On Friday night at the Louis B. James gallery, in a spare white room, a predominantly white and relatively good-looking American Apparelesque crowd gathered under the auspices of queer-art-fashion-activism for the launch of the Purple and Gold capsule collection. Produced by Print All Over Me and the Louis B. James gallery in collaboration with 19 queer artists, the collection comes in response to the Sochi Olympic Games — specifically Russia’s controversial anti-gay legislation banning the promotion of “gay propaganda.” This legislation has reportedly led to an upsurge in homophobic repression and violence committed by government-affiliated organizations and vigilante hate groups like “Occupy Pedophilia.”
Composed of 19 basic tracksuits emblazoned with colorful, graphic prints, Purple and Gold might be added to a glossy and growing list of public responses critical of the Games. From Google’s recent doodle, featuring athletes against a rainbow backdrop, to Amnesty International’s star-studded “Bringing Human Rights Home” concert which included an appearance by the recently released Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova (of Pussy Riot fame) who courageously spoke out against Putin’s repressive regime, to the “hashtag hijacking” efforts of gay activists who’ve taken to co-opting Olympic slogans of big advertisers like McDonalds on Twitter — there is a concerted effort to call attention to the plight of LGBTQ communities in Russia and the hypocrisy of the Olympic Games.
Print All Over Me founder Jesse Finkelstein, who has a fashion-design background, insists that there has always been something “inherently political” about his work. For him the collaboration with David Fierman of Louis B. James gallery — whom he’s known for nearly ten years — just made sense.
“What is happening in Russia is an awful disaster,” he said, “we see this project as a larger commitment to our values,” speaking to a level of social responsibility and political thought that is woven into the concept of Print All Over Me. Anyone can submit an image or design to be printed onto the collection’s pieces, arguably subverting (or queering?) the autocratic values of an industry built on exclusive authorship.
Certainly Finkelstein and Fierman’s Purple and Gold isn’t the first project of its kind to harness the potential of sartorial expression as a tool for political speech. Historically we can look to actions, or “zaps,” staged by lesbian activists, for example at the Second Congress to Unite Women, a feminist assembly held in 1970. There, in response to Betty Friedan’s warning that “the lavender menace” (i.e. lesbians) were threatening to mar the public image of feminism, members of an insurgent group stripped off their coats to reveal purple T-shirts that read “The Lavender Menace.”
In doing so, as Catherine Lord astutely points out in Art and Queer Culture, the protestors “both declared the power of lesbian visibility and contested its phobic construction.” Going a bit further, she explains, “while visual rhetoric and sartorial style do not fully reveal the history of queer activism, neither can they be simply siphoned off as the cultural remainder or fashionable by-product of ‘real’ politics.”
Offering some helpful historical context and a useful point of orientation, Lord’s observations also give rise to yet another question relevant to the expectations underpinning Purple and Gold and projects like it, namely: what are ‘queer’ communities, ‘queer’ art, and ‘queer’ activism? She argues that “like other words with which we test and by which we are tested, ‘queer’ comes loaded with meanings that are not entirely in our control.” Lord continues, citing:
“[T]he preposterous hope that one word might summarize the various subcultural permutations that function in opposition to a mainstream that is gendered as heterosexual and raced as white.”
Perhaps here we can begin to trace what was lacking in the Purple and Gold presentation, which it should be said is more of a convenient microcosm or symbol for tensions that exist within a much broader discourse that can scarcely be adequately captured here but might be traced back to Audre Lorde’s early criticism of the feminist movement in the 1960s. There was no one at the outset to address the throng of onlookers and place the show into the appropriate political context that premised its Facebook promotion. The presentation instead involved a group of “street-models” (artists, friends of the artists, and friends of the gallery) posing in line-up formation as a relatively homogenous crowd (white, male, and scruffy, in that perfectly appointed way) looked on.
While this tension may very well have little if nothing to do with what is inarguably a good cause — a portion of the proceeds go to the LGBT Network to build support for LGBTQ communities in Russia — it does, however, open the event up to a critique of how we apply the term queer, not only to art but to our social spaces, and may speak to the natural, if rapid, evolution of a term that has perhaps become a “victim of its own popularity, proliferating to the point of uselessness,” as Sharon Marcus has written.
A less skeptical view, however, is espoused by David Halperin, who points out that “’queer’ is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant,” possessing “nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers.” This would certainly explain its sometimes abstract application in art-world parlance, but also leaves one feeling somehow short-changed.
To Finkelstein queer art is characterized by the exploration of vulnerability. It is art that engages with literal and psychological exposure: “What I see as queer art is not necessarily the same to someone else. But, to me, queer art taps into a sense of vulnerability and isolation.” This understanding of queer art offers for Finkelstein an elegant and well drawn tie-in to fashion, seeing clothes as directly engaged in that dialogue to the extent that we wear them to protect ourselves.
We can see Finkelstein’s point well illustrated in the endlessly mesmerizing self-portraits of Mark Morrisroe, at once expressing beauty, vulnerability, and a latent eroticism that challenged contemporary culture’s campaign to decimate, dehumanize, and desexualize the queer body in response to the AIDS epidemic — from which, it feels important to note, much of what we might characterize as contemporary queer art flows.
The participants in Purple and Gold seem very much aware of this history, with one artist, Michael Mahalchick, remarking that his print was vaguely inspired by Jasper Johns, whose subversion of American iconography is seen as another forerunner of the queer art movement that might also name Andy Warhol as a forefather, observing “It looks a bit like a crying American flag,” and indeed it does.
But an undercurrent of uncertainty around how all of this actually fits into the context of queer art and relates to the experiences of LGBTQ communities in Russia was at play. Another artist, Aay Kay Burns, openly admitted, “I’m skeptical of the impact fashion actually has on social movements.”
Burns added that, nonetheless, it felt important that the images antagonize, which seems more in line with the burgeoning, revolutionary energy that the rank injustices we’ve seen in Russia and elsewhere inspire, and why, perhaps, the Purple and Gold launch in some ways felt like a missed opportunity. Burns’ instinct to antagonize, to incite, epitomizes what seemed to be missing — a heightened emotional space, statement or call to action equal and attuned to the frustration, anger, and grief stirred by the battered face of LGBTQ communities worldwide.
What proceeded instead was a relatively anesthetized mixer that failed to reflect cogently on the very real violence and degradation happening in Russia, and seemed totally uninterested in drawing connections — which history would teach us is key to mobilizing any social or political movement (see the linkage of the black civil rights and labor rights movements of the 1960s) — between besieged and marginalized communities around the globe. In Uganda, for instance, where the parliament has passed what has been called the “Kill the Gays bill” for its initial insistence on the death penalty those engaging in homosexual acts (since replaced by life imprisonment) — LGBTQ citizens continue to be brutalized, outed, and surveilled by the government.
But, of course, the Olympics are not happening in Uganda and perhaps Ugandan LGBTQ peoples don’t fit quite as neatly into what appears to be a very vanilla understanding of “queer” interests in America. One gallery-goer’s response, when asked what he made of the presentation and responses to myriad issues laid bare by the Games, carried a sharp resonance: “I just don’t know — these days it seems like nobody protests, we just party.”
The Purple and Gold collection debut took place at the Louis B. James gallery (143B Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on February 7.