Clyde Petersen's map of Florida is like one of those jokey refrigerator magnets for tourists, with each region represented by a hand drawing. Rendered in the multicolor splendor of Sharpies, there's a swamp, and a zoo, and Disney's pointy blue and pink castle, and a boiled-peanut shack, and a fuchsia-beaked, plum-feathered bird with spread wings. At Daytona, there's a car on fire, god bless, and on the beach where the spring breakers woo, hermit crabs idly drag the arches of their shells.
The dead are buried here, too. Specific dead. These are young punk publishers of zines and founders of underground record labels and transgender kids who'd been looking for a place to belong. Petersen dwarfs the state's partyers and retirees by covering the whole Gainesville area with a portrait of a bearded man wreathed in roses in two shades of pink. His name is Travis Fristoe, and he killed himself this past summer. A muted-gray manatee looks upon Travis from the northeast corner of this paper Florida.
It's been a long time since a young Clyde Petersen toured the nourishing circuit of underground Florida for a year, before he came to riot-grrrl Olympia, and then to a Seattle that thinks of itself as cooler than Florida. Petersen wanted to tell the story of his Florida at this homogenizing moment in Seattle. This is his first solo show in a visual art venue; it's at Martyr Sauce.
"Start on the left," Martyr Sauce proprietor Tariqa Waters said, repeatedly, standing outside on the crowded opening night of Petersen's show Balls Deep: My Year in Florida. "You really have to start on the left."
Waters is an artist, not a dealer, and Martyr Sauce is not an actual gallery. It's the industrial-gray-carpeted staircase leading up to the door of Waters's apartment in Pioneer Square. What she meant by "start on the left" is that the art is hanging in such a way that it tells a story that starts at the bottom of the stairs on the left, hits the door of her apartment at the middle, and concludes at the bottom of the stairs on the right.
Two lines squeezed past each other continuously that night, getting up close and personal with each other and with Petersen's Sharpie drawings, watercolor and tempera paintings, snapshots, and seven-panel comic. It was the ideal place for an exhibition that's about the exuberance and the struggle of making your way in the world outside all systems except the ones you create.
Balls Deep is a show about safety, and its role in shaping micro-cultures. On the map of Florida, vastly different worlds are in unnervingly close proximity. Maps are supposed to keep you from getting lost, but this one also warns that people become losses, die in the clashes between worlds.
Petersen's seven-panel comic is the story of his relationship with Plan-It-X Records cofounder Samantha Jane Dorsett, a legendary figure whose name I might never have known without seeing this show. "You were one of my first transgender punk friends" is the caption along the top of a panel, and beneath it in a tier of drawings of long-haired Samantha and short-haired Clyde, thought bubbles rise to say "I want boobs" and "Please take my boobs," respectively. The friends exchange letters after they've left Florida, about their art and music, about being isolated from queer communities, and about gender transitioning. Then Samantha falls from a bridge—maybe she jumps, maybe she is pushed. A quartet of basic, one-subject, silent box drawings depicts the police cars, the ambulance, the X-ray, and the wheelchair, above the caption "You were in the hospital with broken bones. They were slow to heal." Phew.
In the next panel, Samantha Dorsett is dead and we are locked outside. We see the window she jumped from, now closed, the curtains pulled, the interior of Samantha's room a void in the middle of the art.
Petersen made a typed-and-stapled zine with two short stories for Balls Deep. He blew up and photocopied his comic rather than showing the original. And he included crappy group photographs that mean nothing in isolation but collectively perform their function of capturing a time and place. Few things here are precious art objects.
The exceptions are four dreamy paintings, made on paper and tacked up frameless. Each one zooms in on a detail from a photograph: a hobby horse high up in a green leafy tree on a blue-sky day, a chicken in the rafters, a yellow taxicab repurposed into a tour car, and a kick drum made of a typewriter case. The drum sits on a speckled terrazzo floor, but the perspective is tilted so that we see it from above, like it's floating in from another universe. Each painting is of something incredible but real, something plucked from the alternative world authored by Clyde, Samantha, Travis, and many others, and offered, generously, at a public art show in a private space.
In Petersen's flagship piece, the map of Florida, musicians are the one constant, because Petersen literally toured the state with his band Your Heart Breaks. But the way bands pop up all over is also a hopeful reminder that, no matter what, art and music happen.
There's a joke embedded in the map. A gold chain fixed to the paper at the flat western top of Florida dangles down to the stems of two plump, juicy oranges drawn on paper in Sharpie and cut out. One of them wears an agricultural sticker that says "Florida's a grower," and of course, the long shaft of the state hangs limply next to the orange balls. It's a bumper-sticker joke, but in this context it's also about the multiple layers of places, about the promise that something better is possible even when it doesn't at first look that way. If some place, or every place, isn't safe, watch for the other, better maps.