In his book Role Models, our preeminent filth elder John Waters writes, “Explain what? A role model? Someone who has led a life even more explosive than mine, a person whose exaggerated fame or notoriety has made him or her somehow smarter and more glamorous than I could ever be? A personality frozen in an unruly, blown-out-of-proportion position in society who earns my unmitigated respect for his or her other turbulent, ferocious will to survive frightening success or failure?” (6-7). From Tennessee Williams to Little Richard to Zorro, the infamous Baltimore lesbian stripper with the face of Johnny Cash, Role Models acts as a self-portrait of Waters through his very own idols who shaped his Pope of Trash trajectory through their extreme behavior and unique forms of bravery.
Like Waters, writer, curator, artist, etc. Hilton Als’ One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie and the Rest at The Artist’s Institute pays tribute to the genderqueer forefathers and mothers that paved the way for the increased level of trans-visibility today. Not only inspiring trans people, the transgressive personalities featured throughout One Man Show deeply affected many queer individuals who felt and continue to feel like “minorities who don’t even fit into their own minorities” by performing as, like Als articulates, “different within difference.” By enacting and pioneering radical forms of self-presentation, self-fashioning and queer world-making, these role models represented in One Man Show propose new possibilities of queer identity.
Sparked by the death of actress, Warhol superstar and nightclub performer Holly Woodlawn, Als’ exhibition fills The Artist’s Institute’s new Upper East Side townhouse with the memories of sadly mostly departed drag and trans figures. Als highlights known performers and activists such as Ethyl Eichelberger, Sylvester, the, as Als describes, “Candy-Holly-Jackie Curtis trinity,” and Stonewall legend drag king Stormé DeLarverie, as well as the more unknown like his friend and inspiration Bobbie Derecktor.
Through his remembrances, Als’ exhibition reveals the lasting legacy these revered queer figures have on both those who knew them personally and those who glimpsed from afar. As Als states in his exhibition booklet, “When Holly died I started thinking about all these people again, as they were such an important part of my growing up and living, albeit from a distance, and it has taken me many years to understand how deep my feelings are about these various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world.”
While The Artist’s Institute’s shows normally focus on one artist, Als’ One Man Show–despite its singular title–barely contains a glimpse of Als. He only appears in one set of Polaroid photographs placed almost imperceptibly on a bookshelf in the entrance room. However, even with the invisibility of Als himself, One Man Show becomes, like Waters’ book, a portrait of Als through the individuals who, as Als writes, “by being who they were, helped articulate who I was, too.”
Acting as both artist and curator, Als merges archival photographs of these icons such as Richard Avedon’s stunning portrait of Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling with his own installations and photographs. Through photographs such as Judy Linn’s Ethyl Eichelberger, tattoo drawn by Ken Tisa, showing Eichelberger’s notorious back tattoo of himself in drag, the transcendent freedom in the cutting-edge presentation and determination of the self can be observed.
Als also literally combines photographs with his own creative gestures as seen in his installation Stormé, Bobbie and the Rest. Als layers a projected transparency of Bobbie Derecktor over Diane Arbus’ portrait of Stormé smoking a cigarette in a park. Overlaying these two images, Als conflates Stormé’s masculinity with Bobbie’s femininity, as well as Stormé’s more renowned gender play with Bobbie’s less known but no less significant gender performativity. By combining the two, Als puts Bobbie’s “beauty and intelligence and social radicalism” in conversation with Stormé’s historical legacy at Stonewall.
With these, at first, seemingly unexpected combinations, Als’ curatorial and artistic strategies closely resemble his eponymous writing style as seen in his exceptional book White Girls. Placing apparently disparate references together, Als strength has always been his ability to write in the margins, creating critical yet tenuous links between the personal, cultural and political. Using this tactic, Als allows for a multifaceted, multidimensional understanding of his desired topics whether race, gender and sexuality in White Girls or absence and role models in One Man Show.
At once a memorial and a party, Als’ One Man Show converts the staid domestic interior of an Upper East Side townhouse into a disco-like space for queer memory. Highlighting the queer individuals who have been historically more associated with nightclubs and bars than studies and sunrooms, Als reconfigures the lighting installation to resemble a club with sudden bare light bulbs hanging over photographs like spotlights or diffuse color pervading the installations.
More than merely a celebration of these gender radicals, One Man Show becomes a musing on loss and understanding absences. “This show is an accumulation of absences,” Als describes, “of people who no longer exist because times no longer exist–there is only the present…”
In Als’ haunting duel Silver Candy and Candy, Als printed faint images of starlet Candy Darling on cellophane, covering the bare white walls with the material. Without a clear image or identity, both Candy’s seem like a Warhol screen-painting gone wrong–a faded, disappeared beauty. Making Darling’s loss into a ghostly printed ink stain, Als’ installations give Darling’s absence a true palpable physicality.
Not only does One Man Show eulogize these lost individuals, but the exhibition also grieves and memorializes bygone nightlife scenes, honoring its heights while pointing to its absence today. In Als’ installation Dirt Nap/Disco Nap, Als projects Bill Bernstein’s photographs of GG’s Barnum Room over a poster for the disco, which was frequented by trans people and their admirers. Als recalls, “The main motif of the place was a trapeze–how appropriate a metaphor was that?–suspended above the dance floor; trans artists would do little high wire acts while the disco boomed.”
With photographs of the trapeze artist, as well as amorous images of the disco’s patrons flashing over a wall near stairs, Als cuts off the stairs with an unmistakably symbolic velvet rope. Unable to approach the past, we see on the stairs piles of dirt–disco’s grave. Like a bit of graveyard dirt for your nightlife voodoo rituals, Dirt Nap/Disco Nap both acknowledges this particular nightlife scene’s death in the present day, while still maintaining its magical and transformative significance through the memory of the “freedom and joy” contained within.
With Prince’s passing this week, joining Bowie in 2016’s crushing losses for musical, aesthetic and gender-fluid geniuses, many are left wondering how to properly mourn those figures we did not know personally but nevertheless inspired us personally. In a much passed around tweet this week, Juliette/@ElusiveJ wrote, “Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
Als’ exhibition enacts a similar form of mourning by recognizing the utmost influence of these late genderqueer radicals on those in the present. Als writes, “by excavating the past we learn so much more about the present…” As Als showcases, Holly Woodlawn, Sylvester, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Ethyl Eichelberger and others resonate continuously with many queer individuals today who look back to these figures as role models for the marginalized.
In her book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love analyzes Carolyn Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval, stating, “She explores the ‘strange fellowships’ and the ‘partial connections’ that link queer subjects across time. Through such connections, queer subjects build an imagined community of the marginal and the excluded” (37). With his complicated layering of archival photographs and contemporary installations, Als essentially enacts, as Love continues, quoting Dinshaw, the “desire for a ‘partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time.’” (37).