Passing the Bar

New York
05.11.11

Left: Artists Nicole Eisenman and Emily Roysdon. (Photo: Scott Valentine) Right: Artist K8 Hardy. (Photo: Paula Court)


THIS WEEK’S controversy over the New York magazine profile of trans performer Justin Vivian Bond—with some readers calling the article offensive and others arguing that it simply performed the translation that’s required when writing for a general audience—raises once again a perennial question: How do queer acts play when they come to occupy a wider stage? The title of Emily Roysdon’s recent performance event at the Kitchen, A Gay Bar Called Everywhere, gestured toward this problematic, while the event’s subtitle, “(With Costumes and No Practice),” hinted at some possible strategies for dealing with it.

As I set off for the Kitchen last Friday evening, I was thinking about the notable appearances queer friendship and community have lately made in art-world contexts, in representations more (Ryan Trecartin) or less (A. L. Steiner) elliptical. To make art about a liminal community for broad consumption can be to walk a jagged line between justly celebrating intimacy and reifying a self-congratulatory clubbiness. Plus, what happens when you render an aestheticized emanation of deviant family for an audience that may not get it? I remember feeling fiercely protective and a bit queasy at seeing my friends naked or part-naked in Steiner’s pastoral portraits at “Greater New York” last year, even though I’d enjoyed similar work of hers in the safer harbors of Participant Inc.

As the L train hurtled under the East River, I checked my reflection in the darkened window and pondered whether the community-based art practices that felt appropriate when my friends and I were all in our mid-twenties and nobody else was really watching—and when, not incidentally, I spent the wee hours of quite a few Tuesday mornings, at Roysdon’s ecstatic urging, dancing near her at a gay bar called something far less innocuous than Everywhere—may have lost their efficacy or acquired unintended resonances ten years later, with so many graduate degrees and fellowships and solo shows between us and the soft, fermenting dark of youth and obscurity. What does it mean, in other words, for a community to grow up?

There were a few stops to make before hitting the Kitchen. All of Manhattan seemed to be swirling toward Harris Lieberman for the opening of a massive exhibition appropriately titled “A Painting Show,” and I swirled there too. In the crowd I spied Nicola Tyson and Joyce Pensato, both in the show, and I gawked in admiration at stellar works by Polly Apfelbaum and Dona Nelson. Keltie Ferris and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung had paintings up as well, and they were abuzz on the breeze of the night, receiving fans or shyly inching over to heroes. Maybe that’s part of what it means for a community to grow up: Your friends have to leave you to go work the room.

Skidding off with some fellow scribblers to the Jack Smith opening at Gladstone Gallery, I found a pair of arch critiques sharing a wall: Steiner’s text-scrolling video screed inveighing against the art-world establishment, capitalism, etc.; and Ryan McNamara’s video of a pre-opening he had thrown a few nights earlier. “I think Jack would have hated this opening,” McNamara explained, “so I wanted to create one he would have come to.” In the video, a band of fabulous young creatures batted glitter-heavy lashes, licked nipples, nuzzled, hogtied one of their tribe on the floor. “We made the place as dirty as we possibly could for four hours,” McNamara recounted, as his on-screen image pulled a very Smithian mournful skyward gaze. “But they cleaned it up so fast! By the next morning, it looked like nothing had happened in here at all.”

Left: Artists Tara Mateik, Dean Daderko, and Charles Ryan. (Photo: Emily Roysdon) Right: Artist Barbara Hammer. (Photo: Paula Court)


The dynamics of tribute and ventriloquism haunting the Smith show served as apt lead-in to A Gay Bar Called Everywhere, a high school talent show combined with a gay karaoke night served up as an underground performance salon in a postindustrial loft. Nearly all the performers used other people’s words: Neal Medlyn howled a basement hardcore version of Hannah Montana’s “Wake Up America,” Tara Mateik segued from an 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton speech into Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” Barbara Hammer dressed up like a mask-happy Claude Cahun, Will Rawls subjected us to Billy Collins’s notoriously rapey poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” and Nao Bustamante read some Nikki Giovanni over a disco track while rocking full ancient Rome/bitch goddess realness. As for Roysdon, she strolled around the stage in hot pants and a bra, taking in the proceedings with the rest of the cast.

The show struck a good balance, flaunting contingency and provisionality without being disrespectfully shoddy. And the fact that everyone was inhabiting somebody else’s voice helped temper the potentially alienating “we’re all good friends—and what are you doing here?” energy. Even when performers’ clothes came off, the costumes of the evening’s subtitle remained in place.

A few silent performances ran the length of the program: JD Samson seducing (and finally humping in a corner) a tall mannequin meant to be Ann Cvetkovich; a silver-faced Nicole Eisenman as a nearly motionless bartender–sketch artist; Yve Laris Cohen crouching against the space’s back wall, reading, as blood slowly oozed from his mouth and down his shirt; Lucy Dodd parading naked with a placard—by Steiner (again!), Ginger Brooks Takahashi, and Dean Daderko—that said THE PATRIARCHY IS A PYRAMID SCHEME.

In a standout act that partook of the karaoke theme but felt more like a traditional performance than anything else on the bill, dancer-choreographers Vanessa Anspaugh and Aretha Aoki combined elements of a past dance by Anspaugh with readings from passive-aggressive emails they had apparently sent each other. Such a complete piece felt out of place next to so many sketched-out renditions, but it was so good that I didn’t mind. The same went for MPA’s utterly mesmerizing X-rated shadow-puppetry dumb shows. These two segments underscored how almost everything else, even a skit by Sasha Yanow and the usually blazing Jibz Cameron (aka Dynasty Handbag) and an uncharacteristically straightforward lip-synch by K8 Hardy, was pretty reined-in. Roysdon had given her performers only a short time to prepare their pieces, and while this kept the bugbears of mastery and completion at a safe distance, it also seemed to keep the individual artists from making their most memorable work. Out of a gaggle of soloists, she had wrung an ensemble piece, complete with a big group number: a dance party at the end with audience members pulled onstage, like in Hair but less irresistible. The evening read, smartly, as both a paean to community and an ambivalent demonstration of its drawbacks.

In the lobby at the end, though, ambivalence took a backseat to love as the performers accepted kisses and accolades. “It wasn’t too creepy? I felt so creepy!” Samson confessed. “I was sewing my wristbands backstage right before going on,” Bustamante divulged, proud of her last-minute glam. “It all went pretty well, considering it was the first time we’d run through it,” Roysdon grinned.

But maybe another way you know your community is growing up is that instead of heading to the bar at midnight, you’re heading home. “Are you going to the afterparty at Tammany Hall?” Anspaugh teased, clearly too wiped out for any such thing. Cameron hollered, “Afterparty in my bed!” It wasn’t an invitation.

Sara Marcus