Packed into a crowded theater at Dixon Place (one of my favorite performance venues in the city as well as the site of the infamous Great Marion and Emily Moistini Incident Of 2010) on Thursday night for the incredibly-named Drag Explosion, I was riveted witnessing drag legend Linda Simpson narrate a slideshow of her photographs of the late 80s to mid-90s drag scene like your sassy-but-sweet aunt showing family photographs on Don Draper’s favorite Kodak carrousel. Not only a celebratory tour through a bygone era of drag led by Simpson’s witty commentary, Drag Explosion is undoubtedly an important archive of an undeniably influential period of drag, performance and queer culture.
Renowned in the New York scene as a hilarious party promoter, Bingo host and drag correspondent, Linda Simpson’s photographs more recently have been gaining her recognition. I first noticed (and wrote about) Simpson’s photographs in her slideshow contribution to ClampArt’s exhibition NYC c. 1985 exhibition, which featured photographs from the 1980s club and Downtown scene.
Taking her camera wherever she went, Simpson’s devotion to photography made her and her photographs unique since not many participants thought of documenting the scene. While, as Simpson mentioned in Drag Explosion, many of the photographs from that period are in black and white, Simpson’s colorful photographs stand out as a more realistic depiction of the drag scene, preserving the bright and vibrant colors of the queens’ ensembles. Simpson amounted countless snapshots of the burgeoning drag scene of the late 1980s and mid 1990s.
Admittedly, I adore the art, club and surrounding cultural scenes of the 1980s and 1990s in New York from its quirk, D-I-Y aesthetic and dose of nihilism so as soon as the lights dimmed and Simpson shouted “13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 10, 9, 8, 7…,” I was ready to travel back to the gritty and witty olden days of drag.
From photographs of drag icons such as RuPaul and Lady Bunny to the slightly lesser known queens such as my role model Dean Johnson to Michael Alig and the club kids, Simpson forges a narrative of the progression of drag from the East Village underground of the Pyramid Club and Bun-Bun’s Wigstock to the mega clubs such as Danceteria and Limelight and rising to its eventual media peak with RuPaul’s hit song “Supermodel.” Separating the slideshow into various sections, Simpson narrated each themed section over a carefully selected soundtrack of dance mixes, drag anthems and an unexpected but not unappreciated inclusion of Jefferson Airplane’s hallucinatory song “White Rabbit.”
Not only documenting the scene as an observer, Simpson brought the audience back to her own beginnings as a drag queen, dedicating an entire sections to her inspiration Taboo! and The Pyramid Club where she first performed. Mixing the personal with the documentary, Simpson also included a section on her own tiny but heavily frequented apartment on East 13th Street with its ever-present living room lamp in every shot.
Even though many of the photographs were set in wild parties or performances, Drag Explosion also documented and recognized the losses in the queer and drag community from the AIDS epidemic. Not only just showing the glitter and glitz of the drag scene, Simpson devoted an entire section to those who died and the life-or-death revolutionary fervor of AIDS activists in groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation, which inspired Simpson to create her own “gay revolutionary magazine” My Comrade.
Taking the entire slideshow as one entity, Drag Explosion captures the beauty, bravery and self-styling of the 1980s and 1990s drag queens. From Lady Bunny’s enormous blond wigs to the glamorous queens shooting the shit in the dumpy dressing room of the Pyramid Club to Simpson’s trans friend and space alien-esque performer Page, whose eerie and ethereal look seemed unmatched, Simpson’s photographs assert the importance and art of the queens’ fashions. Even the club kids perform their own type of Special K-inspired drag with their wacky, wasted and dancing-till-dawn clothing.
After Rupaul’s hit “Supermodel,” drag became a media sensation with Simpson landing herself on the cover of New York Magazine. However like any scene, the drag scene eventually died out as the mega clubs were shuttered.
Today with a new drag Renaissance happening surrounding Rupaul’s Drag Race and its denizens such as Sharon Needles, Pandora Boxx and my personal favorite fierce baritone Latrice Royale, Simpson’s photographs become even more essential as an archive for those who are currently discovering, appreciating or obsessed with drag.
With many recent exhibitions, screenings and publications, the queer community, particularly in New York, seems to be on an archival bent, mapping a genealogy of various aspects of LGBTQ history. Not only is queer culture experiencing archive fever, but the era of the 1980s and 1990s has been given an inordinate amount of attention by curators, critics and writers. Adding to that dialogue, Simpson’s Drag Explosion presents an archive of the drag scene, which seems to often appear on the periphery of many exhibitions and publications on the 1980s art scene or LGBTQ history despite its influential humor, camp and fashion that still pervades culture today.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Drag Explosion, even more than each individual photograph, was its medium: a slideshow. Like a drag queen Nan Goldin, Simpson’s slideshow allowed these already intimate photographs to take on an even greater intimacy. While Nan Goldin’s slideshow documentation of the East Village scene is undeniably influential, inspirational and occasionally devastating, Simpson’s slides revealed an even closer experience of the scene. While Nan Goldin was always just a photographer, Simpson was and continues to be a well-known, well-respected working drag queen.
With the slideshow medium, Drag Explosion, like your family’s vacation slideshows, undeniably plays with nostalgia. However, nostalgia is not always a bad thing, as it fosters the ability to remember, appreciate, archive and keep alive.
As Simpson exclaimed the opening to her slideshow, “Nostalgia can be a bitch.”
But in Drag Explosion, that bitch works it.