Making Up For Lost Time (Exhibitions Filthy Dreams Missed In 2016): Jimmy Wright’s ‘New York Underground’

Jimmy Wright, Anvil #2, 1975, Ink on paper (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Jimmy Wright, Anvil #2, 1975, Ink on paper (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

It might surprise you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but Filthy Dreams can’t cover every show I’d like to. Writing one post a week, plus an occasional guest writer post here and there, it’s not inconceivable that Filthy Dreams would miss some spectacular shows that deserved to be delved into in depth. Sometimes I see a show too late and other times, there’s just too many darned exhibitions to deal with for one Sunday article a week.

This is why the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant is so important. Beyond the mere subversive hilarity of Filthy Dreams being given legitimacy and money–two things I never imagined in my wildest dreams, we’ll now have the monetary freedom to post more frequently.

But, since that check hasn’t yet cleared and Filthy Dreams is still poverty-stricken, some shows have had to fall by the wayside in 2016. But even though they are gone, closed and shuttered, they are not forgotten. We can still appreciate what issues they brought to the fore.

So this year rather than a hackneyed best of or top 10 list, I’m going to right my wrongs and highlight some exhibitions that we missed (this doesn’t include shows I’ve covered for other publications).Hopefully, this will be enough to absolve my critical sins before the beginning of 2017. To keep things readable, I’ve split this series into individual reviews, starting with Jimmy Wright’s New York Underground at Fierman.

Jimmy Wright, Max's Kansas City, 1974, ink on paper napkins (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Jimmy Wright, Max’s Kansas City, 1974, ink on paper napkins (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Inspired by his time spent at New York’s notorious sex clubs, Visage’s Steve Strange composed a song in its honor appropriately titled “The Anvil.” Despite the seeming disparity between the heavily made-up, decadent aesthetic of the New Romantics and the highly hypermasculine world of clubs like The Anvil or The Mineshaft, Visage’s song, between cringe-inducing references to “nightclub school” and a campy tinking anvil sound, describes the swirling, pumping, heart-pounding, throbbing energy of these clubs. Strange croons, “Watch the moving bodies/As they react to the sound/Feasting on the visions/See the figures going round.”

Like Strange, these clubs were influential sites for many gay men in the 1970s and 1980s as spaces of sexual, relational, communal and even, aesthetic possibilities. This same impulse to document the unique scene within these radical clubs was seen in Jimmy Wright’s surprisingly delicate drawings in his solo exhibition New York Underground at Fierman.

In the small Chinatown storefront gallery, Wright’s drawings wove sordid tales of nights at bathhouses, sex clubs and famous Downtown art hangouts. Wright takes viewers on a Crisco-drenched trip through the Anvil, dancing at Club 82 and people watching at Max’s Kansas City.

The press release details Wright’s move to New York in the 1970s, explaining that he discovered NYC’s burgeoning nightlife scene soon after. Given the decade, these drawings depict a queer nightlife before the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and therefore, these drawings, in retrospect, capture a seemingly utopian atmosphere that pervaded these clubs.

Of course, as you know, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, we’re quite enamored with nightlife and its importance as a space of community, radical eroticism and unexpected activism. And Wright’s drawings unquestionably portray this particular significance of these spaces.

In particular, his drawings of bathhouses reveal an intimacy and care between men. Take, for example, Lighting A Joint: Club Baths, which depicts two men on lounge chairs lighting a joint. There’s a visible tenderness in their interactions that speaks to the, even, momentary partnerships that occurred within bathhouses. It’s even sweet.

Jimmy Wright, Lighting a Joint: Club Baths, 1975 Gouache on paper (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Jimmy Wright, Lighting a Joint: Club Baths, 1975
Gouache on paper (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Not everything is as gentle, though, as some of the drawings also document the scene at sex clubs like The Anvil. While most of these drawings depict an inmass of bodies and action, the essentials are in the details, which include a tub of Crisco in a fisting scene and a man shoving his boot up a bottom when apparently a fist wasn’t enough.

Beyond fisting and loving, Wright’s New York Underground also showcases the self-fashioning of patrons and the ecstatic energy of dancing. There’s a Brian Slade-like figure from Club 82 and a “leopard woman” presenting in an eye-poppingly assless spotted outfit. These representations are wild, weird and wonderful. One of my particular favorites is Max’s Kansas City, which features a line-up of the range of outfits, styles and attitudes of the club goers at Max’s on cocktail napkins. It’s the perfect medium for the singular style of the mid-1970s.

What makes Wright’s exhibition so significant is his deft use of figurative drawing. You don’t often think of the fairly traditional medium as the perfect one to represent fisting, but here, it’s a refreshing change from the typically photo-heavy depictions of nightlife. Similar to Marc Lida’s later watercolors of clubs like The Saint, Wright’s works pair an almost conventional medium and material with a distinctively unconventional subject. Thank god.

Jimmy Wright, Anvil #1, 1975, Ink on paper (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Jimmy Wright, Anvil #1, 1975, Ink on paper (Courtesy the artist and Fierman, NYC)

Wright’s show reminded me of Patrick Moore’s book Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, which, between its nostalgic whining over the loss of the Mineshaft and how Moore never liked the campy (and let’s be honest, mixed and femme-y) East Village scene, does have some valuable insight about how we view the 1970s through the lens of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is important to note that Wright stopped making these works during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, turning to his more recent chosen subjects–flowers.

In Beyond Shame, Moore attempts to disperse the shame that many feel about the sexual abandon of the 1970s, seeing it as a precursor and even, wrongly, a cause of HIV/AIDS. Instead of shame, Moore asserts that this period of sex clubs, bathhouses, piers and other cruising zones should be celebrated for their transformative and even, effective political influence in the identity and sexual possibilities for gay men. In his introduction, Moore states, “I see in the 1970s a willingness to live a life where one’s sexuality was used as the tool for radical change. This book is an attempt to encourage gay people to see the sexual experimentation of the 1970s as a powerful and laudable part of our legacy rather than as an act of self-destruction” (xxiv).

Now, those who lived through the 1970s have a very different view than the younger generation who look to that era as something missed–an idyllic era of sexual possibility that may be impossible to regain (even, with the increased safety of PrEP). As Moore writes, “In addition to a sense of shame, for older generations of gay men, looking back to the 1970s involves nostalgia; for younger men, the 70’s elicit envy” (48).

While Moore thinks this romanticism is inaccurate–and surely it is, Wright’s New York Underground proves that romanticism doesn’t have to be all bad. Sometimes romanticism is a way of remembering and honoring something that was lost, as well as backwards glance that can inspire building toward a queerer future. I mean, if it weren’t for romanticism, why even try…


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