Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

Processing through photographs: Ebenezer Galluzzo

The photographer uses self-portraiture to explore trans identity and sacredness. His current exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery is a celebration of self and the journey it took to get here.

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nude torso with bundle of sticks clasped in hands in front of genitals
Ebenezer Galluzzo, Faggot, From the series As I Am, 2018-2019. Pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist.

Portland-based artist Ebenezer Galluzzo wants you to know that he is sacred, and so are you. Working primarily in photographic self-portraiture, over the last two decades Galluzzo has built a body of work that investigates gender, explores the disconnect between how we see ourselves versus how others view us, and asks how connections with the environment shape who we are. In the artist statement for his current exhibition, As A Home Changes, on view at Portland’s Blue Sky gallery through January 27th, Galluzzo says self-portraiture acts as “the tool I use to learn a new way to view myself as a trans man based in celebration, acceptance, and internal truth.” 

As a whole, Galluzzo’s work conveys moments of pride, strength, sexiness, and self-acceptance, referencing spirituality or the esoteric right alongside the everyday. There are thus strong threads of continuity across his body of work. At first, the work in As A Home Changes might seem like an arrival, the culmination of Galluzzo’s investigations of self and journeying toward understanding himself as sacred.  His move beyond acceptance and into a more profound celebration of the self comes through vividly, poignantly even, in the exhibition. But the work currently at Blue Sky is less an arrival at a destination than an insistence on the value of the  journey, even across multiple, circuitous, and recurring paths. 

I caught up with Galluzzo via Zoom, where we talked about how his primary themes have remained consistent across his work even while its visual aspects have changed. We talked about what it means to be vulnerable in his work, and what it means to celebrate his gender non-conforming, transmasculine body in this moment of intense anti-trans violence and attempts to curtail trans people’s rights.

Galluzzo began studying photography while studying abroad in Florence, Italy. An early assignment, to produce two self-portraits, one of how you see yourself and one representing how you think others see you, proved to be formative to his work. “[In] the one of how people saw me I was out in nature and I was very brazen,” says Galluzzo,  whereas “ [In] the one of how I saw myself, I was huddled up in a little ball in the little apartment I was staying in in Florence.” Thus right from its inception, Galluzzo’s artistic practice established two key threads that are consistent across his work: looking to the environment as a way of representing the self and using photography to navigate the space between interiority and exteriority. 

Galluzzo’s training at OSU with Harrison Branch provided him with a very strong set of technical darkroom skills, but after his graduation in 2004, he found that what he really wanted was a way “to make the capturing of a moment a bit more my own.” He had been experimenting with printmaking and started combining techniques and drawing on his images to add texture to the work. The result was a series of black-and-white, limited edition prints in a series titled Know Myself in All My Parts.

In Bathing in the Dark Waters of Release, long, vertical scratches on the photographic surface simultaneously evoke the sense of rainfall and of an old, weathered image. The background and the pooling waters around the figure’s body reveal a range of additional marks: scrapes, gradations in value, small inconsistent marks as if from the splashes of liquid. The works fully incorporate the hand of the artist and the mark-making Galluzzo aimed for at this point in his practice. 

torso in black and white in profile, head thrown back looking at the sky, striations in black and white
Ebenezer Galluzzo, Bathing in the Dark Waters of Release, From the series Know Myself in All My Parts, 2008. Limited edition print. Image courtesy of the artist.

The theme of exploring the self is already evident in these early works. In Awaken, a nude figure stands in the center of the image, their head bent downward and gazing at a large keyhole in the center of his chest. Rays of bright, white light emanate from the keyhole, raking across the torso and arms. Just at the pubic bone, the body starts to dissolve, or perhaps more accurately, to merge into a dense thicket of roots that extend below the groundline. Embedded in this thicket directly below the keyhole is a large, black key–the kind of clunky old “skeleton key” familiar from historical dramas and fantasy movies alike. The key is dark black, standing out against the white of the root system that has begun to envelop it. The work strongly conveys the idea of liberation; that once the self, one’s inner feelings and emotions are released in all their brilliance, they can never again be locked away. 

Sponsor

CMNW Council

torso with bowed head, keyhole at sternum
Ebenezer Galluzzo, Awaken, From the series Know Myself in All My Parts, 2009. Limited edition print. Image courtesy of the artist.

While Galluzzo continued working with the themes explored in this series, his aesthetic underwent a major change in 2017, as he moved from working in black-and-white to color, a move that did not just coincide with but rather became a crucial aspect of his gender transition. He began socially transitioning by changing his name and pronouns in 2016. Only a month after he began this transition, Trump was elected president, and Galluzzo turned to his artistic practice to explore what he was feeling in this moment of personal and social upheaval. 

“It was really hard,” Galluzzo says. “There was a lot of stirring going on in my own brain. So I started taking photographs of myself just to process.” Through his investigations, he found how important color was for expressing emotions, ideas, and, of course, how it has typically been used in gender coding, as in the common association of pink with girls and blue with boys. Delving into the relationships between color and gender led Galluzzo to start producing color photography; “it just didn’t seem realistic to be able to ask the questions I wanted to ask about what I was feeling in black and white.” 

torso with white tank top pulled up to reveal crushed and open six pack of cans where abdominal muscles would be
Ebenezer Galluzzo, Six Pack, From the series As I Am, 2018-2019. Pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist.

These images became the core of the series As I Am. In an artist statement accompanying a 2019 showing of the work at Portland Community College’s Paragon Arts Gallery, Galluzzo wrote, “These self-portraits and the process of creating them became a refuge from the judgmental words that inhabited my mind, limiting my ability to listen to the wisdom of my body.” 

The As I Am series is so striking because it seamlessly interweaves that respect for the body’s wisdom with introspection, critique, and humor. In Pride, Galluzzo wears a pair of “tighty whities” (cotton underwear typically gendered masculine) the crotch of which is stained with menstrual blood. The work is so many things at once: factual, even documentary as well as artistic, mundane yet poignant, masculine and feminine and something else entirely. It is a clear visual summation of the myriad ways that bodies, lives, and experiences exceed the rigidity of thinking in binary terms. 

Other works in As I Am use humor to question gendered associations between language and bodies. Six Pack depicts Galluzzo raising his shirt to playfully reveal six smashed cans held together with plastic, a six pack of sodas or beers in place of the highly defined abdominal muscles also referred to by this name. In Faggot, Galluzzo’s nude body rests on a sheet, his head out of the frame. He holds a bunch of sticks in his clasped hands, clutching them in front of his groin. Two golden circles in the image overlap, as a Venn diagram, framing the bunch of sticks as inside the overlap, or the third space that is once part of both circles and, in overlapping, a space that is neither of them. I read it as a metaphor for gender nonconformity. And, of course, there’s the title. Merriam-Webster defines “faggot,” also spelled “fagot,” as “a bundle of sticks,” or, in its verb form, “to make a fagot of: bind together into a bundle.” The humor is cheeky, the critique incisive. In literalizing something that has been used as a slur, Galluzzo strips away some of the word’s power. It is also a phallic form that obscures Galluzzo’s genitalia, asking viewers to think about how we have been taught to see, think about, and talk about sex, gender, and sexuality.

human figure with torso in "tighty-whitey" underwear with with menstrual blood
Ebenezer Galluzzo, Pride, From the series As I Am, 2018-2019. Pigment print. Image courtesy of the artist.

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Galluzzo’s current exhibition at Blue Sky, As a Home Changes, consists of works produced from 2020 through 2023 and includes some of the images from the earlier As I Am series. One such work is We Bless Ourselves, which presents Galluzzo as a saint somewhat in the manner of a Byzantine icon. Byzantine icons were images of religious figures that were meant to be intimate and make the holy figures they depicted seem accessible. Galluzzo’s self-portrait fits the format in that he is pushed close to the front of the picture plane and directly meeting the viewer’s gaze. Whereas figures in Byzantine icons were typically shown against gold backgrounds to suggest they occupied a heavenly realm, Galluzzo presents himself in front of a background of soft, green moss. He is here, rooted in a place that is earthly but that can still be understood as a manifestation of the divine. And like the saints of the past, Galluzzo’s head is ringed by a halo, made here not of the gold leaf typical in historical works but by mirror shards reflecting the cool greens of leafy trees and the gentle blue of the sky. It is a presentation of the self as divine, and its title, We Bless Ourselves, makes clear that Galluzzo waits for no permission, no authority to tell him he is sacred. That validation means the most when it comes from within. 

Sponsor

Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

Human bust with hands over chest area, eyes look straight out at viewer with head against a broken mirror circle
Ebenezer Galluzzo, We Bless Ourselves, 2020. Pigment print. Image courtesy of Blue Sky.

I see Galluzzo’s exploration of sacredness as part of a larger movement toward affirming what dominant culture often sees as difference, especially in the affirmation of trans lives and bodies. In July 2019, a billboard proclaiming “Trans People Are Sacred” appeared in Detroit, Michigan, the first of many across the U.S.  in an ongoing project by Save Art Space. The phrasing, and variations of it, like “Trans Lives Are Sacred” or “Trans People are Divine” has since shown up in artwork and protest signs, on stickers and tshirts. In 2022, it caused enormous controversy when it showed up on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London in the opening monologue of I, Joan. The play presents Joan of Arc as a nonbinary figure and opens with the proclamation, “Trans people are sacred. We are the divine. And we are practicing our divinity by practicing authenticity.” The idea that transness is sacred is a means by which trans people and their allies fight back against the dismissal, dehumanization, and violence that so many trans people face. 

It should not be, but unfortunately still is, radical to insist that trans lives and experiences have inherent value. Even more so, it is radical to show trans people celebrating themselves as Galluzzo does, enjoying the feel of his body against the softness of the moss, under the warmth of the sun, a canvas for the movement of shadows. In our conversation, Galluzzo reminded me that there are many different ways to be vulnerable. “I truly believe it has shown to me by the world that I am safer when I tell you how much I already hate myself versus standing up and saying, ‘Aren’t I a beautiful creature?,” says Galluzzo. “It was really clear that the easy path for me, and I could have taken it, was to focus just on the pain to focus just on the dissonance and the self hatred.” Casting off society’s gender norms and expectations is one way of liberating a self that feels constrained by those norms. In his work, Galluzzo also casts off the expectation that work by trans artists must be about negative aspects of being trans in a cisnormative world. The work in Galluzzo’s current exhibition, As a Home Changes, affirms that things are always changing, that life is in fact made up of many kinds of transitions, and that sacredness is all around us, in the positive and negative alike.

Upon entering the exhibition As a Home Changes, the viewer first sees the title wall with Galluzzo’s artist statement next to what appears to be a sprawling horizontal work. It is in fact three works presented so seamlessly that they initially read as one. On the left, There is a Crack in Everything shows Galluzzo standing in an interior space, his arms outstretched as he looks down at his nude body. His brow is furrowed as he observes a series of overlapping cracks in his body, like shards of glass, through which we can see bright green grass. Instead of the blood and organs of an open body, we are shown the deep interrelationship between bodies and other aspects of the natural world. 

Ebenezer Galluzzo. Installation view (Left to Right): There is a Crack in Everything. 2023. Pigment print with inkjet underlay and archival adhesive; Open to Your Inheritance. 2020. Vinyl.; Let the Knives become wings. 2021. Pigment print. Image courtesy of Blue Sky.
Ebenezer Galluzzo. Installation view (Left to Right): There is a Crack in Everything, 2023, Pigment print with inkjet underlay and archival adhesive; Open to Your Inheritance, 2020. Vinyl.; Let the Knives become wings, 2021. Pigment print. Image courtesy of Blue Sky.

In the center of the ensemble, a large triptych called Open to Your Inheritance is displayed as a banner, flat on the wall and unframed. The left and right sides show Galluzzo’s outstretched arms basking in the sunlight and projected onto them are the floral patterns from a lace tablecloth. The patterns adorn the skin, giving the work a strong tactile element. In the center of the triptych, we see Galluzzo’s chest and neck through the veil of that same lace tablecloth, his hands in front of the hanging fabric as if about to pull it closer to him. 

Moving right, the ensemble culminates with the work Let the Knives Become Wings. Here Galluzzo stands in the forest, his head lifted slightly and eyes closed as if enjoying the sunlight. His chest is covered with jagged mirror shards, turned here from something potentially cutting to something that is fused with the body, and that reflects the world around him via his position in it. Taken together, the three works can be read as a kind of vignette of the journeys one undertakes in life.  It is a brilliant presentation, one Galluzzo credits to Blue Sky’s Exhibitions Director, C. Meier, as well as a fitting introduction to the rest of the work.

The “home” Galluzzo references in the exhibition’s title can mean many things: a specific building, a city or country, one’s community, one’s body, the environment or the planet writ large. The work in the exhibition moves between these associations, creating a fluid sense that they are all related. “My work aims to create a conversation regarding transition that goes beyond a single destination,” Galluzzo writes, “and reflect[s] an ongoing, multifaceted experience that is a vital part of our human ecology.” 

This sense of “human ecology” appears both metaphorically and literally. In the collage A Map to Remembering, Galluzzo’s body is comprised of both skin and tree bark, connected by thin arteries of gold. Here Galluzzo has four arms and hands, some tightly gripping the body as if trying to hold it together, others offering a more tender, soothing touch, and one, at the bottom of the composition, open as if in offering or in seeking connection. 

Sponsor

CMNW Council

nude torso with three arms covering breast and genitals
Ebenezer Galluzzo, A Map to Remembering, 2022. Inkjet photo collage, archival adhesive, and metallic paper. Image courtesy of Blue Sky.

In the Know Myself in All My Parts series, Galluzzo had drawn on his photographic images and used printmaking techniques to create visible marks on their surfaces. In As I Am, most of the images are digital photographs without additions, save for the occasional embellishment with gold leaf. Galluzzo’s collage work is a newer facet of his artistic practice, one that comes directly out of having to make peace with the sacredness of his body at a time when it felt “ugly and monstrous and deformed.” In 2020 he had a case of poison oak that was so severe that it took a month to recover. He began taking pictures of his swollen limbs and raw, itchy skin as a way of processing how he felt in his “severely uncomfortable” body. But the images were not quite reading as Galluzzo wanted them to, and he started cutting them apart, layering, and rearranging them. 

A Map to Remembering and additional collages like Dissolve into the Place of Many Colors and A Shape to Find the Way Home are the result of the artist investigating a question; are these moments of illness or discomfort “also, somehow, part of the sacred?” Similarly, his foldout photobook The Place Between, on view in the gallery and also the subject of a short video animation in the exhibition, was also created in 2020 in part in response to “the start of a surge in legislation seeking to deny access to basic healthcare, education, athletics, and bathrooms to trans individuals.” How might one reclaim a sense of sacredness amidst such dehumanization? Galluzzo’s work suggests the importance of creativity as a means of knowing and showing the body is sacred even when it does not feel that way. 

While Galluzzo’s work is personal, it is also aimed at creating the collective knowledge that we are all sacred. He writes of his current exhibition, “I invite the viewer to join me in my process, in the hope that they leave with a deeper permission to exist as a vital, celebrated (and also sometimes ugly, decomposing) part of the landscape that holds us all.” In this exhibition and in his body of work overall, Galluzzo invites us to be part of a homecoming–not necessarily to a specific place, but in the sense of a sacred acceptance of ourselves, our own bodies, and by extension, an acceptance of others. It is a reminder that, in the end, We Bless Ourselves.  

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Blue Sky: Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts is located at 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland OR 97209. It is free and open to the public Wed-Sat, 12-5. Galluzzo will give an artist talk at the gallery at 3:00 PM on Saturday, January 27.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Shannon M. Lieberman is an art historian whose research focuses on art and gender, exhibition histories, and intersections between art and social justice. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara and teaches art history and visual culture at Pacific Northwest College of Art. In addition to her love of visual art, Shannon is an avid reader and passionate audiophile.

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