela Griffo: The Price We Pay
On ViewPen + Brush Gallery
October 13–January 21, 2023
Falling between the cracks of history is a common side effect of queer identity. Few of the queer elders that fought for LGBTQA+ rights in the 1960s have received their due recognition, and as time goes on, less and less of them are still around to receive it. Seasoned activist Michela Griffo was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, deeply involved in groups including Redstockings, Radicalesbians, Lavender Menace, and the Gay Liberation Front. And happily, Griffo has seen an increased interest in her activist career emerge over the last decade. What has remained largely unknown, however, is Griffo’s career as an artist.
This obscurity comes to an end with Griffo’s first retrospective exhibition, The Price We Pay, at Pen and Brush Gallery. Featuring fifteen of Griffo’s drawings and paintings that span from 1976 to 2022, the exhibition provides an overview that is not necessarily comprehensive—there are many gaps—but in fact argues for the meaningfulness of incomplete histories and the potential of studying those fragments that remain.
The majority of the works in the exhibition date from the twenty-first century, and are marked by Griffo’s signature use of imagery drawn from comics and Disney movies. The latter particularly appear in her large diptychs, which juxtapose colorful Disney imagery with monochrome pencil drawings illustrating real-life historical violence. Cadet Murder Case: Diane Zamora (2003), for example, references the notorious 1995 murder of Adrianne Jessica Jones by Zamora and her romantic partner David Graham. The left side of the diptych depicts Jones laying on her back with her legs entangled in barbed wire, her face invisible to the viewer. On the right, the three fairy godmothers look in shock at Sleeping Beauty, who has fallen face down and lost her tiara in the process, as Maleficent appears in flames on the right to witness what has happened. At the center top appears a five-blocked comic strip, a common device in Griffo’s diptychs, which pictures Zamora describing her motive in the murder: Jones had engaged in a one-night sexual encounter with Graham.
Running away from home at the age of fourteen, Griffo’s own childhood was marked by abuse and abandonment. This is perhaps best illustrated by a 1984 painting titled Mother, in which a female-presenting figure smashes a Greek pillar into chunks. The act of violence is witnessed by vibrant wallpaper featuring a repeated pattern of a frightened Mickey Mouse, suggesting that it occurs in a children’s room. In New York, Griffo discovered a community of other teenage runaways, and squatted in the East Village until a woman named DeeDee, who ran a successful call girl business, took her in. Politicized through the fight for abortion rights in the feminist movement Redstockings, Griffo became an activist before coming out as a lesbian in 1970 and joining the Gay Liberation Front. Yet while confident with her lesbian identity in the realm of activism, Griffo struggled to navigate it in the artworld. In 1978, Harmony Hammond invited Griffo to participate in the famous exhibition A Lesbian Show at 112 Greene St., which included artists such as Louise Fishman, Amy Sillman, Kate Millett, and Hammond herself. Advised by a close friend—a female curator—that being featured in a lesbian art show could ruin her career, Griffo declined Hammond’s invitation. A surprising decision for someone so actively engaged in advocating for queer rights, Griffo’s hesitancy to participate in a lesbian art show is telling of the misogyny and lesbo-phobia that then plagued the art world, and which has by no means fully disappeared since.
I first encountered Griffo’s work in 2019 at the Leslie Lohman Museum, where her painting My Funny Valentine (1979) was part of the Art After Stonewall exhibition. Executed in oil and pencil on canvas, this diptych depicts a bathroom interior of muted colors on the left, while two femme-presenting women passionately make out on the right, their nipples exposed to the viewer. While I was initially hoping that the Pen and Brush exhibition would feature several works from this late 1970s series, I learned from Griffo that she destroyed much of this work in a drunken rage. One painting from the series, however, is on view. Elegy for Judy (1976) depicts another interior in muted colors, primarily cream and soft pinks. Half of a dresser is pictured on the left, a nightlamp resting on it with a circular mirror behind. On the right two female-presenting figures dressed as nuns appear to be pressing their ears against the wall, though their faces remain outside the frame of the painting. It is this enigmatic quality, a quiet secrecy, that most attracts me to Griffo’s work of the 1970s.
A series of watercolors on paper also on view here locate Griffo’s current interests primarily in comic imagery. Reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein—a comparison that, while inevitable, in no way implies derivativeness—these works are imbued with messages that seemingly aim to appeal to queer-feminist viewers. An untitled watercolor from 2018 depicts a woman in a green dress doing dishes. A text block next to her reads: “The day she stopped loving her children was no different from other days,” recalling a period when women were expected to stay home with the children at the cost of pursuing careers of their own. Perhaps the most revealing illustration of Griffo’s current priorities is a 2022 watercolor that spells out “WOMAN” in pink and shows an eraser resting next to the word. Upon closer inspection we find that certain parts of the letters are faded or partially erased. Griffo’s implied concern with erasure—while shared by many—gives reason for pause. The constructed identity of “woman” has shifted over time, entailing both losses and expansions, and works such as these risk promoting an outdated sensibility that privileges essentialist notions of womanhood. As Esther Newton said in 1972: “The revolution is made less authentic by every oppressed person it excludes.”1 As much as comic imagery can be used to playfully convey political ideals, I found that some of the ideals expressed here were not in tune with today’s times. The Price We Pay, in this light, could address the feeling of falling out of touch with the changing investments of contemporary political movements, despite one’s critical contributions to historical ones. The exhibition is, nonetheless, an important addition to the growing archive of queer art history.
- Esther Newton, Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 142.