I don’t think I’ve ever come closer to seeing the face of God than when listening to Sylvester’s manic, soaring gospel cry, “Take Me to Heaven.” It’s not a fluke. Sylvester, too, saw his music in religious terms. In the biography The Fabulous Sylvester, Joshua Gamson reveals that after a particularly transcendent show, Sylvester, along with his singers—and The Weather Girls—Izora and Martha, would say, “We had a service.” To some, this might seem like a jarring juxtaposition as church services rarely include asking a crowd to “funk with me” or howling about “Menergy.” Yet, Sylvester didn’t conceive of these as contradictions. As Barry Walters writes, “Sylvester doesn’t see the pleasures of the body and the spirit as opposing forces, like sin and redemption. For Sylvester, God is on the dance floor as he is in Heaven.”
Artist Joseph Liatela doesn’t see these pleasures as opposing forces either. In fact, Sylvester’s notion of “God is on the dance floor as he is in Heaven” perfectly and concisely nails the central thesis of Liatela’s current exhibition Nothing Under Heaven, curated by Jesse Bandler Firestone, at Montclair State University Galleries’ George Segal Gallery. This exact idea is introduced even before fully entering the gallery. A vinyl plastered to the entrance window reveals a lone dancer, blurred and bent backward as if in religious ecstasy. Titled Faith By Night, this photograph derives from Liatela’s video Vital Response, filmed at stalwart gay bar Julius, the oldest remaining gay bar in Manhattan, during the height of pandemic lockdowns. With the absence of other people within the frequently crowded bar (just try to nab a table now), Faith By Night takes on a surreal and even, spectral element as if Julius is haunted by the bodies that once took up the space—drinking, chatting, dancing, cruising. The dancer’s movements channel the freedom of what once was and what remains.
Like Faith By Night, the entire exhibition, through a wide range of media and a couple of historic works from other artists, evokes spaces of nightlife, religion, and medical environments as sites of, at once, communal power and oppression, pleasure and pain, acceptance and absolution, and, above all, remembrance. The specter of PULSE nightclub, the site of the 2016 mass shooting in which 49 people were killed, looms large over Nothing Under Heaven. I know the PULSE shooting seems like a lifetime and many, many mass shootings ago, including yet another at a queer club, Club Q, which occurred after I started writing this essay, as did the Chesapeake Walmart shooting. I had to take some time to consider if I wanted to retool my essay completely in response but came to the conclusion, no. It felt unfair to filter all of Liatela’s art through the lens of mass shootings at queer clubs–or mass shootings at all since it’s not just the ones in LGBTQ spaces that should be afforded focus. If there is anything consistent about the United States, it’s that there will always be another mass shooting. Life is cheap in this country and certain lives more than others.
That being said, Liatela’s show does offer opportunities to honor the dead in the wake of these shootings and whatever new one happened between the time this was published and when you’re reading this now. Take, for instance, Liatela’s inclusion of a 17th-century portrait of the Archangel Gabriel, attributed to Carlo Dolci. Angel Gabriel is hung above and slightly within Liatela’s At the Speed of Falling, a recreation of the go-go cages from PULSE. Within this isolated and removed piece of club architecture, Gabriel hovers—quite literally, as the cage has no base—as a guardian angel to queer bar and club patrons. Not only is Gabriel a protector, but he also reads as unmistakably queer in Dolci’s portrait—so divinely femme that she transcends all earthy binaries. This wasn’t just a sly subversion of gender on Dolci’s part. Gabriel, like many angels in Christian iconography, was frequently represented as either without gender or both male and female.
In Angel Gabriel, Gabe clutches a bouquet of white lilies, a common symbol carried by the angel to reflect Mary’s purity and Gabe’s role as the messenger for the Annunciation. Liatela takes these lilies offered by Gabriel as raw materials, as seen in the adjacent series Untitled (For PULSE). In this series, Liatela drips wilted lilies in gold pigment and glitter, sweeping them across deep black granite tiles, often used for both mausoleums and nightclub floors. Recording his gestural movements, Untitled (For PULSE) preserves a kind of dance as a memorial, similar to the gold glittering handprints that stand out from the gallery’s black walls, further remnants of a live performance held at the exhibition’s opening. With certain tiles featuring the distinctive shape of the lilies, Liatela transposes the lily as a symbol of the Virgin Mary to the nightclub dancers’ own sacredness and purity, something often not afforded or attributed to queer people.
Of course, Liatela is the not only queer artist wielding Christian iconography, though it’s always a troubled pairing given the long list of harms perpetrated against LGBTQ people by the church. I think immediately of Ron Athey’s old-time God-bothering Pentecostal performances, Carlos Motta’s inverted crucifixion in Inverted World, inspired by Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, and my newest obsession, Greer Lankton’s JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS. There’s no shortage of representation in film either, whether Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, the rectory scenes in Bruce La Bruce’s twincest classic Saint-Narcisse (also featuring Saint Sebastian), Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nuns in Benedetta, and even the memorably sacrilegious Stations of the Cross/rosary masturbation scene in John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs. Yet, most of these borrow the wounded body from Christian iconography to reflect the suffering and persecution of queer people, as well as the idealized homoerotic body of, say, Saint Sebastian or even, Christ. Rarely do you see queer uses of Christian iconography speaking to a kind of healing and care as in Untitled (For PULSE) or the celebration of decidedly femme Archangel Gabriel.
This isn’t to say Liatela avoids drawing on some of the more punishing aspects of particularly Catholic tradition entirely. Two nebulous wooden sculptures, Consecration and Devotion, resemble bizarre erotic amalgamations of BDSM equipment such as the X-cross, otherwise known as the St. Andrew’s cross, and church kneelers. Further augmenting this connection, Liatela places an actual church kneeler from a Gothic church in Reading, PA within the exhibition, visibly linking this vintage prayerful architecture with his more fetishistic renditions. Each topped with an ornate decadent gold Catholic monstrance and reliquary, Consecration and Devotion offer leather leg rests and braces for any number of self- or otherwise flagellating acts of prostration. As John Waters says it best, “I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty.”
Aside from these two sculptures, the artist whose Catholicism I find most closely relates to Liatela’s use of its symbols is Andy Warhol, mostly his later Last Supper series—at least the newer reading of this long-maligned body of work by former Warhol Museum curator Jessica Beck. Beck has analyzed these paintings as subtly offering, as she said in The Warhol Diaries docuseries, “a way to think about Christ as being this face of empathy or forgiveness of AIDS.” Liatela’s placement of the Archangel Gabriel as the show and the dance floor’s guardian angel seems to work in a similar empathetic way. It’s no surprise, then, that Warhol himself appears in the show, or more precisely, Warhol’s presence behind the camera’s lens. In an adjacent room, Liatela positions a 1977 Polaroid by Warhol, Nude Model (Male), which depicts, as the title describes, a man’s nude torso with his head turned and largely cropped out, beside his own Polaroid response, mirroring Warhol’s original image with his own body. Placing these two photographs directly together, there is a distinctive lineage being traced—a “touch across time,” if you will—between Warhol and Liatela that could take any number of forms: Catholicism, queerness, the idealized masculine body as conceived by Warhol in the 1970s and Liatela’s own with the faint hint of top surgery scars. Toss in a third artist whose work Perfect Lovers is also implied by the abutted pairing: Félix González-Torres.
González-Torres also influences Liatela’s On being an idea (the right to live without permission), which displays the artist’s body weight in used DSM-IVs, which is the version of the DSM that includes “gender identity disorder” (as opposed to the updated “gender dysphoria disorder”). Unlike González-Torres’s candy piles like Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), Liatela is not asking viewers to grab their own DSM and study how to make diagnoses or pathologize entire groups of people based on criteria created by some Wizard of Oz-like omnipotent medical organization. Instead, he has bound them, using a similar style to Shibari, an offshoot of the Japanese bondage tradition Kinbaku-bi, which you may recognize if you’ve ever seen any of Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs. On being an idea (the right to live without permission) is joined by a similarly tied-up bank of atrociously grey chairs frequently seen in dreadful hospital waiting rooms—chairs that are so ugly and aggressively bureaucratic that I had an immediate negative reaction to them. At first glance, the hog-tied books and chairs may seem like a one-note critique of medicalization, particularly against queer and trans people. Warranted, certainly, but fairly uncomplicated. Yet, it’s important to remember these are bondage knots, which, in their best form, denote consent, pleasure, and even community. Like the church, the medical field also wields the power to relieve suffering or create and further perpetuate it.
It’s this kind of complexity that I find most refreshing in Liatela’s work. At a time when people generally, no matter what their political disposition, seem more comfortable with simple, straightforward, usually strident, statements, it’s a breath of fresh air when an artist, as artists should, resists them. Though the exhibition’s title comes directly from a quote from James Baldwin in which he said, “…There is nothing under heaven—no creed, and no flag, and no cause, more important, than a single human life,” I find equal, if not more, resonance in another quote from Baldwin using the similar “nothing under heaven” phrasing. On considering the creative process and the role of the artist, Baldwin explained, “A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.” This same rejection of answers is echoed in a recent conversation by my own beloved Nick Cave with Seán O’Hagan on the release of their collaborative book Faith, Hope and Carnage: “The search was the religious experience itself. It wasn’t ever arriving somewhere. In fact, the arrival to belief is often extremely problematic and very quickly becomes dogmatic and overbearing.”
Liatela’s art offers more of the search and less of the arrival, more questions than answers. For instance, can we—or do we—dance with ghosts? Can the dance floor, as Sylvester howls, take us to heaven? These questions are raised by the exhibition’s emotional core Untitled (salvation is a collective gesture/I know that we are all here at the same time). A dancefloor constructed from the same stark granite tiles as Untitled (For PULSE) lies empty with exception of a hanging constellation of lilies, resurrecting the recurrent symbol from the Archangel Gabriel. However, unlike the lilies in Dolci’s attributed painting, these lilies are pink and purple-hued in a color scheme that is reminiscent of the pink triangle symbol. Floating in small tubes, these lilies hover, ghost-like, as if they replace or represent the physicality of absent dancers (As Weyes Blood implores on her recently released album, “God turn me into a flower”). Below the lilies reads an inscription on the granite tiles: “To move is to remember.” With the stark lettering, the inscription not only reminded me of gravestones but Jenny Holzer’s engraved Walt Whitman poem on the NYC AIDS Memorial, which I’ve made no secret about loathing. To me, Liatela’s Untitled (salvation is a collective gesture/I know that we are all here at the same time) is a more appropriate memorial, a living one, quite literally with the fragrant lilies replaced each week, not only for those lost due to HIV/AIDS or the aforementioned nightclub mass shootings at PULSE or Club Q, but all sorts of losses.
To move is to remember. This isn’t the first time the dancefloor has been conceived of as a memorial or theorized as a space where the thin veil between the living and the dead can be lifted slightly. Though Liatela clearly takes inspiration from José Esteban Muñoz as a back room with a projection of Kevin McCarty’s photograph Silver Lake Lounge attests (Muñoz wrote about McCarty’s photographs at length), I’ve always been more drawn to Fiona Buckland’s final chapter in Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making on the Body Positive T-Dance, for people living with HIV/AIDS and those that love them. For Buckland, the T-Dance was set up as an “environment of memory,” a place in which memory could be embodied and ghosts appear. She explains, “At the Body Positive T-Dance, the music, movement, and memories together performatively materialized ghosts. And through this materialization, through remembering through the body, the single individual, isolated so much the better to be pathologized, transformed into one that was deeply connected with other bodies—alive and dead.”
Now, is that salvation? I don’t know. Seems close enough to me. To return to The Fabulous Sylvester, “You had to be moving your body to hear his sermon. I enjoy who I am, where I come from, and what I’m doing. Watch me be me, he said, then go be you. I won’t hold anything back, and don’t you either. Live your fantasies and be a star, everyone is one.”