Queer artists have been interpreting the world around them through their craft as long as art has
existed. The queer experience told through art can only give us a small snapshot of the world and the LGBTQ experience, but as a broader whole, it tells the cultural history of LGBTQ people.
Sometimes the expressions are overt, as with the hyper-sexualized, homoerotic imagery of gay artist Touko Valio Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland). He endeavored to arouse, challenge, and offend the status quo with his images. His art still influences (and in many cases defines) gay subcultures like leather, role play, and BDSM.
Other times, artists create more subtle impressions like those of bisexual artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Her famous paintings of flowers and cow skulls reveal subtle impressions of the female body and vagina while evading the more alluring qualities associated with female sexuality.
As the LGBTQ community prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the titular event that began the modern-day LGBTQ-rights movement, several Houston art museums and festivals are mounting exhibits celebrating queer artists and giving new visibility to their works in a way rarely experienced—with truth.
The Museum Closet
“Every other minority group is born into their history. You have a family that raises you in the same traditions [they were born into]. But as a young LGBTQ person, you have to find that LGBTQ history—many times on your own.” says Bill Arning, curator and head of special-artist projects for the Nancy Littlejohn Gallery.
It is through queer art and queer artists that the LGBTQ community is able to discern something visceral about their culture and its layers. In one piece we may see the complexity of LGBTQ subjects living at the intersection of race, religion, disability, gender, sexuality, and disease. In another piece we may see something more universal, like themes of love, family, and tradition.
These layers, as vibrant and different as the colors on the Pride flag, remind us that we are a dynamic community made more dynamic by our struggle for equality. Pride celebrations allow us the opportunity to celebrate that reality, and 2019 is particularly significant because of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
“Museums have been shy in acknowledging the reality of what their content really is,” says Arning. “When I was studying for my undergrad degree in art history, I was hanging out with queer art-history students. We would be looking at a Gericault painting, and although it depicts this horrific scene, there is a sensual male figure in the painting and I discovered that was his lover. Things like this would of course always be spoken about as a ‘rumor’ because it was never discussed otherwise in the coursework, but it was the truth of the artist and the work,” says Arning.
Arning is credited by both the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) and the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH) for encouraging and conceptualizing their respective exhibits acknowledging Stonewall. Arning himself is working on several Stonewall anniversary exhibits. His Stonewall 50/50 exhibit will look at the anniversary from both a public and private narrative about the LGBTQ community. It will be shown as part of the World Pride event in New York City, where the historic Stonewall Inn riots took place.
The Stonewall Riots: A Quick Queer History Lesson
On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar run by the Genovese crime family, was raided by the New York Police Department. The small Greenwich Village bar paid off the police weekly in order to continue to run without a liquor license. It had no running water behind the bar, and no fire exits. Dancing was the main draw for customers, as it was the only bar for gay men in the city that allowed dancing.
Police raids were not an unusual occurrence. Management was usually tipped off about the raids beforehand, and they would generally happen early enough in the evening so that business could resume. Patrons without identification (or who were transgender or in drag) were arrested. Women were arrested if they were not wearing at least three pieces of feminine clothing.
But the June 28 raid at 1:20 a.m. was different, and it set off the events leading to the days-long riots. Transgender customers refused to go to the restroom to have their gender “verified” by female officers. Other patrons began refusing to produce their identification. Police decided to take everyone to the station. Those who were not arrested were released at the front door, but they did not quickly leave the area as they usually did. The crowd began to grow.
A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs, a butch lesbian named Stormé DeLarverie, fought with four police officers after being hit on the head by a baton. Many bystanders credited this fight as the spark that started the riots when she looked at the crowd and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” She was then heaved into the back of a paddy wagon, and the crowd became explosive.
Other historians have credited transgender activists Marcia P. Johnson, Zazu Nova, and gay activist Jackie Hormona as the vanguard of the riots. However, Johnson herself dispelled this myth, saying that by the time she had arrived at 2:00 a.m., the riots had already started. Regardless of who can claim responsibility for the riots themselves, the fact is that they sparked the modern-day gay-rights movement as well as the modern-day Pride parades that occur in late June to commemorate the night (and the ensuing marches) that have brought us to where we are fifty years later.
Houston Museums Finally Come Out for Queer Art
MFAH – 50 Years Since Stonewall
What has changed over the last fifty years is a cultural willingness to talk about queer culture, and even celebrate it. Although the LGBTQ fight for equality still has many battles ahead of it, this shift lends itself to deeper discussions about the queer experience. Art has always given people an opportunity to experience something outside of themselves. This reflection not only captures the essence of the times, but also provides a path forward.
The MFAH exhibit 50 Years Since Stonewall will be on display through September 3 as part of a rotating display called A History of Photography: Selections from the Museum’s Collection.
“I think that the stories of civil disobedience, of the assertion of individual identity, of love and loss, of political struggle, of openness about our families, have a broad relevance not only for the gay community (and especially a new generation that did not live through the past 50 years), but also for anyone trying to find their place in society, make a better world, or be a fuller version of themselves.” says Malcolm Daniel, MFAH’s Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography.
All but one of the photos come from the MFAH collection. “Our one loan—a promised gift from Houston photographer and collector Joe Aker—is a magnificent new work by Kyle Meyer that’s already proving to be a crowd favorite. The photo is from his series of portraits of gay men in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), where homosexuality is illegal. The men are wearing vibrantly colored head wraps of a type normally worn only by women. The photographic portrait and the patterned fabric of the head wrap are woven together, blurring sexual categories, partly masking identity, and partly celebrating the boldness of his subjects’ gesture,” says Daniel.
Daniel explained that while they can’t tell the whole story of the LGBTQ movement in 25 or 30 pictures, they tried to hit a variety of subjects and issues as well as feature some photographers that people may already know, like Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz. With the help of the department’s curatorial assistant, Marijana Rayl, as well as other staff and several generous donors, the exhibit is able to touch on several milestones including the AIDS crisis and marriage equality.
The permanent MFAH collection also holds many works by queer artists. In June, a major show will make its way to the museum. Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography will—not surprisingly—feature numerous works by LGBTQ photographers and designers.
“In fact, on the wall just opposite the 50 Years Since Stonewall, in our History of Photography survey, there are two important recent acquisitions: South African photographer Zaneli Muholi’s ZaVa, Amsterdam, a self-portrait with her partner, and Cathy Opie’s 1995 photograph Flipper, Tanya, Chloe, & Harriet, San Francisco, California. We hope that the wall texts and labels that are part of the installation (and also appear on the museum’s website) will provide information and spur discussion,” says Daniel.
The MFAH’s entire photography collection can be explored online at mfah.org/art. Right now, one can search by artist, title, process, nationality, etc.; within the next year (thanks to a grant from the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation), the collection will be searchable by subject and concept keywords as well.
The MFAH is also a venue for QFest, which will take place July 25–29. Houston’s annual film festival showcases LGBTQ-centric feature and short films by LGBTQ directors. Last year’s festival premiered The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz in a film about the harmful and fraudulent practice known as gay conversion therapy. Submissions for the 2019 festival are currently being selected.
CAMH – Stonewall 50
The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) will have an even larger show opening on April 27 and running through July 28. The exhibition is titled Stonewall 50 and is conceived as a snapshot of the complexion, interests, and activities of a diverse group of queer and allied artists. Whether working in local communities or on other continents, these artists’ responses to the world around them—in photographs, paintings, films and videos, sculptures, performances, and other media—address a range of personal and collective concerns and desires.
Stonewall 50 is curated by Dean Daderko, based on an exhibition proposed by Bill Arning. “Stonewall is of course a very important milestone in queer history, and being that there are so many artists who are thinking about art and activism—specifically the intersection of those and using their artwork to talk about their own personal experiences in the world—it felt like a great time to put that work forward and celebrate it.” says Daderko.
The exhibit at CAMH is strikingly different from the smaller MFAH exhibit. CAMH will feature contemporary works in a wide variety of media. Stonewall 50 follows a number of paths: it traces artists’ engagement with trans issues, suggests possibilities for formal and conceptual intergenerational dialogue, and looks outside the United States to consider queer issues abroad. While these themes provide a framework for the exhibition, the show’s contents are not limited to artworks exploring these notions. This exhibition is organized with an understanding that the privileges and disadvantages that affect the self-determination of sex and gender expression are linked inextricably to cultural perceptions around ability, age, nationality, race, wealth, and a host of other issues.
“We will have a video installation and a couple of film and video pieces by Barbara Hammer. Barbara is widely celebrated as a founding and foundational member of the experimental film movement in the United States. She also happens to be a lesbian—something she has made explicit in her work for a number of years. Her 2018 piece Evidentiary Bodies, commissioned by the Wexner Center in Ohio, will be premiering as part of the exhibit.” says Daderko .
All of the fifteen artists with pieces in the show are queer-identified, and the exhibition also features some prominent Houston artists like David Lejeune, Anthony Sonnenberg, and the collaborative art team of Nick Vaughn and Jake Margolin. There are also other nationally and internationally recognized artists participating in the show.
“This will be an interesting show that will bring up some issues that people may not be familiar with, and do so in a way that makes them visually exciting and approachable. There are three basic themes that run through multiple works in the exhibition. One is looking at establishing intergenerational dialogue—conversations between emerging artists and more established artists. Another is looking at trans visibility. And then a third is looking at queer productions outside of the United States,” says Daderko.
Arning feels that these themes are important ones to discuss, especially as they relate to established versus emerging artists.
“There is a younger generation that wants to talk about queer theory, but doesn’t want to deal with the metaphors of sex. In the physical act of sex, you have all of these gender codes and power codes that are subverted. [Younger artists] are much more interested in intersectionality. However, what’s interesting to explore is when our attractions are inflected by race, ethnicity, class and/or financial inequality or cultural backgrounds, and tourism. That’s really interesting,” says Arning.
“Sure, there is going to be stuff [in the exhibit] that’s challenging for folks, but the idea isn’t to challenge them without any kind of context or reason. Everyone is welcome,” says Daderko.
A Worldwide Observance
Exhibits celebrating and studying the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots are taking place throughout the world. Aside form the Stonewall 50/50 exhibit in New York, Arning is curating a Texas-centric exhibit entitled More Texas Queers than You Can Handle, which will be shown in the U.K.
As of now, there are few full-time museums specifically geared toward telling the history of the LGBTQ community. The Leslie Lohman Museum in New York is the only art museum in the country serving this purpose. However, as time goes on and more exhibits take place like the ones celebrating Stonewall in Houston, we will be able to understand the artists behind the art—and perhaps the true meaning of the classics that have traditionally been interpreted for us inaccurately through the straight lens. In the meantime, the movement marches forward—and so does its art.