Art

The Offstage Art of Brooklyn Drag Queens

An exhibition at the Bureau of General Services — Queer Division highlights the non-drag art of more than a dozen members of the Brooklyn drag queen scene.

Untitled sculpture by Raul de Nieves with beads, paint, and glue (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Untitled sculpture by Raul de Nieves with beads, paint, and glue (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Up a curving staircase at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (or simply “The Center”), there’s a small room in the back corner. Outside of it are brown cardboard boxes stamped with the letters “BGSQD,” which stand for Bureau of General Services — Queer Division. Inside is a small but mighty independent queer cultural center, event space, and bookstore. While books and zines regularly line the space’s walls and shelves, BGSQD is also currently hosting Coney Island Babies: Visual Artists from the Brooklyn Drag Scene, an exhibition featuring work from artists who are also involved in Brooklyn’s avant-garde drag scene — some are performers, some are designers, musicians, all of the above, and more.

Exterior of the Bureau of General Services — Queer Division
Exterior of the Bureau of General Services — Queer Division

Titled as a salute to Lou Reed’s song “Coney Island Baby” — which the late musician dedicated to Rachel, his trans lover — the show was curated by artists Chris Bogia and Montgomery Perry Smith of the Fire Island Artist Residency, and brings together sculpture, photography, costume design, drawing, performance, and a host of other media.

Entering the space on a Wednesday afternoon, the first thing I notice is “In Spite of Ourselves” by John Prine and Iris Dement playing overhead:

She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs
Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs.

BCALLA (Brad Callahan), "X, Y, and Z Fight the Homogeny" dress
BCALLA (Brad Callahan), “X, Y, and Z Fight the Homogeny” dress

What strikes me almost immediately about the work is how vulnerable and quiet some of it is. A lifelong lover of drag, one of the things I adore most about the form is that it is loud and brash, it doesn’t hide, it’s proudly the center of attention. The featured artworks by members of the Brooklyn drag community don’t hide, either; some of them just speak in a different tone of voice. For example, there is a video from 2014 of the deliciously unruly and genre-bending Untitled Queen (née Matthew de Leon) performing Judy Garland’s rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while wearing a dress made of what look like assorted items of clothing sewn together, sporting a long, teased blonde wig, a child’s medieval-style chest plate, and cheeks rouged neon pink to the point of comedy. Untitled is so gripping and powerful while lip-synching to Judy that goose bumps begin to appear on my arms in the rather toasty BGSQD room. One of de Leon’s pieces in the show, though, is more delicate and understated: a drawing featuring an architecture of crisply inked lines, shapes, and colors accented with an occasional spot of glitter. Drag is often rooted in parody and absurdity; and in work like de Leon’s, I feel like there is a stripping away of metaphorical costume, that the artist whose work hangs on the wall is more closely related to the artist out of drag. It’s a welcome delight that this person has allowed me to see under their makeup.

Impossible instant film shots from the series Babes by Sophi Skin-Tight (Fred Attenborough)
Impossible instant film shots from the series Babes by Sophi Skin-Tight (Fred Attenborough)
Fuji Instant film photos by Sophi Skin-Tight
Fuji Instant film photos by Sophi Skin-Tight

The photographs of Chris of Hur (Chris Harris) are similarly vulnerable. His multiple exposure prints of gentlemen in flagrante delicto feel raw and personal, reminiscent of Mark Morrisroe’s prints from the 1970s and ‘80s. The Fuji and Impossible instant film images by Sophi Skin-Tight (Fred Attenborough) of performers and personalities in the Brooklyn scene hark back to the defining days of drag. Hur and Skin-Tight’s photos serve as peeks into lives we might never know about were it not for those on the inside documenting them.

Also of note is the sculpture “Whip” (2016) by Patti Spliff (co-curator Montgomery Perry Smith), which features an intricately carved, pale wooden handle dripping with feet upon feet of hand-cut, mustard-yellow cowhide fringe; it resembles a luxurious cat-of-nine-tails. In its subtlety of handle design but exaggerated whip length, it’s another reminder of life beyond the surface, beyond the ordinary. In a different vein, a brightly colored dress by BCALLA (Brad Callahan), “X, Y, and Z Fight the Homogeny” (2016), features comic book panels printed on poly-silk and accented with rhinestones. The garment is infused with that very alt Brooklyn drag sensibility in its over-the-top, intelligent explosion of color.

Much of the work in the show is thought-provoking and perceptive, from the sculptures “Wimp” (2016) and “Pink Crysanthemum” (2014) by JonBenet Glamsey (Vincent Tiley) — which feature constructions of bleached denim, latex, aluminum, and wood, among other materials — to Raul de Nieves’s assemblage of green, glittering beads. I’m happy to see work that is forging its own space, just as these polyvalent artists are doing by putting their art, bodies, and voices unapologetically on display.

Detail of untitled sculpture by Raul de Nieves with beads, paint, and glue
Detail of untitled sculpture by Raul de Nieves with beads, paint, and glue
JonBenet Glamsey (Vincent Tiley), "Wimp"
JonBenet Glamsey (Vincent Tiley), “Wimp”
Panel of the "X, Y, and Z Fight the Homogeny" dress by BCALLA (Brad Callahan)
Panel of the “X, Y, and Z Fight the Homogeny” dress by BCALLA (Brad Callahan)

Coney Island Babies: Visual Artists from the Brooklyn Drag Scene continues at the Bureau of General Service — Queer Division (208 West 13th Street, Room 210, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through November 27.

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