Secret Vices: Hidden Object-Making and Overlooked Queer Histories in ‘THINGS’

Tom Rubnitz, Pickle Surprise, 1989, video (all images by author for Filthy Dreams)

Tom Rubnitz, Pickle Surprise, 1989, video (all images by author for Filthy Dreams)

In his published journals Water From A Bucket, queer forefather Charles Henri Ford describes the process of keeping a diary. He quips, “I shall continue this document until the end of next year, then I vow to continue it no longer. It’s a secret vice. Vices should be public.” Certainly no stranger to documenting his life and loves through multiple mediums from writing to photography, Ford’s invocation of the secretive–and maybe even closeted–impulse to keep daily record of his experiences mirrors the object-based drive seen in the current exhibition THINGS: A queer legacy of graphic art and play at Participant Inc.

Curated by Dirty Looks’ Bradford Nordeen, THINGS is a culmination of a three year effort to uncover the hidden creations from artists normally associated with other disciplines including film and writing. The exhibition centers around three late queer figures–filmmakers Tom Rubnitz and Curt McDowell and writer Robert Ford. THINGS unveils the underanalyzed artworks from this trio that have remained dormant in the houses of friends, relatives and others after their deaths due to AIDS-related causes.

Installation view of Curt McDowell drawings

Installation view of Curt McDowell drawings

Not only showcasing works from these three artists, Nordeen also features contemporary queer artists alongside these late figures, creating an intergenerational dialogue on queer object-making and aesthetics. This provides a rich conversation throughout Participant’s gallery space between the past and the present, revealing links between the erotic ink drawings of McDowell and Rafa Esparza or the pop cultural revelry of Seth Bogart and Tom Rubnitz.

According to Nordeen’s essay published in correspondence to the exhibition, THINGS came about after a public discussion with iconic Downtown performance artist Ann Magnuson on her friend and collaborator Tom Rubnitz. Someone in the audience asked what became of Rubnitz’s paintings, which sparked the journey to THINGS.

Tom Rubnitz, Blue "Lady," 1985, enamel on board

Tom Rubnitz, Blue “Lady,” 1985, enamel on board

Likely best known for his posthumously viral video “Pickle Surprise,” faithful Filthy Dreams readers will also recognize Rubnitz’s hallucinatory TV era aesthetic from his work with John Sex. Discussing the halcyon days of the East Village with campy and freewheeling performances at the Pyramid Club and Club 57, Magnuson said to Nordeen, “There was no practical application for any of it…and that’s what made that time so magical.”

This quote is essential to the understanding of THINGS. Whether Rubnitz’s paintings of TV tray tables or intergalactic space babes, filthy filmmaker Curt McDowell’s compulsive sketches of friends, lovers and others in his social circle or Robert Ford’s self-published zine THING, gushing on the works of his queer contemporaries, none of these works were meant to be sold or even shown in a gallery. An inadvertent rejection of capitalism, as well as the art market star system, these art pieces instead exude a purity of expression and intent. They reflect an urge to protect and preserve a queer community that–whether they knew it or not–would soon disappear.

Installation view of THING zines

Installation view of THING zines

Rather than practical application or ambition, the works on display in THINGS derive from a, as Nordeen describes, “a private, radical urgency.” While, of course, each artist had their own art-making practice (or publishing in the case of Ford’s zine), THINGS seems to relate more to a diaristic impulse with art created of its specific time and surroundings.

Considering diaries in her introduction to Charles Henri Ford’s Water From A Bucket, Lynne Tillman states, “Diaries confirm that life is in the details and in its passions, all of which Ford includes, all of which are inevitably subservient to time. Ford’s diary is profound not because it marks time passing or spent, but because it is imaginatively and definitively of its time and in it” (x).

Installation view of Rafa Esparza's work at Participant Inc.

Installation view of Rafa Esparza’s work at Participant Inc.

Similar to Tillman’s notion of a diary being both “of its time and in it,” the artworks in THINGS not only document the artist’s own interests and experiences, but the lives of those around them as well. Tillman continues in her introduction, “Like histories, diaries are accounts of the past. Unlike histories, they are not written retrospectively, and subjectivity is their central claim to truth. Faithful to the subjective, the diarist’s words, Ford’s eyes and ears, conduct the reader through the world he inhabits” (xi).

Tom Rubnitz, title not known (T.V. Tray Table with Solar System), c. 1985, cheesecloth, plaster and enamel paint

Tom Rubnitz, title not known (T.V. Tray Table with Solar System), c. 1985, cheesecloth, plaster and enamel paint

THINGS, likewise, conducts viewers through their own worlds. For example, Tom Rubnitz’s paintings with their focus on psychedelic media oversaturation resembles the concerns of his campy cohort including the Hanna-Barbera obsessions of Kenny Scharf and the ADHD channel switching of Ann Magnuson. The paintings just scream 1980s East Village–it’s as if they could not be from another time or place.

Seth Bogart, Necessities, 2015-2016, ceramic

Seth Bogart, Necessities, 2015-2016, ceramic

Even the more contemporary artists mirror this need to preserve the queer worlds around them–however campy or silly. My personal favorite of the younger artists in the show has to be Seth Bogart whose music I’ve been obsessed with for a while now. Not only a singer and performer with Pee-wee Herman-esque shellacked hair, Bogart also makes these little ceramic curios with his distinctive punky aesthetic. In Necessities on view at Participant Inc, Bogart lays out all the items needed for queers in today’s world including fake nails, a bottle of Rush poppers (John Waters’ approved!) and Truvada. Don’t forget a 1990s RuPaul album too. Who doesn’t need that for every queer starter kit! Particularly with the inclusion of Truvada, Bogart’s Necessities is thoroughly of its time, even if that time is now.

However, the works by the trio–Rubnitz, McDowell and Ford–take on a deeper significance with the passing of their makers due to complications from AIDS. Would these objects seem as essential if their creators were still alive or even if they hadn’t died from complications from AIDS? Perhaps not. These works and their placement after the artists’ deaths belong to a more universal story surrounding the HIV/AIDS pandemic–one that is not told often enough. As many artists died, their works either got scattered among various friends, caretakers, lovers and family members or–more horribly–thrown out by family ignorant of the personal and social importance of their creations.

Curt McDowell, Untitled (#16 Joe Montana, #64 Jack Reynolds, & #87 Dwight Clark), c. 1982, graphite, marker and collage on paper

Curt McDowell, Untitled (#16 Joe Montana, #64 Jack Reynolds, & #87 Dwight Clark), c. 1982, graphite, marker and collage on paper

Reading Nordeen’s essay, it seems that the process of curating the exhibition–discovering these art objects in the possession of the artists’ surviving social circle–was as essential to the understanding of the show as the work on the walls at Participant. Both Rubnitz’s paintings and McDowell’s art were distributed among friends after their death. Ford’s zine remained in the hands of the network created by his publication’s distribution. Linked by these objects, their keepers become an alternate network–a de facto queer community built even after the loss of the artists themselves.

“And those things must not remain hidden in the cabinets of loved ones or the drawers of those who remain,” concludes Nordeen in his essay. Instead, uncovered in an exhibition, these things become a record of queer lived experiences–both personal and communal. As Charles Henri Ford writes in his diary, “A record of himself is all any man records.”

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