Look, but Don’t Touch
It’s not unusual to not touch the art on display in a museum (although my husband once saw a woman stroking a Dali at the Met). But it is unusual to see an exhibition so tempting to touch as Queer Threads Crafting Identity and Community curated by John Chaich at the Leslie Lohman Museum. One usually thinks of needlepoint pillows on your grandmother’s couch; or plush crocheted toys that one of the church ladies made for you for your christening; perhaps you fondly remember the quilt handed down in your family that you had at the foot of your bed, or the denim shirt your godmother embroidered with a rainbow coloured hot air balloon for you in the ’70s. All of these things are meant to be touched, to be used, but none of the art in Queer threads is meant for use.
This look-but-don’t-touch idea was most evident in the work of my friend, Nathan Vincent. (I’ve written about him before.) Nathan’s installation of a crocheted locker room, titled “Locker Room,” is one of the works that most deeply expresses the frustration of look but don’t touch. It is incredibly inviting. You are encouraged to walk about the locker room; to weave your way past the urinals, through the lockers and under the showers. Constantly you are tempted to touch, even hug these objects that in their proper context are hard even utilitarian, but in this context fulfilling that desire is thwarted. It is an experience perhaps similar to that of a gay man at the gymnasium; surrounded by beautiful naked men. Look but don’t touch.
Similarly tempting is the work of poet Melanie Braverman. Her quilt of vintage and antique fabrics and embroidered panels invites you to curl up under it and read a good book, perhaps Red. Once again: Look but don’t touch. However, in this case the fact that the embroidered panels are covered with slurs (queer, invert, etc.) the temptation to wrap these insults around yourself is also like taking these names, these descriptors as a badge, as something that comforts rather than abuses. Rather than a temptation of desire it is a temptation to empowerment.
Ms. Braverman’s work is of especial interest to me as I also started out as a poet and slowly moved over to visual arts; although it may be argued that poetry is a visual art, especially if we look at the works of William Blake, or Kenneth Patchen.
One of the primary things that an artist does is to try to make a thing of beauty. Sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes sublime, and sometimes grotesque. All of these are attempts at the beautiful, even when they are pointing away from the beautiful they can encourage the viewer to look for the beautiful when he turns away from the work. It’s tempting to layer onto that work meanings through discussing dichotomies of butch/femme, top/bottom, vanilla/kink as in the work “Leather Pansy II” by John Thomas Paradiso.
Even when art is placed in a LGBTQFFA (and what ever other letters you want to add to that alphabet soup. Perhaps in the context of an exhibit of needle arts QUILTBAG would be best.) parerga, it’s still that desire for the beautiful that is primarily on display. No matter what the dichotomies being explored or discussed are, it is the beautiful object that we view and has its effect on us, and it’s refreshing to see the Leslie Lohman Museum transcend the temptation to define gay art as that which is solely about erotic desire and embrace a vision of beauty within the context of a queer aesthetic.
Queer Threads Crafting Identity and Community is showing at the Leslie Lohman Museum at 26 Wooster Street in
New York City until March 16th 2014.