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Learning from Experience: An Exploration of Two Exhibitions at the Leslie-Lohman Museum

Learning from Experience: An Exploration of Two Exhibitions at the Leslie-Lohman Museum

Efrain John Gonzalez Little West 12th Street 1986/2019 Digital print Courtesy of the artist

The Leslie-Lohman Museum is the only dedicated art museum in the world to preserve and exhibit LGBTQ art. It is a cultural hub for the community. Gonzalo Casals, originally trained as an architect, has been the director of the museum since 2017. Here we take a closer look at the museum’s current exhibitions, Paco Cao: Attribution and On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work, while asking ourselves what architecture can learn from non-traditional and situated curating methods.

Paco Cao: Attribution

Paco Cao: Attribution is the first solo museum exhibition in the United States to be presented by artist and curator Paco Cao. The exhibition centers around the life of Mary Lens (1891–1987), an American socialite, writer, and art collector who engaged in radical gender play. The show brings together both new works by Cao and historic works from various collections, including Leslie-Lohman’s, to imagine a portrait of her overlooked life and work. Taking two objects as a starting point, Lens’s handwritten novel The Erotomaniac (ca. 1929) and a 5th-century BC marble Head of a Youth from Ancient Greece, this exhibition is unorthodox its approach. In investigating their provenance, Cao learned Lens’s story, one that is a given new life through his artistic and curatorial experimentation.

Rejecting contemporary social conventions, Lens lived sometimes as a woman and sometimes as a man, moving fluidly between identities. A prolific writer, she produced novels, plays, poetry, opera librettos, and intellectual essays. Like Hilma af Klint, the artist stated in her will that her work could only be consulted after her death.

Thirty years after Lens’s death, the exhibition partly recreates the 19th century salon. The audience members become participants—and not mere observers—in her life story. Indeed, after a quick Google search which revealed very little information on Lens, it seems a visit to the museum is necessary to experience first-hand the objects and atmospheres that tell her story.

Perhaps architecture can learn from this idea of a participative and living archive?

The exhibition consists of four sections that are dedicated to themes with which Lens was preoccupied with in both her writing and art collection. These theoretical concerns are the Greco-Roman dichotomy of Apollonian order and Dionysian excess; the relationship between pain and pleasure, and specifically how it plays out through queer sexuality and martyr iconography; the impact of African-American culture in the United States during Lens’s time, which saw the advent of the Harlem Renaissance; and finally, the symbolic and cultic properties of water throughout history.

Although Lens addressed all of these topics in her vast production, her writings on the subjects have never before been published by her own decision. In Attribution, these texts are featured and fleshed out by the artwork and literature on display, including work by Paco Cao, Paul Preciado, Nella Larsen, Del LaGrace Volcano, Jean Cocteau, Francisco de Goya, Federico García Lorca, Andy Warhol, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

The exhibition is on view until November 3rd.

On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work

This exhibition draws on contemporary works in diverse media along with archival ephemera to highlight the many links between queerness, sex work, art, and activism, and the ways in which they have led to radical transformation. It is curated by social worker and independent curator Alexis Heller.  The exhibition brings together work from three intersecting LGBTQ groups: artists who identify as having exchanged sex or erotic services for gain; artists whose lives and work demonstrate a close allyship with sex workers; and artists who harness the power of pornography in their practice as a tool towards liberation. In the exhibition, several links with the architecture discipline also appear including housing, available spaces for community gathering, immigration, policy, and worldmaking.

As the exhibition questions the scale of the body alongside larger social issues, how can these different life stories become motivating forces for architecture?

These lives, told through artworks and artifacts, reveal a complex story about sex workers’ and pornography’s ties within queer and transgender history. Deep reflections of LGBTQ desire; radical responses to current issues including HIV/AIDS, immigration, labor, housing, racial justice, and gender; pioneering approaches to community healing; and freedom through sex are all illuminated. Queer and transgender sex workers and their allies have long utilized art to communicate the realities of their everyday lives and relationships and to demonstrate sex workers’ embedment in the fabric of LGBTQ movement building.

The exhibition’s title is a nod to the seminal lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, founded in the United States in the 1980’s. As curator Alexis Heller explains, “The title is a recognition of the long history of sex workers helping to carry social movements forward on their backs, as well as being walked over once a more comfortable path towards freedom had been laid. The time is past due to center LGBTQ sex workers’ unique and powerful contributions”

Never before have these works and interlaced histories been presented together, and in the current political climate, their exposure takes on a new urgency. The 2018 passage of the FOSTA/SESTA law, holding website publishers responsible if ads for consensual sex work are found on their site, directly threatens sex workers’ livelihoods, safety, and survival. On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work honors the ongoing labor of LGBTQ sex workers at the forefront of the fight for liberation, and the ways in which art and allied community have helped sustain them.

The exhibition is on view until January 19, 2020. Featured artists include Patrick Angus, Nina Arsenault, Richard Berkowitz, Robert Blanchon, Fernando Carpaneda, Tee Corinne, Ben Cuevas, Chloe Dzubilo, Juniper Fleming, Amber Hawk Swanson, Xandra Ibarra, Efrain John-Gonzalez, Bruce LaBruce, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dona Ann McAdams, shawné michaelain holloway, Midori, Angelo Madsen Minax, Leon Mostovoy, Ms. Naughty, Pink + White Productions, Pat Rocco, Mirha Soleil-Ross, Annie Sprinkle, Beth Stephens, Pluma Sumaq, Peter Thomas, Edin Velez, Veronica Vera, Khalil West & Ajamu, and David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook. Sex worker activists Ceyenne Doroshow, Carol Leigh, and Yin Q served as Advisors for On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work.

Listen to The NESS Podcast episode with Gonzalo Casals the Director of the museum here!

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