Instagram is typically where people portray themselves in their best light — or, barring that, they make that scrunched-up, asymmetrical facial expression that always seems to get lots of likes in selfies. It’s not uncommon for people to scroll through the explore function and have a few judicious likes end up in a face-to-face meeting — platonic or otherwise — but it’s a bit rarer for a selfie to result in a proper portrait.
But that’s how Portland graphic designer and muralist Rae Senarighi chose to operate for his first exhibit of large-scale portraits, “TRANSCEND,” at Strut through the end of June. The 12 subjects are all transgender or gender-nonconforming, and until the show’s opening on Friday, June 1, the only one who Senarighi had met in real life was the first person he painted, a personal friend.
Olympian duathlete Chris Mosier, the first out trans person to compete on the U.S. National team in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, flew in from the Olympic training camp just for the event.
“He was there, and one of the most touching parts was watching this 12-year-old trans kid get to take selfies from him and buy a poster from him,” Senarighi says. “He and I are are raising money for the Ali Forney Center [a New York nonprofit for homeless LGBTQ teenagers], so this kid’s parents surprised him with going to the show and getting to meet Chris.”
Although he took up portraiture only in the last few years, Senarighi has a very specific approach. Commissioned to do a mural on a new building in Portland, he painted it with “random colors and geometric shapes” before adding six LGBTQ individuals painted in black over the multi-colored hues. It didn’t work.
“It felt dated and old, and not like they were living people,” Senarighi says, “so I just changed in the middle of that mural, that I was going to paint these rainbow people in rainbow colors, and it just flowed out of me.”
Contacting people with professional photographs of them, via Instagram, was the next logical step for a similar project. A diverse group of people, the subjects of “TRANSCEND” are shown smiling or defiant, up close (as from a head shot) or with their torsos in full view. The portraits are big, too, ranging from 36 by 36 inches to 72 by 96.
Senarighi depicts clothes in grayscale, using only black paint on a white canvas and — apart from the cloud-and-sky backgrounds — restricting the use of color to the subjects’ faces, hair, and skin, where it’s nothing short of riotous. Overall, it’s a very deliberate move, since several individuals — in particular, the Indian-American performance artist and educator Alok Vaid-Menon and the South African musician Umlilo — are fashion leaders with a highly developed sense of style.
“I didn’t want their clothing to compete with them,” Senarighi says. “I want them to be the subjects of this show. … If their outfit is super-red, then that would change how we read the color, but I try to show their attire as much respect as I could.”
Regarding the backgrounds, he adds that, “I kind of realized that we as trans people are constantly told not to take up any space: ‘Don’t even go out in public because you can’t use the bathroom.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, this is a simple thing. They just need to be standing in a vast blue sky.’ ”
Curator Baruch Porras-Hernandez notes that Senarighi, who identifies as non-binary and prefers the honorific Mx., is the first trans artist to be given the main space at Strut for one of its 12 yearly exhibits. He adds that the call for artists at Castro’s sexual health-oriented community space, formerly known as Magnet when it was located in a smaller space around the block on 18th Street, remains open through Aug. 31.
There is another facet of “TRANSCEND” that’s especially noteworthy. It comes at a moment when increased awareness of the lived experience of transgender people has brought about a sensitivity about the prurient, tabloid-y matters that pertain to transitioning. Senarighi’s insistence on the physicality and intimacy of trans bodies is a response to their erasure in the public sphere.
“I want to treat every single one of these human beings with as much respect as I would if I were painting royalty,” he says. “In the future, my goal is to do some work like this, but take the photos myself and work with them, or with a photographer, and take some people who aren’t so famous — but just living their lives.”
TRANSCEND, through June 30, at Strut, 470 Castro St. Free; strutsf.org