On a Wednesday evening, street artist and stenciler Jeremy Novy unveiled his latest exhibition to an empty room. Wearing a handkerchief decorated with the work of Keith Haring tied around his face as a mask, Novy addressed a group of Instagram Live viewers in an unusual reception event for his pop-up show, “The First Pride Was a Riot.” The exhibition is scheduled to run through July 4 at the Mission District’s new Voss Gallery, while Novy’s wheatpaste posters may remain on utility boxes around the Castro for longer.
Novy, who is primarily a street artist, tells SF Weekly that compared to doing work in universally accessible public spaces, a gallery exhibit that attracts a narrower demographic can sometimes feel like “preaching to the choir.” But as he adapts to the circumstances imposed by COVID-19, and experiments with sharing art on digital virtually, Novy says he also appreciates how online platforms give him space to elaborate on and explain his work.
“Things have changed dramatically,” Novy says. “I used to be able to travel the country, and paint murals elsewhere, do street art all over. But now I’m kind of stuck sheltering in place and trying to find different outlets to work locally. We’re all gonna have to start working in our communities as we’re separated a little bit.”
The collection contends with more than the disruptive influence of a pandemic. Its opening also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Pride — and with an ongoing series of mass, nationwide uprisings against racist violence and police brutality in America.
Novy, who is best known for his black-, white-, and orange-patterned koi fish swimming up and down sidewalks from San Francisco to Milwaukee, has always been interested in queering street art; other motifs that recur in his stencils include shirtless men, drag queens, and queer Care Bears. Novy’s latest exhibition retains the color and optimism of his classic work, as well as its queerness. But the collection also takes on the real stakes, and violent history, of a struggle for liberation.
“This exhibit was about trying to find objects that were used during the riots that the queer community had for their queer liberation, and to try to say that the riots that are happening now are needed and are okay,” Novy says.
The show charts the nascent queer rights movement across four formative riots: the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco, the Los Angeles Black Cat Riot of 1967, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and, a decade later and on the other side of the world, the 1978 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Riot in Sydney, Australia.
In a series of wood panel-based stencils, Novy commemorates the uprisings and altercations that propelled the modern queer rights movement through a collection of representative objects: a broken coffee cup recalling the mug a transgender woman at Compton’s Cafeteria hurled at an officer when resisting arrest; a string of rainbow Mardi Gras beads drawn from the Sydney riot; three recreated protest signs from the demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern in LA, bearing in black lettering statements like “BLUE FASCISM MUST GO.”
“They actually had these posters — these are the same exact posters that in 1967 were displayed,” Novy says. “And there’s other ones that of course were in the protest, but I found these three to be very significant and very relevant to our current time and what is going on with Black Lives Matter, and our current riots and demonstrations and protests.”
The memory of resistance and sometimes violent uprising isn’t just acknowledged in Novy’s exhibit; it is celebrated as the animating spirit of transformative change. That ethos is most explicit in his Stonewall Riot piece: a large red brick, evocative of the projectiles thrown at police by LGBTQ patrons of the Stonewall Inn, bearing along its side in bold bright letters the word “PRIDE.” This year, Pride turns 50, amid a national mass uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality.
“I was born in 1979. So, you know, all this stuff happened before me, but it is a part of who I am,” Novy says. “These things happened for our gay liberation to happen, so they have to happen for the liberation and freedom of other people. So the exhibit, I hope, is saying that I’m in solidarity, and I hear what Black Lives Matters is saying through their riots, through their demonstrations.”
Novy hopes that those who “don’t understand” demonstrations taking place today might benefit from the historical analogue and context his work offers. After all, Pride, which is now so mainstream that it often draws criticism for its ties to corporations and police departments, celebrates the anniversary of a mass uprising against police violence.
“If we honor the Stonewall Riots, why can we not honor the Black Lives Matter riots that are happening now?” Novy asks.
“The First Pride Was a Riot” is on view at Voss Gallery in the Mission through July 4. Voss is open Wednesday through Saturday, 12-6pm or by appointment. The full collection can also be viewed at the Voss Gallery website.