Re-Imagining a Safe Space at Gulf + Western Gallery, New York City

Michael M. Koehler, Blessing, from Hoops Barber Shop. Courtesy the artist

What is a safe space? According to the right, it’s a fortress in which entitled, politically correct snowflakes hide from any opinion they dislike. According to the left, it’s simply an environment that allows for the free exchange of ideas without fear of violence. In the wall text for this expansive exhibition, on view at Gulf + Western through January 13, curators Deborah Willis and Melissa Harris walk the tightrope between these conflicting definitions, weighing the need to discourage institutional or self-censorship against the idea that certain topics and discussions can intensify feelings of alienation. Willis and Harris don’t attempt to solve this puzzle. Instead, by presenting the works of 28 artists, they examine the “ever-changing notions and manifestations of, and challenges to, safe spaces.”

A safe space, they suggest, may be a “space between social definitions or constraints,” like the drag culture shown in Sophia Tsanos’s photographs from 1990s New York. Or it could be a place to connect with the community, as Michael M. Koehler explores in his pictures of Hoops Barber Shop in Philadelphia. Or it could merely be a place to rest, as exemplified by Zoraida Lopez’s photos of the bedrooms of the children of undocumented farm workers in Dutchess County, New York.

These diverse views make a compelling case for the value of safe spaces as both literal and psychological territories. The curators’ intentions are less clear in their presentation of Mark Peterson’s Charlottesville’s Faces of Hate, a documentary series on this year’s infamous white nationalist rally in Virginia. Neither the wall text nor titles give any clues as to whether viewers should perceive the rally as a challenge to free expression, or a manifestation of it.

Conclusive answers are, perhaps, hopelessly elusive. The idea that resolution is elusive is best encapsulated in the public art project In Search of the Truth, by the Cause Collective – made up of Ryan Alexiev, Jim Ricks, Will Sylvester, and Hank Willis Thomas (Deborah Willis’s son) – a traveling video recording booth in which visitors finish the statement: “The truth is…” All views, Melissa Harris and Deborah Willis seem to suggest, may see the light of day. Safety, meanwhile, might take a back seat.