Modified still from Jimmy DeSana’s Double Feature (1979), 16 mm film. Photo: Jongwoo Jeremy Kim
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art grew from a collection of homoerotic art begun in the 1960s to a commercial gallery in the 1970s and to a nonprofit foundation established in 1987, before becoming what it is now: a museum chartered in 2011 and recently expanded to double its exhibition space. The individuality of the Leslie-Lohman Museum’s permanent collection continues to reflect the original mission of the Leslie/Lohman Art Foundation to “salvage homoerotic works, otherwise lost, by artists who died of AIDS,” as Deborah Bright underscores, and “because depictions of the priapic penis and same-sex eroticism were so taboo in the art world, they were the central focus of the founders’ collecting.”1 Over the decades, the collection has become more than a priapic archive. Acknowledging the organization’s “precipitous drops, soaring peaks, hairpin turns, and occasional dead ends,” Jonathan David Katz calls the museum’s permanent collection of over 30,000 works a “roadmap” on “the way to our modern conception of LGBTQ identity.”2
The evolution of a museum of “gay and lesbian art”—a terminology stemming from the era of the Foundation’s inception in the 1980s—is complicated. Scholarly and vernacular discourses about sexual identity are constantly shifting, artworks lose and gain different meanings, and artists keep finding new ways of seeing. Less a “roadmap” than a rhizome, the museum’s collection today shows how variously queerness pops up in the realm of vision and art-making. In a book I recently co-edited with Christopher Reed, we discussed queer “not as a fixed identity but as an activity—accidental or deliberate, singular or continual—that exhibits and encourages ruptures and disruptions, including those that undermine concepts of coherent, immutable identities, sexual and otherwise.”3 As evidenced by the inaugural exhibition of the expanded Leslie-Lohman, the museum is remarkably queer.
In Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting, ideas of sexual identity are diversified, inflected, and endlessly experimented with. Paradigmatic of this queer ambiguity on display in this exhibition, Jimmy DeSana’s 16 mm film from 1979, Double Feature, mocks the sex appeal of automobiles that Hollywood heteronormatively reinforces in the man-and-his-ride genre while offering an alternative to the candy-colored Kustom Kar Kommandos—Kenneth Anger’s 1965 short film featuring homoeroticism of a beautiful young man and his very shiny car. The first half of Double Feature lingers on the hind legs of a lean dog standing atop a car hood. The dog’s exceptionally feathery tail fills the right side of the frame. The windshield behind him glows gently in mauve, reflecting the sky and clouds above. The mechanical lines of the automobile contrast with the athletic lines of animal musculature and the hypnotic flow of golden tail. The camera stares at the fur blowing in the soft wind before zooming into the parts that would be hips and the crotch in a man’s anatomy. The camera ascertains the dog’s male sex. The film goes dark. Then, there is a metallic sheen of a curtain, copper and greenish black. It is drawn to the left by a shapely right arm, revealing glimpses of toned buttocks against off-white tiles, glowing in subtle gradations of yellow and orange. The camera’s teasing continues after the shower curtain is pulled away further and a man’s derrière becomes fully visible. As with the dog, the body never stops being cropped for this camera. The man’s head is constantly outside the frame, the width of the shoulders is not assessed, nor are his feet glimpsed. The man rubs his genitals in soap, lathering. Washing soon becomes pleasuring, and the man’s penis turns hard as the film comes to an end without the money shot. Had this been a triple feature, the film might end with a scene of the man standing naked atop the hood of his automobile, wagging his penis blown in the soft wind—but that part remains unseen, and DeSana’s ambiguous intervention in the Dukes-of-Hazzard category is incomplete in the right way.
DeSana’s short film is rich in innuendoes as it tests libidinal limits of duality, resemblance, or difference (What denies two similar things resemblance? When does one thing become recognized as two things?). Is the showering beau compared to a beautiful dog as in “you lucky dog”? Does it comment on the sexual potency of the hunk as in “Jimmy, you’re such a dog”? When does this euphemism become risqué? Does it encourage homophobes to mount an attack on what they consider to form a system of vice equivalency comprising sodomy and bestiality? The beauty that DeSana’s viewers experience for 6 minutes and 44 seconds nimbly eludes such questions. The film is at once an anodyne for and an enactment of unspoken thoughts, and potential dangers are slyly displaced or dispelled. It also taunts and denies. In its subtle, somatic seduction and equivocation—and a good deal of tail-wagging and dick-pulling—significatory differencing becomes difficult or irrelevant as each passing second simply becomes a unit of optical pleasure, knowing nods, and voyeuristic humor. This visual rhetoric of ambiguity and its disruption of normativity effectively captures one of the salient powers of the newly re-opened Leslie-Lohman.
The Leslie-Lohman Museum’s memories run deep, and this is important because the legacy it institutionalizes has only been haltingly explored by other museums. Works in the exhibition by such canonical artists as Albrecht Dürer, Jacques Callot, Minor White, and David Hockney historically anchor the museum’s permanent collection. Other artists Expanded Visions includes are firmly in the canon that might be described as our current consensus of the history of LGBTQ visuality: Joan E. Biren (JEB), Harmony Hammond, Deborah Bright, Cary S. Leibowitz (aka Candyass), and Nicole Eisenman. Many more artists and artworks in Expanded Visions are likely to constitute new discoveries for viewers, however. Other works like Harvey Milk’s Trike Boyle, 1976/2009—capturing a vignette from the annual San Francisco Memorial Day Great Tricycle Race—exemplify yet another strength in the collection as they represent queer visual history. Together the mix makes for a strong exhibition.
The ambiguity that DeSana evokes is amplified by the museum’s mix of artists and artworks, forming a visual experience that is “acentered” and “non-hierarchical.”4 Leibowitz (aka Candyass)’s circa 1989 sculpture Sissy is part of this non-normative genealogy (or “antigenealogy”5) comprising lateral stems of adventitious shoots and roots beneath the surface narrative of art history. As an assisted found object (a football), Sissy exemplifies what is often skipped over in the textbook history of modern and contemporary art: queer disruption and its ambiguity. The sculpture has vinyl lettering in pink, red, and white, spelling out:
There is also a flamboyant autograph of “C S Leibowitz” on the other side, around the curve of the ball’s surface. Chewing gum pink and turquoise blue, the football looks cheap, irreverent, and loudly festive—and most emphatically anti-macho, deliciously ball-shriveling; the ball even sits delicately on three small, slender pink sticks rising from the base. Whenever a football player comes out, the nation shakes as though virility and homosexuality must be incompatible. This sculpture makes fun of all that. Leibowitz’s lurid objet wreaks havoc in the politics of masculinity.
There is an obvious aggression in Sissy. It is exerted with lighthearted, upbeat vulgarity, but it is aggression, nonetheless. The attack Sissy enacts is against hetero-patriarchal social hierarchies in general, as well as those hierarchies that are replicated in an art world that swooned over works like Jeff Koons’s various basketballs in the 1980s. Candyass’s Sissy represents the arch legacy of Marcel Duchamp better than Koons’s bro-ish clowning that celebrated its complicity in the high-end consumerist dynamic it supposedly mocked. Like all good varieties of irreverence, Sissy’s offense is also ambiguous as it both invites and repels abuse (“Go ahead. Call me sissy. Let’s see what kind of man you really are.”). That ambiguity that queerly reenacts bullying in a locker room upsets gender “authenticity” because Sissy is a common football’s simulacrum (a copy without an original). Being a “bad copy,” Sissy mocks bullying that is too often internalized and normalized in American athletic culture. Sissy’s double speech (football/not-a-football) interrupts the hierarchy within the male sex, making the original gendering of football suspect, even embarrassing.
Echoing the bodily ambiguity DeSana explores and further troubling the politics of gender Leibowitz taunts, Anna Campbell’s 2013 latex and balsa wood sculpture /sash—the title cleverly uses a slash to denote alternatives, as in “and/or”— forms another offshoot in the museum’s rhizome of ambiguity. Underneath a wide pink latex ribbon with dark mauve borders, a secondary polymer layer articulates abundant frills sticking out along either side of the ribbon. In color and pliability, raw latex has creepy skin-like qualities. Its use in condoms, dental dams (used for cunnilingus and anilingus), and surgical/fisting gloves enhances the bodily associations. Latex holds the promise of sex, hygiene (fear of disease), cut, death, artifice, and pleasure. Atop the ribbon sash is a pink rosette made out of latex ribbon, complete with a circular latex frill like an Elizabethan ruff, double streamers, and a rosebud. While the raw latex frills may metaphorically materialize vaginal folds, the red latex flower in its transubstantiation plays with notions of a clitoris as well as with a “rosebud” in the S/M practice—an anal prolapse. /sash is part of what Campbell groups under “Etiquette Kit,” which includes works like Foxgloves, Coquettes, and Ode to a Gym Teacher. About /sash, the artist’s website states, “The sash references any number of Miss America, teen or tiaraed toddler pageants, as much as the signifier for the suffragettes of a century ago, and the pageantry of the gay male competitive fetish scene.”6 As such, the ceremony that this /sash must adorn with panache is ambiguous and is many things at once in age, periodization, sex, and gender. Finally, the easy-to-miss unfilled space before the slash is forever, richly ill-defined to form “[?]/sash.” When it is not a sash, what is it?
A lesser known artist in the Leslie-Lohman Museum’s collection is Gerhardt Liebmann, whose strength lies in his collaged, regularized photographs in grids. In Liebmann’s 66 Men (1979), 6 columns and 11 rows of black and white photographs show 66 naked white men, positioned on the hardwood floor for doggy-style sex. All 66 faces are obscured in white—in some the white spot just covers the eyes, in others it erases the whole face, and in a few exceptional cases, it leaves the face still fairly legible—messing with gestures of anonymity. Some men are balding, some have full heads of hair. Some are clean-shaven while others are bearded. Some are muscular, some are bears, and some others have a swimmer’s build. Some stick their buttocks in the air, others keep them parallel to the floor, and the rest keep them pointing downward. Some face the floors, and some turn their head to the camera. Yet, like in a well-choreographed dance, the men form a regularized whole, while remaining recognizable as individuals. Despite the gray tones and the medico-scientific grid organization, 66 Men is domestically quotidian, surprisingly festive, and good-naturedly humorous. Even beclouded faces do not appear to be for identity protection, as in police pictures, but part of a pretend game, set with safety words and pet names. Taxonomy becomes cosplay, anonymity is another mask. Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men (1964) is a precedent for Liebmann’s 66 Men. But while both flirt with the tradition of photographic criminology tracing back to Alphonse Bertillon as well as the history of state persecution of homosexuals, Liebmann does not follow Warhol in turning public spectacle of condemnation into private celebration of illicit desire. Instead, he seems to include us in some sort of private joke, without bothering with Warholian celebrity, stardom, and the big show.
Another artist who queers by articulating the ambiguous distance to the established discourse of twentieth-century art is Joan E. Biren (JEB). Her 1978 photograph my lover, my feet shows a framed ellipse of specular reflection seemingly hovering in a white space; it must be a part of a mirrored dresser—only the mirror and its curving frame and swivels are depicted in the photograph. The reflection in the mirror reveals socked feet resting on a hardwood floor and the hems of bell-bottom pants in the upper half and naked female torso in the lower half, cropped right above the breasts and right below the hairy crotch. This elliptical image of body parts is disorienting. The feet and the nude may occupy the same space but they may not. In fact, the seeming spatial disorientation is possibly caused by temporal disjuncture. JEB’s pants are distinctly of the 1970s, while the nude recalls Brassaï’s female bodies from the 1930s. That ambiguous distance between the socked feet and the gentle curve of the naked body may measure the historical distance between the different times of bodily politics and scopophilia. The wooden curves of the mirror frame hark back to an even earlier period, possibly Victorian. JEB’s indeterminate distance from the female body may correspond to the superficial proximity lesbian photographers feel toward the largely heteronormative history of the female nude and toward photographically proliferated objectifications of the female form since the nineteenth century. JEB points her camera not at her lover but the reflection of her in the mirror, which also captures her own feet in the image. The mediation generates ambiguity in the photographer’s relationship to the eroticism of the female form, and it productively complicates queer photography’s relationship with or rejection of the visual politics of straight libido.
“What is at question in the rhizome,” Deleuze and Guattari point out, “is a relation to sexuality” that is not bound by the reproductive, genealogical cycle of life, as realized in trees: seeds, flowers, cross-fertilization, and seeds again. Against the cultural metaphor of hetero-patriarchy, the rhizomatic relation to sexuality comprises “all manner of ‘becomings,’” and it is these acts of “becomings”—and never stopping to remain in the mode of “being” and never just being one thing—that energize the productive ambiguity on display at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. In this sense, Expanded Visions constitutes a dissent against the increasing normalcy in our gay and lesbian communities. The first wall viewers face entering Expanded Visions reads:
What does Trump’s
Presidency tell us about
the state of queer
America? Do you really
Think marriage rights and
elections protect you?
Queer power is the power
to change the world.
Turn Anger, Fear, Grief
Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist.
These words form Untitled, 2017, by the Silence=Death collective, which was founded by a small group of gay AIDS activists in New York City in 1986.7 The collective’s black posters showing a pink triangle and the message “Silence=Death” became ubiquitous in the late 1980s and through the 1990s as the original logo of the militant anti-AIDS organization ACT UP. That era coincides with other histories relevant to sexual minorities, including the rise of the rubric of “queer,” the surprising success of efforts toward equality conceived as accessions to normativity, and the development of the Leslie/Lohman Art Foundation. The wall piece by Silence=Death articulates ambivalence about these developments. Normativity risks becoming what the ACT UP generation stood so powerfully against: silent compliance with what is. These terse words introducing Expanded Visions challenge viewers to experience the art on display as a cacophonous affirmation of the diverse and dissenting “becomings” of meaning embedded in the term queer.
- Deborah Bright, “A Collection in Transition,” in The Archive 59 (2016), 8.
- Jonathan David Katz, “From Queer to Gay to Queer Again,” in The Archive 59 (2016), 5.
- Jongwoo Jeremy Kim and Christopher Reed, “Introduction: Queer Difficulty, Difficult Queers,” in Queer Difficulty in Art and Poetry: Rethinking the Sexed Body in Verse and Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2017), 1.
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987), 21.
- Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 21.
- “/sash,” artist’s website, accessed June 27, 2017, https://annacampbell.net/etiquette-kit/slash-sash/.
- Their names are Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Charles Kreloff, Christopher Lione, Jorge Socarras, and Oliver Johnston.