‘Queer Kicks’ Is the Art Exhibition Carving Out Space for Queer Sneakerheads at ComplexCon

Six weeks after San Francisco Pride, the city’s Schlomer Haus Gallery hosted What Remains, an exhibition of artwork that made use of the remnants and discarded debris of the two-day celebration.

Whereas corporate sponsors can be prone to moving on and resuming business as usual once June ends, the waste from parties and parades remains and so too do the problems faced by the queer community. Schlomer Haus, opened by Steffan Schlarb in 2021, sought to repurpose that waste while calling out the regular cynicism behind the chase for pink dollars and raising funds for Queer LifeSpace, which provides mental health services for queer people. Among the pieces displayed and offered for sale with 100 percent of the proceeds being donated was collage portrait of Lil Nas X made up of a rainbow of refuse including purple packaging for CBD gummies, a pink Benadryl box, a pack of yellow American Spirits, and a studded black leather collar.

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Just over six weeks after What Remains closed, Schlomer Haus is now set to toe the line of working with corporations and examining their relationship with queer communities through “Queer Kicks,” an exhibition featured in this year’s edition of ComplexCon. As convention goers attend concerts, nourish themselves in the curated food court, and above all else chase after limited-edition drops in streetwear and sneakers, the collection of sneaker-inspired artwork serves as a reminder of the role queer people have played in a culture that simultaneously has a habit of shutting them out.

A dozen artists were selected for the exhibition and will show in the mediums of paintings, ceramics, and sculptures. “Queer Kicks” will be available to view during both days of ComplexCon, which runs this Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 18 and 19.

Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
Eye Believe I by Devynn Barnes

“Queer creators and artists are often at the forefront of driving the culture that’s then co-opted by large corporations,” Schlarb said in a call with Footwear News. “[This show is] a way of showcasing the next generation of queer artists and giving them an opportunity to be in front of this audience.”

Devynn Barnes, a queer, Black artist based in Oakland, is contributing Eye Believe I, a basketball hoop featuring a tall pine backboard carved curvaceously and painted with an androgynous figure vogueing. Hanging well below regulation length from the black rim is a galvanized chain in gold and silver.

Barnes grew up playing basketball, and like many other sneakerheads, the sport is what led to her falling in love with kicks. Thus she took the less literal approach for her artwork, which also seeks to highlight the cruciality of Black culture within sneakers. She said she can almost hear sneakers squeaking on the pine when she looks at it and that there’s a fluidity from the motions of basketball to those of dance.

“Basketball felt so expressive in the form of our bodies and the street culture of it. The fashion of it was always something that really engaged me,” Barnes said. “That was a place where I got to play with my expression and feel a bit more confident and bold in it. It’s nice to have this piece be representative of that journey for myself but also these two worlds that seem disparate but to me have always felt so intertwined.”

Similar to what she’s seen in the sporting world, Barnes said sneaker culture’s treatment of queer people has improved but still has room for improvement. Upon viewing “Queer Kicks,” she wants the audience to recognize that there’s more to the culture than what’s been a “stereotypically male-dominated space.”

Although he wouldn’t call himself a sneakerhead, Thomas Martinez Pilnik has been fascinated by sneaker culture since coming to America from London. Now based in Los Angeles, he found himself falling down the rabbit hole of knowledge beginning with a college course on African American music and then upon moving to New York City after he completed his degree.

Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
Running Up That Hill by Thomas Martinez Pilnik

Pilnik’s contribution to the exhibit is Running Up That Hill, a glazed terracotta take on his favorite Fila platform sneakers named after the famous Kate Bush song. Playing with the idea of memories and the mystery of how mixing glazes will turn out, he splattered his ceramic to invoke the “dregs of a really good night out” dancing.

“My way into sneaker culture is the kind of camp way of wading through what’s been a pretty heteronormative space and potentially hostile space for queer people and women,” Pilnik said. “There’s something about platforms that elevates us, literally, but also takes us to a new space and a new plane. I feel powerful in my Filas even though they’re coded as women’s shoes and I found them in a thrift store. That’s the sneaker I feel the most safe and have the most fun in.”

While skeptical of rainbow capitalism, Pilnik points to the first Air Jordans as an example of shoes having the ability to contain “conceptual rigor” for how much faith Nike placed in a young, black athlete such as Michael Jordan. He adds, “When a brand works with someone with a marginalized identity and stands behind them, that can create a community that’s much more powerful than plastering a rainbow on a sneaker that you’ve already designed.”

Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon

Barnes highlights the queer artist Nina Chanel Abney’s recent link-up with Timberland as a collaboration that struck her as particularly meaningful and expressive. Even though it produced boots rather than sneakers, the spirit and history of collaborations is very much rooted in sneakers and streetwear. Abney also pared down the Air Jordan 2 for a collaboration in 2022.

“It’s one thing if you have a partnership and the brand wants it a specific way. Then it’s a filtered version of that person and their art,” Barnes said. “To be intentional about it is to give the artists space to use the brand as a platform. I’m seeing more of that, and it’s really encouraging.”

“Queer Kicks” will give real, physical space to such artists to express themselves and their relationships with sneakers while also providing an overt safe space for queer people in attendance at ComplexCon. But, being that it is art, there’s still ample room for interpretation from the audience.

“I don’t want people to enter the exhibition and feel like they have to come away as, like, Ally of the Year,” Pilnik said.

In his messy ceramic kicks, Pilnik sees the drinks spilt on his feet while dancing at the club. Others might see scuffs from a game of pick-up basketball or dirt from an afternoon hike. Still others might see something they’d never let happen to their own sneakers.

Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
“My Converse laces from April to November” by Samuel R Richardson
Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
“Boombox” by Nonamey
Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
“J Dilla: Dilla Time” by Goku Mcafee
Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
“Q-Tip: A Pair of Nikes Size 10 & a Half” by Goku Mcafee
Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
“Hoka x Marsha P. Johnson” by Daniel Clurman
Queer Kicks Art Exhibition ComplexCon
Untitled by Daniel Clurman

About the Author:

Ian Servantes is a Senior Trending News Editor for Footwear News specializing in sneaker coverage. He’s previously reported on streetwear and sneakers at Input and Highsnobiety after beginning his career on the pop culture beat. He subscribes to the idea that “ball is life” and doesn’t fuss over his kicks getting dirty.

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