Queer WAH: Celebrating and Negotiating Progress and Struggle

Walking into the recent exhibition at the WAH Center, one is immediately engaged by an impressive display on the main gallery’s central wall. A glamorous starlet posed in three quarters profile glints and gleams, beckoning you in to see the depth and breadth of work on offer in the Queer WAH: Contemporary LGBTQ Artists exhibition. Above our starlit, a disco ball has metamorphosed into a lunar projection. In a sprawling digital photographic print titled Just a Phase, Dave Kube displays the luminescent object of disco fetishism moving through the full lunar spectrum from wax to wane, presiding over photographic work by artists Richard Hatter and Nicholas Contrera that celebrate the possibilities of gender as a glamorous performance, with undertones of the carnivalesque. And from this small section of the larger show, we already perceive that this exhibition, curated by Richard Sanchez, Assistant to WAH Founder and Artistic Director, Yuko Nii, will broach all of those most taboo, controversial and always politically embroiled issues concerning sexuality, body, individual and society. But the show resists narrow and reductive readings and does not get mired in political ends, it is a celebration of and negotiation with the progress made in the LGBTQ struggle: new rights acquired, and greater recognition gained. A diversity of responses are evident as you walk through the WAH’s main gallery, and this goes beyond purely content based diversity, for Sanchez has also brought together a great range of expressive mediums that really reach toward, as he states, “examining and celebrating the contribution of queer artists to the contemporary art landscape.”

            Sculptural works intermingle with installation and are perfectly poised in response to that age-old medium of oil on canvas, specifically, looking at the impressive display of work by artist JD Raenbeau we see all these mediums collide. Raenbeau is clearly an artist that excels in any medium. In this exhibit we see his interactive installation, With My Hair Up to Heaven, which allows the viewer to temporarily break down the barriers between viewers and viewed, art and life. You are invited to sit on a Victorianesque couch and don an elaborate headdress, with two others, comprised of gold painted pants, artificial roses and branches, costume jewelry, and of course my little pony dolls. In this way, the artist invites you to involve yourself in and recreate an intimate memory from his childhood that deals closely with self-image and gender display but also family. Raenbeau, also has a large scale oil painting on display, evidence of his creative range, this piece, Bathtime, took him a year to complete. Quoting from Orientalist scenes like Gerome’s Persian baths and Ingres’s odalisques, Raenbeau subverts these images of exotic voyeurism and normative desire to call up alternative forms of sexual desire, with sardonic wit.

Moving through the main gallery there are so many multi-hued and multi-formed works on display that both challenge and provoke the viewer, daring to ask how LGBTQ culture, sexuality and identity, ever more prevalent and visible, influences, is influenced and is perceived by popular culture/ society at large. Haunting sculptural installations from Erik Patton, position dismembered bodily pieces before the viewer that hang suspended from the ceiling, pointing to trauma and difficult negotiations with body image. When one considers the bodily norms ascribed by a socially enforced separation between masculine male physiques and feminine female forms, the pressure that this creates, and then consider Patton’s Blue Head or Gold Foot, the tension becomes evident. A gnarled mess of hair, long flowing and feminine contrasts and opposes the visibly rendered beard on a Styrofoam mannequins head, violently snapped to one side and covered in blue hosiery, this is Blue Head, demanding your attention.

From this you can move on to the far right corner of the main gallery to see some of the amazing work contributed by two of the shows female artists, two sculptural forms produced by Elizabeth Jacobsen, and a digital print collage by Jo Ann Block that complement each other perfectly in their nod to found forms and objects and their commentary on visual culture and popular history. Continuing the conversation that Patton begins, these two artists move out into the public sphere as Blocks work takes and collages a mixture of fifties cultural signifiers such as the classic car, drive in signage and retro high-rise billboards. These are molded into a nostalgic landscape where ambiguous silhouetted figures wage hand to hand combat, and looming over all of this stand two titanic composite figures that beautifully caricature masculinities various manifestations on both the female and male persona. Together with Jacobsen’s cast breasts in silver-leaf adorned by a rosary, entitled Shielded Madonna, a general demand forms for traits of strength, dominance, vitality and warrior spirit to be unbound from their gendered categories.

            In fact to experience the show was also to experience the opening, wherein artists and the art-loving public intermingled, openly and candidly discussing the often difficult, politically charged and personal topics on display in the many exhibited works. But there was an overall air of celebration as many artists representative of various LGBQT communities in and around Manhattan, Brooklyn and even several from out of state, where able to display work under one roof. The general layout and curatorial choices made by Sanchez urged the viewers to move in and around the main gallery space circling from 2-D to sculptural to installation piece. One can even steal away from the main space, slipping into the smaller back room attached to the main gallery, where there are two pieces installed that require quiet contemplation, the installation Charlie and Quinn II and III by Charles Snyder and the video installation Love Flavors by Rodolfo Graziano. Both deal with intimate topics of sexual pleasure and desire, the viewer is met by intimate gestures, expressions and acts saved usually exchanged between lovers but here they are expressed with a tongue and cheek self-consciousness.

There is certainly no one succinct or straightforward artistic statement that would allow the viewer to understand what the recent progress in LGBTQ rights means to those who register the impact in their everyday lives. Moving forward, civil rights progress in any form or shape has manifold effects across all swaths of social strata, it can be met with such complex responses of joy, euphoria, pride but also reactionary anger, tension and bigotry. It becomes the artist’s task then to interrogate and negotiate with these new social values, reactions and notions of progress, at the WAH this air of inquiry can be felt. Look to David Kube’s piece Responsibility/ Discourse, where meanings and statements literally overlap and entangle, threating to fall into obscurity. One sentence reads, “there is not on but many silences and they…,” before being lost and entangled with the sentence that stats, “The clear and obvious answer was that pleasure…,” yet the two emerging in dialogue with the resounding “responsibility” and “discourses.”

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