Living in Downtown Brooklyn, I did a double-take at the projected Google Maps journey to Bedford Park in the Bronx to view a group show called Queer Love at Lehman College Art Gallery. The hour-and-a-half transit with multiple transfers gave me plenty of time to wonder if I was wasting a whole day to see an exhibition that, by title alone, could easily just lean into the existing wave of White queer navel-gazing through self-centered portraiture accessorized with monstera plants and exaggerated color palettes.
But upon entering the gallery, I was presented with an array of 2D works by approximately four dozen LGBTQ+ artists from all walks of life. Not only did the exhibition content chip away at my intrinsic cynicism, but the deliberate considerations of materiality, scale, and craft emphasized the truth that queerness is something that’s both visually and emotionally beautiful.
I was immediately drawn to the photography of Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. and Clifford Prince King, two queer Black artists whose practices peel back the preconceived notions surrounding Black masculinity by imbuing their subjects with a specific gentleness and vulnerability. Brown Jr.’s photos play with the boundaries of privacy and intimacy through partially obscured portraiture and unconventional angles, implying a necessary voyeurism into the truth of Blackness that defies stereotypes. King’s subjects are situated in domestic spaces such as the kitchen in “Just the Two of Us” (2019), with precious easter eggs like a giraffe-themed teapot, and hints of a bedroom in “Growing Each Day” (2019). This domesticity isn’t rooted in confinement, but rather in optimism and softness as the means of navigating life as a queer Black man with HIV.
Mexican-Bolivian artist Adriana Elena Bravo Morales reorients affection as a mode of resistance in “Beso de Chola/Chola Kiss” (2016), an image of herself and fellow collaborating artist Ivanna Terraza, two self-identified cholitas (Indigenous Bolivian women who wear traditional clothing), passionately kissing on the public streets of Bolivia to the surprise and shock of passersby. Bravo Morales wanted to reject the characterization of the cholita as a matriarchal figure devoid of sexual desire, stating that the kiss between two Indigenous women in traditional dress is “powerful.”
I was also very taken with Colombian artist Federico Uribe’s collaged “Hug” (2007), comprised entirely of pins and shoelaces in colors I didn’t even know shoelaces came in. Uribe portrayed two figures embracing, one with their eyes shut while the other faces the viewer with one eye open and unclear emotions, complete with a pulsating aura of dark red that radiates off of them. The embrace coupled with the symbolic use of shoelaces underlines an inherent message of interconnectedness.
A poignant addition to the exhibition was the work of Theodoor Grimes (@ggggrimes), a self-taught, Black trans artist from the Bronx who intentionally focuses on queer people of color living “happy, beautiful, colorful, sexy lives” in response to unabashed criticism of their work from White queer individuals who felt excluded. Grimes’s digital painting “Date Night Distancing, August 9th” (2021) highlights a North African cisgender lesbian and her West African trans lesbian girlfriend having a date night from home, rendered in tropical sunset hues that I desperately require in eyeshadow palette form. It’s honestly a breath of fresh air to witness some queer people of color enjoying life and having fun without an attached trauma woven through the narrative.
I could wax poetic about Tommy Kha’s and Sunil Gupta’s beautiful photos and Tura Oliveira’s exquisite textile work, but I want to take a moment to appreciate the genesis of this exhibition. I had a chance to speak with Queer Love’s curator and executive director of the Lehman College Art Gallery, Bartholomew (Bart) Bland, who told me that the show was conceptualized in 2019 in an effort to better support the university’s queer students until quarantine ground everything to a halt.
Bland curated the show to prioritize romance and affection instead of overt themes of sexuality in respect to the gallery’s audience of K-12 students, but the companion show, Queer Love: Affection and Romance in Contemporary Art (February 14 to April 6) at La MaMa Galleria in Lower Manhattan, was able to incorporate those more risqué elements and the quintessential “Downtown edge.”
Bland was concerned about the turnout for the show, saying that a number of people told him “oh, you’re up in the Bronx? I don’t think we’ll make it,” or some such variation. “And I said, ‘Well, there’s 2 million people who live in the Bronx,'” Bland told me. So far, a lot of the viewers have been students at Lehman College, particularly those who are of the Gen Z generation and younger, who may be questioning or looking to affirm their own queerness on campus.
One element of the show that was sorely missed was an inclusion of sculpture and installation work. I just think that something as exuberant, fluid, and invigorating as queer love cannot and should not be contained to the wall or within the rigidity four corners, and I would have enjoyed seeing more dimensional manifestations of these intense feelings in the interest of taking up physical space rather than simply drawing us to the perimeters of the gallery.
Nevertheless, it was most certainly worth the trip, and I would implore anybody and everybody to make the visit to Bedford Park and view the show that’s up until April 28. Exhibition-related performances by the Bronx Repertory Company will be taking place in the gallery from Wednesday, April 26, through Friday, April 28, activating the space through four plays inspired by work from the show.