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Installation view of Tomoko Kikuchi’s work in ‘Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video’ at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (all images courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum unless otherwise noted)

Try not to roll your eyes: the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art has created an exhibition about the erotic. It’s safe to presume that homoeroticism has been a popular curatorial theme at Leslie-Lohman. In fact, the word “erotic” appears in the titles of nearly 25 exhibitions over the collection’s 27-year history. After officially registering as a nonprofit in 1987, the museum’s inaugural show was called A Winter Exhibition of Homo-Erotic Art. Today, with a collection of over 24,000 objects, the museum has ended up where it began — with a narrow focus of what it means to be queer.

Occasionally, Leslie-Lohman does mount an exhibition that captures the many dimensions of life that gender and sexuality affect. Exhibitions like 2011’s Creating A Queer Museum and 2014’s Queer Threads asked viewers to think of queer art in terms of history, medium, and identity politics instead of through a simplistic, voyeuristic lens.

Not so with Photography is the Medium of Desire, which says nothing new. Instead, the exhibit regressively reduces such a diverse community to a few parting glances and big dicks.

Installation view of Dimitris Yeros in ‘Medium of Desire’

The exhibit mostly resembles the mawkish sentiments of a Lifetime movie: melodrama without depth, expression without illumination. This is probably due to the exhibit’s goal to universalize desire, which museum director Hunter O’Hanian believes “can serve to minimize our differences and bring us closer together.” An interesting enough conjecture, but this show does not serve the international community it claims to. Medium of Desire is as diverse as the museum’s staff, which is to say: white, cis male, and gay. Of the 14 artists exhibition, 10 are white and only two are female. There are no transgender artists. The closest we get is Tomoko Kikuchi, who documents the women of Beijing’s transgender community.

Not only does this perceived exclusion limit the exhibit’s scope, but the show fails to expand upon the themes of desire, namely those of voyeurism and the male gaze. The outcome is pure exhibitionism, relying on homonormative tropes to drive a sophomoric message of uniform emotion antithetical to the queer community. Perhaps desire does look all the same, albeit through a lily-white lens. It certainly does here.

Hang Ren, “Untitled” (1986), digital print, 15.75 x 10.63 in (image courtesy the artist)

The exhibit also fails to deliver its premise, that photography is the primary medium of desire. While that supposition might be true, Medium of Desire recoils from its mission. How can we view photography in such dull, conventional terms after the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2015 exhibition? There, photography is revealed as the primary mode of communication in the internet age. If photography is the medium of desire at the Leslie-Lohman museum, it speaks rather sparsely and slowly — and only in clichés.

At worst, artists pigeonhole their work into fetishism without having anything to say. In one photograph, Hang Ren appears with two dicks for eyes. In another, a man pees on him while he wears a plastic bag over his head. (If you are going to photograph yourself in the process of a golden shower, at least commit to it.) It probably doesn’t help Ren’s case that Ohm Phanphiroj also has a golden shower photograph directly across from Ren’s. But why are these photographs even here? What do they have to say about photography as an erotic-driven medium versus the pleasure found in the sexual act itself?

Tomoko Kikuchi, “Xiaozhang sitting on the bed after breast implants surgery Shengyang, Liaoning Province” (2007), digital print, 21.85 x 14.49 in. (image courtesy the artist)

All is not lost, however. A few artists do challenge the relationships we generally draw between photography and the erotic. While Tomoko Kikuchi and Joseph Maida are outsiders to the communities they photograph, both photographs accomplish a tricky feat: they mitigate an impulse to exploit with a desire to understand. Kikuchi captures the gains and perils of Beijing’s transgender community while overcoming her own voyeuristic impulse to photograph these women as a straight, Japanese tourist. In one image, we see the oblivion of her subject’s desires: Kikuchi provides an empathetic distance from her female transgender subject who, clad with bare prosthetic breasts, ominously clutches a bloody shirt. Similarly, Maida’s adept portraits mess with the conventions of voyeurism and the exotic by ceding power to his Pacific Islander subjects who know their own sensuality. For example, his portrait “Xayasana (Thai, Laotian)” depicts his subject in a foreboding lava field, which she seems to embody, meeting the camera’s gaze while sensually swaying in the wind.

In 2016, questions of representation and agency are extremely important for the visual arts community. We should celebrate diversity rather than stifle it. With its recent announcement to expand, the Leslie-Lohman Museum is poised to become the primary institution for the promotion and consecration of the queer arts community in New York City. Oddly enough, the museum falters as a bastion of the male hegemony still apparent in the larger art world. Where are the women? Where are the genderqueer bodies equally deserving of desire and to desire? With Medium of Desire, the Leslie-Lohman Museum predictably veers toward male-love clichés while ignoring the need for an inclusive present.

Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video continues at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (26 Wooster St, Soho, Manhattan) through March 27. 

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have also appeared on WNYC. They tweet and instagram...

10 replies on “A Photo Exhibition Reduces Queer Desire to Clichés”

  1. hey Zachary… erotic art is harder than it looks… you are right that there are so many well intentioned queer artists who peddle cliches.

    Coco Chanel once declared that “Hard Times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” And I think that for many gay men that came before us, who have been through hard times during the AIDS crisis, there is this intense desire for authenticity and to treasure any image that celebrates the queer desire they fought to defend.

    Having gone to some of the openings at Leslie-Lohman over the years and meeting many of the queens that came before me and hearing their stories about the road they paved for me, I’ve learned about a different worldview. A different time shaped their sensibilities. My bitter bullying experiences pale in comparison to what many of them endured. And they bring these experiences to their encounters with art works. For this community, erotic authenticity is a right they fought hard to win. Remember that being gay wasn’t entirely declassified as a mental disorder until 1986 and that took a fight.

    All of that said. I still think you raise an important point. And I am hopeful that the curatorial team at the Leslie-Lohman will consider your points carefully and not dismiss you as a young writer with internalized homophobia, or an insufficient grasp on history.

    My friends, the truth is that the gay experience is changing.

    Yes, there is value in celebrating the sensuality of the queer encounter. But is that the only role for queer art? We desperately need artists to create new images to help us make sense of new scenarios. In the 21st century, we find ourselves in situations that have few precedents in gay history.

    You already know all of these points but let’s just rehash it…

    PREP is transforming how gay men relate to each other sexually and conceptualize HIV risks. Where is the art exploring Prep?

    Hookup apps have totally reconfigured queer cartography. Gay bars are not as packed as they once wore. And now the joke is that many guys when they are out are glued to their phones. Where is the art exploring this new technical phenomena?

    And the gym has risen in the past 30 years. What started as the aerobics craze in the 80s has burgeoned into something else today. Gay men today have a whole new relationship with their body image and transforming themselves into sculptures. And the saunas and steam rooms at gyms have replaced bath houses as prime hook up spots. Where is the art about the gay gym experience?

    Lesbians are seeing their stories told on the screens of major movies like the Kids are All Right but also encountering new forms of marginalization. Many lesbians are made into sexual objects for the fantasies of straight men. Lesbians deal with awkward workplace situations. Many struggle to make their way in what is still a man’s world where many women still make less than men. While gay marriage brought queer activists together, there are bitter feelings in queer circles that gay men haven’t stepped up enough on the gender issue. Where is the art exploring these new challenges for queer women?

    Gay marriage is now the law of the land changing thousands of pragmatic considerations when queer couples begin to wrap their lives around one another. Yes, there are the images of couples wedding. But where is the art about the daily realities of married life as a queer couple?

    Radical advances in hormone therapy, surgical interventions, and psychological understanding are ushering in unprecedented transgender experiences. Tomoko Kikuchi’s work hits upon these changes to great effect. Where is the art that unpacks it more? This is just the tip of the iceburg.

    I think I’ve rattled on for too long. I understand the roots of the Leslie Lohman art center and why erotic art was a talisman for gay rights pioneers. And I respect that. But as we move into a new century in which the lives of queer people are so different, I am hopeful that the museum will heed the call from critics like Zachary Small and consider other organizing themes to address the concerns of our time alongside the enduring importance of affirming sensuality.

  2. I’m definitely rolling my eyes all right, but only at this article. Although Mr. Small–who is the ripe old age of 23, graduated college in 2015, and obviously understands the delicate nuances of LGBT history and culture to engage in this sort of tumblr-esque rant–scratches the surface of important questions, he fails to offer up any insightful or new criticism. Leslie-Lohman Museum is the only museum in the world to feature LGBT art exclusively, much less retain a substantial permanent collection, and they have openly expressed desire to add women artists to their permanent collection (see: last year’s CAA conference during the Queer Caucus for Art panel). It’s unclear to me whether the artists included in this exhibition are in the collection or not, but I find the superficial mud flinging here done by Mr. Small to be utterly ridiculous. The way this piece is written seems to presuppose that the museum staff is not open to criticism or suggestions, and where does such an assumption come from? I’ve seen the opposite. With Mr. Small’s parade of soundbite assertions (“rah rah diversity”) and superficial points (“look at all the words in these exhibition titles”), I fail to see any meaningful criticism added to the wider discourse of contemporary LGBT art.

    I also find it pretty ironic that Mr. Small is a man complaining about lack of representation for women. I have no idea if he’s cis and white–I see he uses male pronouns from some of his profiles on various arts websites–but that would really just be the kicker if so. Classic.

    Also, it’s “exhibition,” not exhibit, when referring to an art exhibition.

    1. Hi Jane,

      Thanks for your passionate response. As I say in my review, it’s great to have a museum exclusively catering to the queer community, BUT wouldn’t it be *even greater* if that museum reflected the diversity of its constituency? If you don’t agree that the arts have a diversity problem that extends itself into the queer community, well, I guess you should have stopped reading after the first paragraph.

      In my opinion, “Medium of Desire” failed to live up to its own curatorial promise. What was originally pitched as an exploration of desire across gender, sex, and international borders seemed awfully parochial and unambitious to me. What “new or insightful” criticism can I offer you then?

      And kudos to Leslie-Lohman for “openly expressing” a desire to integrate their collection. We can all celebrate when that promise is fulfilled. There are no badges of honor for institutions (especially culture ones that have been around for decades) who maybe might possibly get around to diversity some day soon. Is there permanent collection diverse? No. Have they had a few diverse shows in the past? Certainly, and good ones! Why do we have to make excuses for institutions that drag their feet? Why do we dismiss calls for diversity as “ironic” and ask for *~*identity qualifications*~* from those who ask for it? (Since you asked so nicely, I’m genderqueer, and would be happy to send you essays on gender fluidity and the politics of passing). Shouldn’t diversity be a communal goal? Of course a queer art museum is an extremely precious institution to have, but I just don’t believe we have to coddle it as it nears 40. Moreover, is it crazy to expect a show of international contemporary art to reflect a broader array of experiences than perhaps the museum’s founders had?

      As Daniel notes in his comment below, the Leslie-Lohman comes to queer art from its own angle and history. I agree that such voices and contributions should be treasured, preserved, and valued in our community. If this wasn’t a short a review, sure, I could have regaled you with the lengthy history of the LGBT movement and the Leslie-Lohman museum in order to prove I know something of my “heritage.” But its a short review. You’ll have to believe me.

      tl;dr: The show was bad so I gave it a bad review. I hope their shows will improve in quality. #sorrynotsorry

      1. I don’t question the need for diversity or dismiss any of the questions which you superficially scratch the edge of, but beginning an article with such a trite opening line that immediately erodes any type of articulate commentary is just irritating and petty. Leslie-Lohman certainly has plenty to do to be more inclusive and to address many of the issues which you graze, but it was the condescending tone of your review that I took issue with. That’s also why I questioned your identity politics, since it’s all too often someone with the loudest voice is exactly the thing they profess to be railing against, particularly when art criticism reads more like soapbox ranting. I’d be much more interested to know, in fact, a *sentence* about the history of Leslie-Lohman or their politics, or exactly some of the issues you touched on in your comment above. Either way, I appreciate your response. But opening a review with a sentence as confrontational as the one you used immediately sets a flippant, pompous tone, which is really what rankled me from the start.

        1. I also didn’t intend for my remark about Leslie-Lohman expressing desire for more women artists to function as some sort of crutch to make up for any shortcomings; I was responding specifically to your point about lack of women artists in the show.

        2. Just a point of clarification (loving this discussion though): we’ve written about Leslie-Lohman for years so I don’t think we have to discuss its history each time (no one feels the need to do that for other museums) so I think our readers would understand that. Also, some of the shows have been fantastic, just not every one (like any museum).

          1. Completely fair point with which I don’t disagree. Totally aside from the flaws of the exhibition, I felt that this review didn’t offer any meaningful insight into any issues that were referenced, and seemed more like mudslinging and ranting than incisive criticism. I just frankly found the entire piece petty, irritating, and amateur. Perhaps I’ll just avoid Mr. Small’s work in the future, since that’s my prerogative as a reader. Either way, this was indeed an interesting discussion.

  3. I am curious, is the term ‘queer’ used anywhere in the curatorial notes? It’s not in the title. Zachary seems to hold a set of assumptions about what an exhibition “like this” should be, and isn’t particularly plausible in elaborating what it actually does.”If photography is the medium of desire at the Leslie-Lohman museum, it speaks rather sparsely and slowly — and only in clichés” and “At worst, artists pigeonhole their work into fetishism without having anything to say” are ill-unsupported statements.

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