If you run a Google search for “Stonewall exhibition,” you will find dozens upon dozens of arts and historical venues across the United States that put together shows related (with varying degrees of specificity) to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. In Philadelphia, Stonewall is being commemorated at Drexel University’s Pearlstein Gallery, in a show of sixty Philadelphia-area queer artists. Aesthetically and thematically, Stonewall @ 50 is best described as a hodgepodge, perhaps intentionally reflecting the DIY-ness of underground queer aesthetics. There are no themes or groups of works cordoned off and/or explicated with wall text; there’s no timeline or educational aspect of what these works are responding to in American queer history. You either go into Stonewall @ 50 knowing about the Stonewall Uprising or you don’t, and as a result, the show’s efficacy is circumscribed by how much of queer history and aesthetics you are familiar with.
This quality is both admirable and frustrating: it’s admirable because there’s no neat delineation of queer history into “Stonewall,” “AIDS Activism,” “Gay Marriage,” or a kind of onward forward progression of the kind I observed in the New York Historical Society’s Stonewall-related programming. There are moments of love and lust, of violence and pain, highs and lows depicted in paintings, collage, sculptures, videos, installation, and other media, with, thankfully, no attempt to cobble together a singular story of queer life in the United States.
On the other hand, Stonewall @ 50’s opacity is frustrating for people not particularly versed in queer history, which is to this day not properly taught in history classes (at least not in my APUSH class in high school). When it comes to exhibitions or media dealing with groups whose identities and histories have been marginalized by society at large, must there also be a history lesson running parallel with the aesthetics? Does that risk treating the audience as ignorant or come across as didactic, or is that simply best practice in making sure people understand the context around the works of art, as well as appreciate each work individually?
Two of the oldest works in the show, a pair of portraits by Violet Oakley and her partner Edith Emerson (each painting the other) gives a sense of queer life not only before Stonewall, but of a different kind entirely. Both women were middle-class professionals, and their respective portraits are affectionate and intimate (and in the case of Oakley’s portrait of Emerson, dramatic and theatrical) rather than actively radical.
Jonas dos Santos’s Transition: i was, now i am recalls famously queer artist Frida Kahlo’s umbilical cord/ribbon paintings, in which the body is connected by thin red strands to elements outside itself. Meanwhile, two black-and-white photos by Susan Dipronio portray queer life in New York mere years after Stonewall. Dipronio’s label text cites Stonewall as a catalyst, writing: “tired of the usual mode during a raid: sneaking out of a gay bar […] or not making it to and then the police would line us up to decide if we were dressed gender appropriately.” Here, the artist depicts two pairs of queer women looking relaxed, open, and free as they embrace one another.
There are works in Stonewall at 50 that are delightfully odd and campy, reveling in queerness without necessarily being explicitly political. Chief among them is Aaron Feltman’s I Spy With My Little Eye, painted in that gauzy 1900s Gayle Porter Hoskins illustration style, which depicts two tiny explorers in a mountainous landscape coming across a massive male nude in repose. It’s like a gay Bigfoot sighting, except it’s a sensual naked man and not a monster. (If you like, there’s always another layer to interpolate over the imagery: the juxtaposition of the stereotypically rugged adventurer figure rendered here almost too small to see, while the mythical being they’ve been tracking down is merely their own queerness. But I digress). Last Dance, a mixed-media collage by Julien Tomasello, draws upon the visual hallmarks of two contemporary queer artists: the flat, bright depiction of a house and pool at the left side of the image calls to mind Hockney, while the rich, sparkly embellishments recall Mickalene Thomas.
Stonewall itself is given pride of place in the layout of the show: Chad States’s A Gift for the Queens, a marble brick laid atop a gold cushion on a concrete slab, is one of the first works you see when you enter. As someone relatively familiar with this history, I recognize that the famous brick, apocryphally thrown by Marsha P. Johnson, has been monumentalized in marble the way great individuals have been throughout history, yet if you aren’t familiar with Stonewall, you’re not necessarily going to get the reference. Indeed, the lasting ambiguity of “who threw the first brick?” adds another layer to States’s work, because it’s not necessarily any individual queen who is being honored with his work—it’s the collective queens, the queer community, and the act of the brick-throwing itself that is memorialized and commemorated.
Aside from marking that 50th anniversary, what is the point of a show like Stonewall @ 50? There’s unfortunately a larger lack of engagement with contemporary queer issues that makes the show feel rootless in the world of 2019. Anti-gay police violence and the AIDS crisis are given voice in H.D. Ivey’s 1990 drawings Bully Boys and AIDS Profiteers, respectively, that resemble the unapologetic and dynamic graphics of the 1930s Taller de Gráfica Popular. Gabriel Martinez’s series of blue linocuts reproduces activist slogans and designs, ranging from “Free Sharon Kowalski” and “Lavender Left” to “Las Vidas Negras Importan” and “#TransLivesMatter,” creating a visual tapestry of intersectional activism over the decades.
There’s also nothing inherently queer about many of the works on display. Unless you lean in really close (the wall text is quite minute) to read the artists’ blurbs, some of which describe their personal experiences, you would be hard-pressed to say that the work in question is “queer art.” An arresting plaster cast sculpture like Noemi Charlotte Thieves’s The Corpse of Syed Atif Ali Hashmi, found in his some after an explosion while preparing a bomb to be used in terrorist attack is given zero further context as to who Syed Atif Ali Hashmi is (a Google search reveals nothing), or how the work was conceived and created. Keith Breitfeller’s 2019 N 36 x 36 is a delightfully textured mix of cool green and white strokes bristling atop a pink-red ground, but again, there’s nothing in the work itself that addresses queer themes.
Pedro Zagitt’s Non-Straight Motorist’s Green Book bucks the overall vagueness of the show, providing an example of an artist in Stonewall at 50 aiming to locate contemporary queer life within an overall temporal context. The work (a literal slim volume) riffs off of the Negro Motorist Green Book and, according to the book’s text, is drawn from Gaia’s Guide 1976, which fulfilled a similar purpose to the more famous Green Book: giving marginalized people (in this case, queer people) a guide on where they could travel and move about, and still be safe. Most critically, Zagitt’s project also weaves in mentions and instances of contemporary instances of homophobia in Philadelphia, a city with a relatively well-known Gayborhood, to remind us that queer people, even in the liberal 2010s, are not suddenly removed from the threat of oppression. The seeming anachronism of needing a Green Book for queer travelers in is undercut immediately by the contents of the book itself.
Zagitt’s Non-Straight Motorist’s Green Book thus best lives up to the promise of what these “Stonewall anniversary” exhibitions can accomplish. It does not attempt to show queer history as a positive kind of progression, with the arc of history forever bending more and more towards justice, because that’s not the entire truth of the history of any marginalized groups. Instead, it is a reminder of the constant struggle that didn’t end with Obergefell v. Hodges. The recent Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision, trans military ban, anti-trans bathroom laws, and continuing existence of conversion therapy are as much of a threat to American queer life and livelihood as individual instances of queerphobia, as immediate and awful as they may be.
With no clear connection to Stonewall aside from the branding and a few works out of many that explicitly address Stonewall, and no larger, overarching attempt made to relay other queer themes or aspects of contemporary queer life, the exhibition feels unfocused. What it does bring into focus, though, is the whole troubled question of what “queer art” is, and all of the contradictions therein. For art to be “queer,” does it merely require that the artist be queer, or does it have to engage with themes of queer history, love or experiences in order to qualify? To get a little academic, I suppose, it may depend on how you see the word “queer”: does it merely describe one aspect of someone’s identity? Is it a series of visual and cultural signifiers and signs? Or is it imbued with a particular philosophy, outlook, and set of actions? I imagine that any definition of queer art that is eventually sanctified into the canon must take into account the fact that queerness is still an ongoing question, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.