Walking through Jade Yumang’s current exhibition My-O-My at School of Visual Art’s CP Project Space feels a bit like cruising. Curated by Jasa McKenzie, glimpses of bare flesh peek out of phallic-like tendrils hanging from thirty-two curious sculptures–a series titled Thumb Through–nestled in corners, hung on the walls and hidden in hallways.
Yumang culled these fractured images of male bodies from the pages of My-O-My magazine, a queer erotic publication that appeared from the late 1960s until the 1970s. Each amorphous form in the show represents a singular page in the magazine. Painstakingly reproducing these pages on rounded spears of fabric (according to the artist, each work takes about a month to complete), he frames the works in vintage athletic materials, fringe and mesh, mirroring a distinctly kitschy 1970s aesthetic.
More than just a nostalgic look at the heyday of gay porn, these sculptures’ enigmatic eroticism represents the illicit sense of discovery and covert queer communities built through the dissemination of these magazines. This becomes more significant when viewed in the context of another period of potential homophobic repression with a Vice President who believes in conversion therapy. Beyond recalling a bygone era of print culture, Yumang’s show also offers the promise that queer desire will always find a way to thwart oppression.
We spoke to Yumang separately over email, combining our questions into one conversation. We discussed how Yumang discovered My-O-My magazine and the 1972 bookstore raid, his interest in vintage queer print culture and if he sees his work making a political statement during the Trump/Pence administration.
Emily: My-O-My uses a vintage queer magazine its source material. How did you first come across the magazine? What drew you to it initially?
I was part of the Fire Island Artist Residency in 2012 and one of the co-founders, Evan Garza, gave it me. The colors were really amazing! All the photographs were shot against vibrant backdrops that reminded me of the beautifully odd background colors that Francis Bacon would use. The magazine features a couple slowly undressing each other as the pages progress. It felt very tender and not hardcore at all. It seemed quite innocent to my eyes.
Osman: Can you talk about your introduction to the 1972 law case (State vs Shapiro) that inspired your Thumb Through series?
I was researching more on the publication and stumbled upon a court case involving the magazine, and I was particularly curious on the language around desire and what is considered obscene especially right after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Cops without warrant entered the bookstore owned by Edward Shapiro and Milton Nerenberg and seized various curiosa (including the one that I have) that were deemed obscene in 1972. One of the arguments during the case was whether or not indecent material has any social importance. The State refused to return the magazine and compared it to returning an unauthorized weapon.
Emily: From this introduction to the magazine and the 1972 case, how did you then begin making fabric sculptures from each individual page?
Fabric has a close association with the body–it contours and hides the naked form. Because the couple in the magazine was slowly undressing page by page, I wanted to make sculptures that similarly undulate and unfurl. I tend to work in series and give myself strict parameters. For this series, I scanned each page and printed them on a yard of cotton and then cut, sewed, and embellished from there.
Osman: Do you plan and sketch each sculpture ahead of time or are they outcomes of spontaneity?
No. I just do a lot of repetitive shapes and an accumulation materializes. It also depends on the other additional materials I use. I tend to give myself boundaries when I start a series and within that I can loosen up a bit. For example, each piece is derived from a page from the magazine, which is scanned and printed on a yard of cotton, I then have to work with the given color and proceed from there. A lot of it is play, problem solving, and researching fabric and notions from that era.
Emily: The materials you used are reminiscent of 1970s trends with athletic gear and fringe. How did you choose the materials?
Yes, I’m glad you picked up on that! I explored fabrics used at that time, particularly ones associated with masculine sport wear. I also wanted to turn it against itself by incorporating fastidious materials like fringe. In particular, I used striped knits associated with bomber jackets, sport mesh from tank tops and shorts, and plastic mesh from baseball caps.
Emily: Some of these fabric choices like the fringe remind me of Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes On Camp,” specifically her list of items in the “canon of camp.” Do you see the works as camp? How?
These sculptures are exaggerated. I remove any function from the sport wear by the way they’re cut and incorporated with the fringe and the other decorative additions. Sontag mentions that the androgynous is a high form of camp and I definitely think of that in my work as each sculpture traverses various sensibilities rather than being limited to a sexual stereotype.
Osman: Repetition and meditation are important parts of your sewing process. How do you connect that to the current state of queer politics in the U.S. and around the world?
It slows me down and quiets my mind when I’m in that process. There’s been a shift to sameness and almost this frantic pace on stating that we are just like everyone else. That the only way to be accepted is to modify certain practices that for the most part has excluded us. It’s too simplistic, too comfortable, too docile and creates one trajectory and one voice.
Osman: You pay close attention to maintain a complex and non-representative aesthetic in your fabric sculptures. Could you say it is due to the limitedness abstraction provides in terms of expression?
I’m always in search of what queer form looks like and abstraction lends itself well as a limitless frame. Although the sculptures originate from an archetypal body, the manner of cutting, sewing, and assembly welcomes uncertainty as the shape are dictated by the process, rather than having a defined image. In a lot of ways these sculptures are paused moments of transformation. I never feel that each piece is complete, I just move on to the next one.
Emily: Queerness in art is often so much about the representation of the physical body. What do you think this abstraction adds to the work? Is it a more fluid form of gender/sexual presentation?
Abstraction has an openness and fragility as it allows viewers to decide what the form means to them through their own biases. I am particularly concerned with the limits of corporeality in contrast with the expansiveness of the term “queer.” I use this term more regarding a state of mind and the strangeness of things rather than sexuality alone. Abstraction conveys this encounter with strangeness in a way that correlates to the mutability of queer form.
Osman: There is an ongoing tendency amongst younger generation queer artists to mine the archives of long-overlooked gay and lesbian ephemera. Through repurposing imagery from magazine pages of these bygone publications, the artists feel connected to their cultural and ideological heritage. What is your opinion about this heritage as one of these artists?
I spent part of my childhood in the Middle East. Then I moved to Canada in my late teens and never had a sense of queer history. It was not taught or mentioned in school. The AIDS crisis happened and I did not hear about it till my 20s. When you are queer, nothing is given to you; you have to constantly search. There is a sense of loss knowing that there was a generation right before me completely swept away. That particular break made me want to know more, and going through archival material made sense as a way to engage and reconnect. Queer print culture is so rich and diverse. The idea of distributing desire as both pleasure and political tool was something I need to survey. It’s also the materiality of the pages and knowing that someone has touched it and has looked at it.
Emily: You’ve worked with both vintage and contemporary queer print culture before. Take, for example, your cut-paper collages using NEXT Magazine. In many ways, these printed materials are a throwback to an earlier era when these materials were only found in bookstores and porn shops. What interests you about queer print culture?
I still remember going to the bookstore/porn shop when I was nineteen and acquiring these magazines. It was frightful and exhilarating as I hastily rummaged through the racks not really knowing what I would get. The Internet solved that problem.
Then, print was the viable way to access and explore other forms of love either in literature or images. I’m interested in how desire was circulated at a time when it was also being used against us. The more you confiscate and censor something the more it flourishes. There is always a way it spills out.
Osman: The incident that inspired your series took place thirty-five years ago in New Jersey. My-O-My opened just before Donald Trump entered the White House. How do you see the correlation between the two?
I created this series initially because I was confounded at the language set on the case and how little moments like this reverberate in the subconscious of queer ethos. The curator, Jasa McKenzie, and I were planning this exhibition way before knowing the events that would unfold. We were in shock and felt our sense of identity and difference more than ever. We had to continue, knowing that our voices are on the line again.
Emily: Particularly with Mike Pence as our Vice President, do you see the sculptures making a political statement? Why?
Yes, a lot of my work is culling historical amnesia–things that are conveniently swept under the rug. The confiscation of this magazine represented fear and anxiety disguised in convoluted legal terms on obscenity. Unfortunately, the pendulum swings to other culture wars. My sculptures are a celebration of difference, which, in itself, is a form of resistance.