Montreal-based visual artist Kyle Alden Martens’ exhibition, Portable Closets, is on display at Eastern Edge Gallery until November 24th.

Portable Closets uses sculpture and drawing to play with the tension between simultaneously covert and visible signifiers of queer identity.

In the gallery, 450 doll-sized turtlenecks are pinned to the wall. Life-size sandals with small, removable parts embedded in the soles are gathered below the shirts. Ladders made from brightly coloured waistband elastic also trail down the wall.

The sculptural elements of the installation that represent, or are made from clothing, along with the piece’s title, transform the gallery into a physical manifestation of “the closet.” By inviting viewers into that private space, Martens subverts the binary of being either “in” or “out” of the closet, suggesting queer identity is often both unveiled and concealed in the same moment.

The shirts are also a glib reference to Hollywood’s tired habit of dressing gay characters in turtlenecks.

For Martens, the small turtlenecks are symbols of queer identity because they evoke playing with dolls, an activity that is sometimes read as an early sign a boy might be queer. The shirts are also a glib reference to Hollywood’s tired habit of dressing gay characters in turtlenecks.

Martens pointed out the word turtleneck is also a saucy innuendo for an uncircumcised penis. Each of the small turtlenecks are one of six colours Martens describes as “a side step away from the pride flag colours.” Using colours that are a variation on the easily recognizable pride flag is part of Martens’ exploration of how queer identity is sometimes both conspicuous and obscured.

Martens’ decision to hang the tiny turtlenecks on the wall was inspired by the tradition of displaying sports jerseys. He is interested in how a jersey can represent something very specific to a sports fan, and how that specific information isn’t always communicated to lay people viewing the jersey. By presenting symbols of queer identity in the same way hockey jerseys are displayed, Martens implies that queer identity can also be both visible and unreadable.

“In hockey arenas there’s often these jerseys on wall that have a supposed meaning – it’s from this person, who did this thing, at that game,” Martens said. “There’s a lot of meaning there that isn’t necessarily available to everybody. I was really interested in creating something like that.”

Hanging the doll-sized turtlenecks like sports jerseys also reflects the theme of play that runs throughout the exhibition. In addition to the sculptural elements of the installation, a series of drawings that depict two hands moving closer together and then apart hang in the gallery.

Martens explained the drawings were inspired by the manuals found in board game boxes, which often feature disembodied hands performing an undecipherable task. The hands invoke an intimate game with rules that aren’t immediately clear to those who aren’t playing. Portable Closets argues that there can be playfulness in manipulating the blurry divide between inside and outside of the closet.