Reflecting queer history

| 14 Mar 2017 | 03:47

The large, wooden cross hibernating in the back corner of the spacious studio resembles a cactus from afar. Pinned against a white wall, its body is punctured by dozens of colorful glass vials, each containing an assortment of objects that represent a day in the life of mixed-media artist Edward A. Hochschild.

Sand, hair, condoms, dried blood and a variety of pills glisten from separate cells, clenching onto untold memories of a losing battle with a ruthless virus. Some objects appear in multiple vials, reflecting banality and routine. Instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with LGBTQ history, the artifact is also an intensely personal exploration of sexuality, selfhood and morality.

The “Vial Cross” is one of roughly 250 works displayed at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s current exhibition, “Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting,” which opened March 10. The exhibit is the Wooster Street museum’s first following an expansion that nearly doubled the size of its original space. The effort, begun in October, will allow the museum to operate year-round, offering a mix of ongoing and future exhibitions, film screenings and artist lectures.

Displaying both vintage and new additions from the museum’s permanent collection, “Expanded Visions” traces the history of LGBTQ art from the Stonewall riots and the dawn of the AIDS epidemic to the present. Branden Wallace, registrar and co-curator of the exhibit, said that the works in the exhibit reflect and expand on the museum’s core values: loss, censorship and celebration of identity.

As such, the works are filed under four themes: homoeroticism, political issues, surrealism and the devastating AIDS outbreak, which led many dying artists to donate their works to the museum. With pieces from Andy Warhol, Bernice Abbott, Richard Hamilton and Go Mishima, the show uses photographs, paintings and sculptures to celebrate the LGBTQ story.

To Gonzalo Casals, the museum’s recently installed director, the exhibition is an ecumenical learning experience that poses as a mirror and a window into an explosively creative and resilient community.

“If you are queer, we hope you see yourself reflected in the work, and understand that you are not alone,” he said. “If you’re not, we hope this is a window to, through storytelling, help you understand the history of the other.”

The museum’s genesis dates to 1969, when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman began showing their collection of gay art in their SoHo loft. Over the ensuing five decades, it became a breeding ground for countercultural talents and a safe space for a heavily marginalized community. The institution, with more than 30,000 works in its canon, claims to be the first and only dedicated gay and lesbian museum in the world.

In the last four to five years, the museum’s focus has been on generating more diversity to its collection by sourcing works from lesbian, transgender and gender-queer artists, veering off a script long dominated by gay white men to unearth the overlooked tales of women and people of color.

Among the works included in “Expanded Visions,” Ruth Bernhard’s “Folding,” a sensual portrait marveling the softness of female curves, shares the wall with Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic, hypersexual photographs of gay male masculinity.

Douglas Holtquist’s self-explanatory bronze sculpture, “Male Torso,” shares the floor with Greer Lankton’s “Elvira,” a sewn Dolly Parton clone that sat in a relative’s grimy garage for 20 years before finding a home at Leslie-Lohman.

“Expanded Visions” commemorates three defining chapters in the history of the institution: its founding in 1969, the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, and its establishment as a nonprofit foundation in 1987.

“This show looks to the past and our roots and to the future to expanding definitions of queerness,” Casals said, adding that he hopes everyone can continue to think about these three moments as the museum writes its next chapters.

He said that under his guidance, Leslie-Lohman will continue to provide a platform for underrepresented artists and provide support political forces fighting for LGBTQ rights.

“Now more than ever,” he added.