“I’m your transformer
Call me Marlene
Call me Gino
That’s me, you know.”
–Gina X Performance “Nice Mover”
With her leather-bound looks and Quentin Crisp hero worship, Gina X Performance’s Gina Kikione knows a thing or two about androgyny and gender queering. Kikione opens her narcotic club anthem adopting the identities of both the preeminent old Hollywood gender outlaw Marlene Dietrich and Gino, her name turned masculine. With a title that hints at both dancing and the fluidity of identity, Gina X Performance’s song Nice Mover becomes a celebration of gender transformation and binary subversion.
Like Gina X Performance’s sadly underappreciated tune, two current photography exhibitions– Jürgen Klauke’s Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s at Koenig & Clinton and John Arsenault’s Barmaid at ClampArt–reflect a similar exploration of gender as performance. Even though their photographic series were created decades apart, both Klauke’s self-portraits and Arsenault’s documentation of the Eagle LA represent a coy exposure of the performativity of masculinity, which often goes unrecognized or flat-out denied.
Undeniably, Klauke’s photographs more clearly confront the slippery divisions between the masculine and feminine, but Arsenault’s work, particularly when analyzed in conjunction with Klauke’s, allows viewers to observe the various performances taking place within the typically hypermasculine leather bar.
Although Jürgen Klauke has been labeled a pioneer of Body Art with his self-manipulation in front of the camera, Koenig & Clinton’s exhibition Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s is Klauke’s first solo exhibition in a New York gallery despite his long career. Recalling Cindy Sherman’s adoption of femme fatale tropes in her Untitled Film Stills, Klauke’s various series from the 1970s, on view in the gallery until February 27, showcase Klauke’s use of his own body as a canvas for his personal gender transformations.
Discussing his gender-bending photographs with Achim Drucks in an interview for Deutsche Bank’s ArtMag, Klauke explains, “I also cultivated the androgynous look in my everyday life, even though works like Selfperformance and the Transformer series go beyond this game with the appropriation of the feminine. My body as a projection surface of multiple identities and sexes is introduced into art.”
Through Jack Smith-esque veils, makeup, bizarrely phallic wearable constructions, red leather and some glam platform boots that I covet with wild and unabashed abandon, Klauke radically plays with his own gender identity. Possessing an obvious eye for the cinematic, Klauke’s photographic series typically contain multiple photographs, acting almost as frames of film. Klauke’s series often depict a progression as seen in Ich & Ich (I and I), in which a bearded Klauke transitions from masculine to high camp made-up feminine. With his penchant for drama, you can almost hear Matthew Barney taking notes.
Cultivating his own androgynous looks, Klauke’s self-constructed gender identity is a product of his time. In the early 1970s while Klauke was donning red leather, glam rockers such as Brian Eno and David Bowie were also troubling gender. The same way Bowie undermined the then-stereotypical masculinity of rock stars with his multiple identities such as Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, Klauke likewise subverts the masculine posturing of male artists.
By the 1970s, Warhol’s unapologetic silver swish and his troop of amphetamine and drag queens from the Factory just started to change the view of male artists as tortured souls punching each other in taverns and pissing in poor Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. Even Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg clutched their pearls at Warhol’s queeny vibes.
Putting Klauke’s work in conversation with the previous artistic generation’s overly masculine gender restrictions, his photographs become a finger in the eye of the required masculinity of artists. Not only taking on the feminine, Klauke’s photographs also throw masculinity into question by revealing the ease of its disruption. Through his photographs, Klauke revels in the theatricality of both the masculine and the feminine.
Klauke himself understood these works as a way to condense his art and life. As he told Achim Drucks, “It basically came right out of me–coupled with an experimental life and a high degree of pleasure. It was a time in which art and life entered into a positive and happy alliance. The reflex, the intellectual investigation of the self shows in these works, and of course, they’re political….”
Although they are unquestionably political, Klauke’s work, in our era of gender queering, appears a tad naïve, particularly for those who subvert gender binaries beyond the lens of the camera. However, we need to remember that radical self-presentation even today happens only in certain queer worlds and safe spaces, which brings us to the home of hypermasculinity–the leather bar.
Unlike Klauke’s staged photographs in a studio setting, John Arsenault’s photographs in Barmaid, which is on its last day at ClampArt and coincides with the release of his first monograph, depict self-fashioning and self-presentation inside the Eagle LA. A leather bar located in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, the Eagle LA resides at the address that was home to an important local lineage of bars including The Shed, The Outcast and Gauntlet. With this history, Arsenault’s photographs not only pay tribute to the current Eagle LA, but also the history of these spaces as sites for sexual and aesthetic possibilities, as well as community.
Working as a barmaid–Arsenault’s campy term for bar-backing–at the Eagle LA for two years, Arsenault used his position to capture the often underappreciated beauty within the leather scene. A visual record of his time at the Eagle LA, Arsenault’s photographs document the hypermasculine performance and sudden surprising appearance of femininity within a largely masculine-dominated leather scene. For example, Arsenault’s inclusion of the feminine within the sometimes overwhelmingly masculine space of the leather bar exists perhaps most obviously in the photograph Sister Candy Cide.
Arsenault’s Barmaid also highlights trans identity with Love Letter Number Four, which depicts a large hand with a block-lettered tattoo on the wrist reading GIRL. Centered in their hand, a note reads, “I used to be a woman.” For many trans people, the leather bar can be a, at worst, hostile and uncomfortable space that tends to fetishize “real” manly men. In Arsenault’s photograph, he celebrates the hidden histories and varied gender identities existing within the Eagle LA.
As with Klauke’s engagement with the parade of masculinity in art of the 1950s and 1960s, Arsenault deftly and thoughtfully constructs his photographs as a twist on Impressionist paintings. In Arsenault’s hands, these icons of Impressionism gender-swap, replacing turn-of-the-century women subjects with muscled and hairy leathermen. For example, Arsenault’s photograph Turned Off converses with Degas’ voyeuristic paintings of women bathers. As if looking through a peep hole, Degas’ paintings feature women brushing their hair or stepping in tubs with their back turned from the viewer, apparently unaware of their gaze. Similarly, Turned Off switches Degas’ redheaded women with a nude man. By photographing a man in this manner, Arsenault allows men to become the subject of the camera’s and consequently, the viewers’ objectifying gaze.
In addition to exploring Impressionism as an unlikely inspiration for leather bar photography, he also utilizes his camera to reveal the performative nature of the figure of the leather man. In photographs such as Silhouette of a Leatherman, Arsenault not only showcases the unexpected classical beauty of the subject, but also highlights the immediately recognizable signifier of the leather scene–the leather cap. Chaps, leather hats, unwashed jeans and chains can be as much costume as makeup. Revealing that the tools of gender performance are not restricted to the feminine, Arsenault, like Klauke, portrays all gender identity as a form of theater.