Leslie Lohman, New York City’s Museum of Gay and Lesbian art, are currently exhibiting ‘On the Domestic Front: Scenes of Everyday Queer Life’, a comprehensive and arresting survey of queer art and artists that documents the everyday of what is often not considered the every man or woman.
It seeks to answer the question “what do gay people do when they’re not having sex” and it answers through four curated chapters; at home, at work, at play and in dreams (fantasy). Sex is present, inevitably and as it would be in any survey of the human condition, but the sex here is intimate; couples, families and subtly eroticised physical bodies divert attention from the false preoccupation with ‘gay’ equating just mindless, frivolous sex.
Individuals bathe, socialise, dance, lounge, farm, mourn, kiss, sit, stand, lie, stare; it’s a survey of human life more so than a queer one. This is a culture so akin to being defined individually and collectively by its sexual preferences, that to present a myriad of bodies in the spaces and poses of passive mundanity has poignant purpose. For once, this is a question of human character beyond sexuality.
Though touching in its celebration of the normalcy and joy of everyday queer lives, there is a painful undercurrent to the show in the presence of AIDs. From the work of AIDs taken artists such as Peter Hujar and Keith Haring to portraits of sufferers and their lovers at home, a majority of the artists and subjects are dealing with -intentionally or not- the effects of AIDs. Too many of the accompanying captions end with a note on death, it is a constant shadow.
The theme of domestication is apt for a time of legalised gay marriage, wider trans visibility and a general larger acceptance of identifying as queer; the concerns of love, friendships, work and play of the everyday queer life are as similar and passive as what’s considered the everyday life. The lack of difference in these rituals presented through work on display causes it to be a profound political and artistic statement.
Here, we have chosen some of our favourite pieces of work from the exhibition.
Bill Costa’s The Bath (Homage to Paul Cadmus)
Costa’s obsessive practice of photographing the male nude is here staged within the domesticity of the bathroom in homage to Paul Cadmus’ painting The Bath.
Paul Cadmus’ Horseplay
Cadmus was preoccupied with the male nude, his art featuring idealized sexual male bodies alongside satire and social critique. His 1934 painting The Fleet’s In caused public outcry over its depiction of sailors cavorting with prostitutes and homosexuals. Cadmus is one of the earliest artists to be well known for chronicling gay life, though said “I wasn’t trying to foster gay rights…I recorded what I saw and thought and knew.” Horseplay’s eroticism lies in its allusion.
Rink Foto’s Sidewalk Domesticity and Divine on the Loose
Foto has been photographing the queer community in Southern California and New York since 1969. His documentation of the counter cultural aspects of the community moved into a political one when he met Harvey Milk; his 1974 Parade display in Milk’s Castro Camera window was the first public display of same sex couples. In Sidewalk Diversity, an array of characters are captured at the Castro Street Fair, the LGBTIQ parade founded by Milk in San Francisco’s largely gay Castro area.
In Divine on the Loose, Foto captures the cult figure and peformer exiting the Trocadero Transfer disco after a fundraiser to defeat anti-gay legislation. As she passed police cars lined down the street, the anti-authoritarian stage persona screamed ‘I can fuck and kill whoever I want, get out of my way!’
Badertscher’s Jennings o (08)
Badertscher has been documenting the gay demimonde of drag queens and hustlers of Baltimore’s societal fringes since the 70s. With frank, fraught biographies of the subjects penned onto his hauntingly beautiful photographs by hand, Badertscher has chronicled the raw truth of being gay and living ‘against’ past prescribed societal normalcy.
Douglas Blanchard’s Zayin, New York Shadows (David Wojnarowicz)
Blanchard’s painting of artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz was painted in commemoration of his death from AIDS in 1994. Its placement in the ‘At Home’ chapter of the exhibition lends to the truth of hospitals being the home (rather their prescribed, domestic space) of AIDS sufferers and carers during the epidemic.
Fayette Hauser’s portraits of The Cockettes
San Francisco’s countercultral physedelic thetare troupe the Cockettes were formed in 1969 from a group of men and women living communually, whose penchant for outrageous dress enticed Hibiscus (nee George Edgerly Harris III, Jr, who was photographed in 1967 by Bernie Boston placing a flower in a soldier’s gun at an anti-Vietnam protest), who then encouraged the community to start performing. Their fantastical and psychedelic performances dressed as ‘mythic figures’ in drag captured the artistic and sexual expressions of the changing generation. Their disregard of gender specifities and sexual orientation allowed a revolutionary creative ‘family’ to converge upon the mainstream. Fayette Hauser, a member of the group, here captures members of the Cockettes in their unafraid absurdity amongst the everyday mundane.
Tomas Gaspar’s Fire Island
Fire Island, south of Long Island, New York, had two gay communities that acted as home or holiday to many. Many would escape to Fire Island for seasonal house shares. Here, Gaspar captures a moment of affectionate intimacy on a porch.
Peter Hujar’s Christoper Street Pier 3
Commercial photographer Hujar documented the celebrities of the downtown scene of the 70s and 80s , however his photographs of everyday queer life, such as this portrait of men socialising on Christopher Street Pier 3 are bestowed with a touching intimacy. Hujar’s poignant portraits of transgender actress Candy Darling and artist activist David Wojnarowicz (featured in the exhibition with Blanchard’s Zayin, New York Shadows) as they lie dying on their deathbeds are arresting and haunting. Hujar himself died of AIDS- related pneumonia in 1987.
Frank Hallam’s Sunners of Pier 51 7/2/1977 and Pier 45 4/25/1982
Following the countercultural revolution and the Stonewall riots of the summer of ’69, the gay community experienced (public) sexual liberation in the barren seclusion of the Hudson river piers throughout the 70s. Here, public nudity and liberal sexual exchange were tolerated and encouraged. Hallam’s Sunners, taken on two days in 1977 and 1982 show the endearing and enduring popularity of these piers as destinations of safe social and sexual encounters.
Dorothy Burger’s Untitled
Little is known about Burger but this untitled painting presumably depicts a 60s gay bar. It constructs a fraught and sombre atmosphere of pre-Stonewall queer spaces that acted as informal community centres.
Cathy Cade’s Emerson Street Household
Cade’s best known project was her documentation of lesbians raising children. Emerson Street Household documents herself, her lover Kate, Kate’s son and a friend as part of the project. In the foreground are objects symbolizing the family’s trades; cameras for Cade and tools for mechanic Kate. In an essay in the exhibition catalogue Cade says, ‘we wanted to present ourselves as women to be taken seriously, who have skills, and who were workers’.
On The Domestic Front: Scenes of Everyday Queer Life is currently on show at Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York
More information can be found here.