“I have been perfectly reckless and foolish in return thinking…” fervidly cries Cathy–played by Julianne Moore–to her African American friend Raymond with whom she is on the brink of embarking on a forbidden relationship, upon witnessing her husband’s affair with a man in 1950s America in Far From Heaven. In his 2002 film, Todd Haynes revives those pastel-colored glamour era Hollywood melodramas in a plot that could only be laden with innuendoes had it been shot in its actual period.
Spanning the walls of the Tracey/Barry Gallery at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections in the exhibition Why Are You Doing This To Me?, such heroic intensity of feelings–from the most buoyant to the darkest–are rekindled in seventy-four ravishing oil on linen paintings created by Philip Monaghan. Each refers to a different line from David Trinidad’s seminal poem The Late Show. The paintings, which focus on close-ups of various iconic Hollywood actresses in their most fragile and emotionally exposed states, pay an irresistible homage to Trinidad’s poem that has been heavily influential and poignant for the queer culture. In the foreword of the exhibition’s catalog, Fales Library Director Marvin J. Taylor includes himself among those queer boys who spent late nights watching these great women of cinema as they fall from grace or return for revenge in their sleekest outfits and impeccable hairdos.
In the paintings, Geraldine Paige begs the irresistible Paul Newman for some dope in her most Tennessee William-esque mode in Sweet Bird of Youth or Deborah Kerr surrenders to Burt Lancaster’s inviting arms covered in sand in From Here to Eternity. Whether exclaiming emotional or sensuous agony, these somewhat tragic yet glamorously charming heroines’ expressions may seem to lack the potential for empathy from the contemporary gaze.
However, their often exaggerated and sometimes misconceived sufferings relate to the queer eye. Growing up, seeking acceptance and facing judgement all grant the queer body with shields for protection akin to Taylor’s, Novak’s or Bacall’s: emotional density, uncompromising expressiveness and escape from reality. Hence, many queer artists–with Andy Warhol as their foremost–looked to such early Hollywood glamour and the exuberance the actresses delivered on screen to be understood, accepted and maybe even, loved.
Monaghan, who employs circular lines and voluminous brushstrokes throughout the ambitious exhibition that additionally includes a series of large scale ink jets on canvas, emphasizes in his essay that gay men, lacking scenarios that depict their lives on screen, have always flocked to movie theaters to see these actresses. Although some steps have been taken in the representation of queer experience on big screen in more recent years, there are still many more miles to go, so await more meltdowns at the telephone, love letters to tear or wine glasses to break.
Why Are You Doing This To Me? is open to the public from 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM, Monday to Friday at Tracey/Barry Gallery on the third floor of 70 Washington Square South building of NYU.