Growing up Catholic, Gabriel Garcia Roman had a difficult time paying attention in church. He was distracted, mesmerized by the pictures of saints that hung on the pews with their gaudy, gilded frames. "Even though they were always suffering, they were full of dignity and pride," says the Mexico-born, Chicago-raised artist. Something about their strength shining through pain spoke to Roman. Now, three decades later, he re-imagines those religious Renaissance paintings in his own artwork by showcasing underrepresented LGBTQ activists as the icons.
But before he could put them in the spotlight, he first had to find his own. At 26, he was "just existing" without a clear life purpose. So, he went where many start over—New York. Before leaving, he was given a camera to document his path. "I turned [the camera] around, and started taking self portraits. Am I gay man? Am I a Mexican? Am I a slacker? All of these different identities were thrown at me, and I wanted to figure out who I was." Surrounded by a community that was stimulated by similar desires helped him connect toward a sense of existence of pride—and a new passion.
From there, his artistic floodgates opened. By 33, he'd enrolled in art school, exploring several mediums until falling in love with screenprinting. Fueled by the freedom of combining techniques and textures, he practiced the multi-layering of printmaking like a meditative pattern. Each step—echoing his own journey to self discovery—was necessary to create one complete piece.
When marriage equality dominated the mass media in 2014, Roman found that queer and trans people of color were marginalized, even in the art world. Compelled to focus on the "outsiders"—the contemporary heroes of his ongoing series, Queer Icons—he photographed his friends, activists, poets, and community organizers devoted to bettering the world, illuminating the variety of the gender and queer spectrum. Using a Chine-colle technique to the photogravure process, Roman applied textured collage with photography, mastering visually stunning, unique prints. With the depth of light, vibrant colors, and Ramon's addition of a protective halo, each figure exudes an influential glow of grace and strength.
Most recently, Roman invited his subjects to collaborate with the project by writing directly on the photograph about their identities, a deeper layer to elevate these proud, multidimensional figures. "Mi gorda" as mi mami calls me de carino. When did this body become an insult? These words are embedded in this month's cover image of LA-based Laura Luna, who beams with a fierce gaze and confident stance. "Someone who is beautiful, confident in their body, not ashamed using the word 'fat.' These are the examples that we need out in the world," says Roman. To the artist, these are the real saints.
"Visceral Notions," featuring works by Gabriel Garcia Roman, Bennie Flores Ansell, and Elsa Mora will be exhibited through March 26 at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. (845) 679-9957; Cpw.org. Portfolio: Gabrielgarciaroman.com.