Published June 8, 2023
Queer Pasts and Futures at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
As an artistic medium, photography has a short history. As an apparatus for social change, that history is even shorter. At the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, these collapsed histories coalesce in two exhibitions: I Love You Like Mirrors Do, a body of new work by multi-disciplinary artist Coyote Park, and Images on which to build, 1970s-1990s, an archival show organized by writer and photographer Ariel Goldberg.
Between the two exhibitions, LLMA’s entire space in lower Manhattan is dedicated to the power of photography in the making and ownership of queer visual cultures.
“Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art invests in artists’ practices, prioritizes imagination, and builds intergenerational LGBTQIA+ legacy,” says Alyssa Nitchun, Executive Director of LLMA. “The current exhibitions, Images on which to build, 1970s-1990s and I Love You Like Mirrors Do are exemplary of our current trajectory and speak to our core mission. These exhibitions forefront the critical place of art in LGBTQIA+ experiences and the ways in which our queer histories transform our futures.
Stepping into I Love You Like Mirrors Do, the visitor is first confronted with their own reflection: an ornate mirror is hung on the wall parallel to the exhibitions’ entrance. Adjacent to the mirror is a set of photographs by South African imagemaker Zenele Muholi. Together, these pieces set a tone for engaging with Park’s images: Mirrors presents a body of new work influenced by the museum’s collection asking the visitor to see reflections of themself in the art made by queer people.
The exhibition is the inaugural presentation of LLMA’s new series, Interventions, which engages artists to create new work inspired by existing works within the museum’s collection. In creating the photographs and films in Mirrors, Park researched pieces in the collection that featured pairs–drawings by twentieth-century Japanese artist Goh Mishima, photos by Zenele Muholi, and more.
“We’re always looking for ourselves in art,” notes Park about the genesis of Mirrors. “In these photographs, as with mirrors, the ocean and with my loved ones, my gender is a prism: it changes color based on the light refracted through it,” says Park.
Park’s photos are presented larger-than-life-scale in Mirrors, creating a sense that the viewer could step through the frame and into the intimate moments Park shares with their past and current lovers. An invitation into their shared tenderness serves as a catalyst to break down divisions between the viewer and the “other” presented in the images.
“This show means everything to me,” says Park, “as it is my most honest depiction of the beauty of trans love that surrounds me. What is the most special part–is that this is only a fraction of the abundance of trans love I've found. I hope when people enter the space–they can see, feel, understand themselves in the work.”
Across the museum’s lobby in a larger gallery is Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s, an exhibition in six distinct sections highlighting imagemakers, activists, collectives, and archivists who developed influential image cultures through the 1970s to the 1990s. Organized by writer and photographer Ariel Goldberg, Images looks toward these image cultures created by queer makers were foundational educational spaces that led to the development of movements toward collective power.
“Collective learning generates power,” says Goldberg in the curatorial essay accompanying the exhibition.
The collection of works, including photos by Rex Loren Cameron, Lola Flash, and slides from JEB’s “The Dyke Show,” presents works that built a visual culture and language that image makers and artists like Coyote Park have inherited and built from in the twentieth century.
Rex Loren Cameron published what’s considered to be the first volume of photographs of trans bodies in their 1996 collection “Body Alchemy,” the cover of which features a self-portrait Cameron made while injecting testosterone into his thigh. JEB’s “The Dyke Show” was a revolutionary production giving viewers across the United States and Canada access to a photographic history of lesbian-feminist theory.
Despite covering work from the 1970s-1990s, the artists and activists present in Images could also be considered contemporaries to a younger generation of artists, including Park. Lola Flash continues to make images and released a recent collection as a photobook this year. Diana Solís continues to document her neighborhood, Pilsen, in Chicago.
Much as Park’s work acts as a mirror to the viewer, these exhibitions act as mirrors to one another. Though Park is making work several decades after the projects in Images were first produced, the need to establish collective power in pursuit of trans and queer liberation is still a matter of public discourse.
Images asks the viewer to consider a queer past, where queer people became imagemakers, writers, and historians in order to make their own experiences visible. Mirrors takes that past and refracts it through a new lens into the future, where queer bodies want not only to be seen but embraced in tenderness.
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