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Art historians may contend that it was Dada that brought collage into the Western canon. Specifically, it was the German Dadaist Hannah Höch who popularized photomontage as a means to access the subconscious, political, and absurd. But few art historical surveys of photomontage (or more broadly collage) have considered the medium to be a quintessentially queer art form.
The act of collaging can be a passive and even violent affair — the slicing of limbs, the composing of Frankensteinian faces — yet queer artists have continually turned to the technique for its ability to recast that violence by rearranging symbols of aggressive hypermasculinity into scenes of same-sex tenderness, providing a rare glimpse into the paradoxical softness of roughness. Central to the queer practice of collage is the construction of new worlds and identities, the outward use of a violent action to protect a vulnerable inner life.
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s latest exhibition, Cut-Ups: Queer Collage Practices divulges some spectacular examples of queer collage from decades past — so spectacular that they threaten to outshine the contemporary works on view. Some of these older collages are thrilling, indulgent anecdotes from history. Did you know, for example, that the same man developing parapsychology techniques for the CIA maintained a pornographic collage practice? His name was Ingo Swann, and in the collages, you can sense the impact of Surrealism and Freudian collage on the founder of “remote viewing,” a method of extrasensory perception. Like many of the other artists on display here, Swann is presented as a man with one or two niche fetishes in his back pocket. In “S & M School,” Swann amusingly foregrounds a bondage slave emerging from a snail shell amidst the vaulted halls of what might be a church, haloed by the glow of a full harvest moon. Given the church-like setting and the chained-up, what shall we call them, martyrs, it looks like Swann may be attempting to illustrate the common parallel between Catholicism and S&M culture. With the more ambiguous iconography of the full moon and the snail shell, we garner some aspect of Swann’s parapsychological eccentricities.
In another collage, the artist Olaf Odegaard delineates himself amidst a sea of adrift torsos. Where other artists focus on human anatomy, Odegaard seems preoccupied with erotic and fetishized materials. In his best work on display, “Title Unknown (White Restroom),” Odegaard transforms the loaded setting of a men’s urinal with a swath of fabric. A man in a white sailor uniform embraces another man from behind, the fabric flowing over like a wedding gown, or something otherwise resembling the sinister tryst of Daphne and Apollo. The fabric doubles over itself and grows into something larger that transcends the hackneyed homoerotic imagery found in pornography. Ultimately, this is what signals the true power of gay collage — not its ability to construct new worlds for identity and fetish to fester, but to construct true fantasies.
The lesbian artists exhibited in Cut-Ups serve the most impactful works at this male-dominated affair. They acutely mock the queer canon’s use of collage for unadulterated, shoehorned horniness. Far from shunning eroticism or fetishism, they assert that collage in the queer tradition can be deployed for more socio-political designs.
Suzanne Wright’s cut-ups transform flat two-dimensional space into wormholes that transport you to the utopic order of 1960s United States during the Space Race. The worm holes take many forms, often blurring imagery of urban infrastructure with that of the female body. Wright also uses the female body as a launch pad for rockets, describing a woman’s body as a battleground for today’s arguments over science, technology, and war. She arms her women with blazing rockets, missiles, and even lasers, preparing them for a battle against the patriarchal powers.
Setting herself apart from all the other artists on display, Deborah Bright’s “Dream Girl Series” demonstrates that a queer person’s body does not have to be naked to make a point. Her work is simple and wonderfully amusing. With a humorous tone, Bright appropriates the film stills of Rebel Without a Cause, replacing Sal Mineo, who plays James Dean’s friend in the film, with herself. This one alteration replaces the movie’s girlfriend-comforts-buddy narrative with a lesbian-steals-girlfriend plot. Appearing smug and faintly nonchalant in the film stills, Bright’s piece reshapes narrative and gender dynamics with the smallest of incisions.
Although her tiny incisions may barely qualify as collage compared to the more elaborate works on view at Leslie-Lohman, Bright’s work is a wonderful counterpoint in an exhibition full of explosive visions of body politics and fetishism. Her vision of society is not so radical as it is nonchalantly equal; a world in which she has the same chance to woo a woman like Natalie Wood as James Dean does. Instead of using collage to create a world for herself, she uses it to step out into the world as it is, standing where her straight male peers already did.
Cut-Ups: Queer Collage Practices continues at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster St, Soho, Manhattan) through December 18.