San Francisco artist Katie Gilmartin stumbled into the 1950s pulp novel world of babes, guns and murder via an unlikely avenue — researching her master’s thesis in lesbian history.
For many of the women who came of age in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s that Gilmartin interviewed, she says, “Stumbling across a novel in a dime store was how they discovered the word ‘lesbian.’ In some cases this was good, in others bad — depending on what book they stumbled across. But for all of them, it helped them to realize that the feelings they had toward other women were shared by others. At the time, in the ’50s, that was a huge revelation.”
Gilmartin, whose work is at City Art Gallery in a show opening Friday, creates linocut prints of pulp novels — often inspired by real old paperbacks but also of her own invention — that explore gender roles and the overt sexuality of an otherwise repressed period in history.
Often darkly humorous, her work reveals the fear and fascination with which people in that era regarded homosexuality and sexuality in general.
“I see them all as political,” she says, “because I create titles and text that poke fun at cultural norms and the way they’ve changed, and not changed, since the ’50s.”
Although the novels show how sex gave women power in a time when there were few other ways for them to wield it, there is also a darkness that Gilmartin doesn’t shy away from.
Take, for example, she says, “the Elizabeth Taylor character in ‘Butterfield Eight.’ She’s a very sexual woman and almost manages to live happily ever after. But the movie does her in, in the end.
“The majority of lesbian pulps end the same way — with death, dismemberment, etc. — and one of the lesbians going off with a man,” she says. “Those were the narratives mid-century American culture could handle.”
After earning a doctorate from Yale, Gilmartin taught at UC Santa Cruz for 10 years before taking a printmaking class in which she rediscovered her childhood love of making art.
Inspired by the Works Progress Administration artists and Soviet propaganda posters, Gilmartin also teaches printmaking and co-founded City Art Gallery. Leaving academia was scary, she says, but she never looked back. “It took me a long time to figure out how to be happy,” she says. “One major contributor to that was, ironically, developing fibromyalgia, which involved chronic pain and fatigue. Dealing with that made me confront the reality that I only have one go-around here, and I need to make it be what I want it to be.”
IF YOU GO
November Group Show
Where: City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco
When: Noon to 9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; opening reception at 7 p.m. Friday; show closes Nov. 28
Contact: (415) 970-9900; www.cityartgallery.org