The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History

Professional Jealousies by Carmine Santaniello

I’m still thinking about the recent show at Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation–which by the way, was just transformed into the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art–congratulations to them!

The exhibition was The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, in its second incarnation. Earlier in 2011, it popped up in a Brooklyn location, and it has plans to go to Bloomington, Indiana in October.

So what is it?

The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History is a grassroots organization that transforms spaces into temporary installations celebrating the rich, long, and largely unknown histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. We believe that our community – and especially our youth – deserve to know our history. If you don’t know you have a past, how can you believe you have a future?

About 30 artists were represented in the show; maybe that was a few too many for the space, and the quality was up and down. But as the nursery rhyme goes, the ones that were good were very, very good.

Among them were the contemporary ex-votos which use the Mexican tradition of offering thanks to a saint. Carmine Santaniello had a couple of earnestly humorous prints such as Professional Jealousies, which features two beefy, masked Mexican wrestlers. The text within the print says:

I pray to the Virgen de Guadalupe, thanking her for bringing me and Jose together in Mexico and I am begging her for mercy to stay as a couple in spite of our professional jealousies in the ring.

Or another by Carmine, which says: “I bring my everlasting love to my husband’s grave on the Day of the Dead-Festival of the Skulls, the way he liked me–naked and strong.”

These pieces are typical of the blend of private and public, domestic and political that make up gay art. There is a special vulnerability to same-sex declarations of love, because one doesn’t know the reception they will receive by the greater public. Will being out lead to acceptance? A hate crime? An uneasy truce? These very private feelings become public and open for judgment, discussion, and political posturing.

The ex-votos take a confident stance at blending the public and private; they are out and thankful; there is nothing to hide from even their saints.

Sip-In by Tim McMath was another that took the direct approach: it was a diorama that recreated the day in 1966 that a group of gays entered a bar in New York City. At that time, it was illegal to serve alcohol to gays; one restaurant in the East Village sported a sign that stated “If you are gay, please go away.” The men could have stayed in the closet, drank their drinks undercover, and left, but they challenged the law by announcing: “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, and intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” This “sip-in” led to the legal challenge in court that eventually gave gays the right to peacefully assemble.

Morgan Hart’s Seeing Femme installation consisted of memory boxes which were glittered up and collaged with book covers, photos, magnets and pins featuring fictional and real women from all time periods and walks of life: Jo March, the Virgin Mary, Jean Harlow, Nancy Drew. These women all served as answers to the question: “Who are your femme icons and influences?” There was a suggestion box for viewers to add their own (I offered up Mary Tyler Moore).

A movie called Paradise Lost, which interviewed Trinidadian LGBT folks about their status and lives in a society where being gay is still illegal, was especially poignant, as was an installation from Sasha Wortzel, which memorialized her longtime partner who had died.

I walked away with a list of books to read (Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Tales of the Lavender Menace) and armed with new knowledge:

  • The Lavender Menace group formed in response to a remark from the President of NOW that gay women were a “lavender menace to the women’s movement”. With the word “feminist” being equated with “liberal”, it’s hard to imagine that comment ever being uttered. But it was.
  • The pulp novel Women Without Men was one of the Top 10 paperbacks in 1957 (love it)
  • Nancy Drew, Saint Sebastian, Naomi and Ruth are all gay icons (puts a new spin on my Nancy Drew collection).

Electronic Arts Festival, Governor’s Island

Blue Morph

I attended the Electronic Arts Festival in various locations on Governor’s Island, my new favorite place to look at art.

In the Trinity Chapel there, we participated in Blue Morph, an interactive installation about “nano, not color”, by Victoria Vesna and James Ginzewski.

The installation is set up this way: you enter the chapel, which is bathed in blue light, and encounter various larger-than-life chrysalis structures hanging from the ceiling as you move through the space. At the point where a priest probably once stood, the largest chrysalis hangs over an octagonal platform which is raised very slightly off the ground. By sitting in the octagon, and donning the knit cap at the tail end of the chrysalis, you will trip the mechanism that begins a film which plays in front of you on the wall.

The film features the (presumably real) sights and sounds of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, but these sights and sounds are jarring, loud, and sudden, not the graceful transitions we’ve come to associate with butterflies.

The large screen at the front fills with images of blue, scaly growths, which seem to suggest butterfly wings under the microscope, yet the statement on the wall says the show is about cellular change and “nano, not color”. Although I never learned what that meant (but wished I could have), I very much related to the statement that cellular change means “sudden surges of activity interspersed with stillness and silence”. Isn’t that just like life? That the statement went on to relate it to the financial markets, recent global upheavals, and natural disasters (on the weekend after Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc in our part of the world) made it even more resonant.

In a way, it makes sense that butterflies should experience the same stop-start, growing-pains-then-cruise-control that we all do, all throughout our lives.

The curious artist and color theorist in me still wants to know what nano is, and how it supersedes color in this case, but reading the statement alone was a joy, and almost enough illumination for one afternoon.

Street Cred, or Street Ed?

Graphic designer Jason Shelowitz isn’t going to take this sitting down.

Tired of seeing people clipping their nails on the subway, and of the many various assaults on the senses and sensibilities of New Yorkers as we make our way through this city of more than 8 million people, he is taking his plea for etiquette to the streets.

Armed with faux street signs that make a case for pulling up one’s pants, for example, he’s trying to educate people on the finer points of getting along. The signs resemble the white, red and black signs we all recognize affixed to various poles around the city.

“It’s a matter of saying what everyone’s thinking,” he said.

Road Trip: Sedona and Abstract Expressionism

Rocks at Palatki ruins, Sedona

In Sedona, it was easy to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism all around us. That sounds strange, even as I write it, because the movement is so closely associated with New York. But many of the painters were actually from, or lived in, the American West, (including Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko), and it’s easy to see echoes of the look and feel of Abstract Expressionism everywhere.

Walking through the red rocks of Sedona, seeing their textures, their edgy contours, the rich color combinations of rocks, dust, and sky–it’s easy to see how sights like these could have influenced them. The open spaces, the color and shapes point me towards abstract paintings I’ve seen, as well as others I’ve seen only in my mind. But I can also feel a rugged pioneering spirit, the mythology of the West, that also seems to make itself known in many paintings, especially in form and technique: bigger-than-life canvases, the invention of Pollock’s drip-paintings, the unconventional use of non-precious materials such as housepaint or whatever was on hand.

The idea of “the monumental”, of universal ideas and mythologies, rather than the personal or a specific narrative; surface; color (especially a field of color); process; and the relationship that existed between creator and artwork: I see evidence of all of this, as a small human walking in a beautiful but sometimes stark land, that has been shaped by rushing water, thrusting rock formations, and blowing wind. Those rough edges and reminders of strong natural forces made the landscape feel very masculine (despite what we were told about the feminine energy of the vortices in and around Sedona), which was also another essence of Abstract Expressionism. And, while we’re on that topic, I was also reminded many times of the movie Thelma and Louise, with its testosterone-rich visual images (oil wells driving into the land, crop dusters spraying fertilizer or pesticides, etc) that served as visual foils for the two women on the run.

Here are some side-by-side comparisons of my photos of Sedona, along with Abstract Expressionist paintings–see for yourself!

Barnett Newman

One of Barnett Newman's "zip" paintings
Rock wall with natural formations, at Palatki ruins, Sedona


Clyfford Still
Still was noted for his use of impasto and texture, based on rock formations and natural forms.

Rock at Palatki ruins, Sedona
Clyfford Still painting


Jackson Pollock

The mineral deposits, left by dripping water, have created many patterns on the ceiling of this rock overhang at the Palatki ruins site in Sedona…

Mineral deposits on cave ceiling, Palatki ruins, Sedona

…which resemble the “all-over” paint application, made by dripping paint, of Jackson Pollock’s best-known works.

Close-up of Jackson Pollock painting


Pictographs (paintings on cave walls) seem to echo aspects of early work by painters like Mark Rothko and Pollock, whose early paintings took their imagery from sources like mythology, dreams and Jungian philosophy, and Surrealism. The pictographs in Sedona, made by either the Sinagua people (approx 650 AD) or an Archaic people who inhabited Sedona from 3000-6000 years ago, seem to share a creative impulse with some of these early paintings.

Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, detail
Symbols and pictographs, Palatki ruins

I’ve enjoyed Abstract Expressionism for a long time, but it was a wonderful thing to actually feel it around me. Next up is a trip to MoMA, to see if the paintings feel different now in that familiar, but domesticated, environment.

Rock wall at Palatki ruins

Governor’s Island, New Art Destination

Outdoor installation, hanging from trees on Governor's Island

I spent a day at Governor’s Island over the holiday weekend, and it was a treat. The island has gone from military installation to art destination in a few short years, and it’s a great place to relax, get away, and indulge in some art.

Let’s get this out of the way first–it’s incredibly easy to get there. The ferry leaves from Lower Manhattan next door to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal (also from 33rd Street and Brooklyn) and took exactly nine minutes from shore to shore. No joke, impatient New Yorkers. And once you arrive, it’s a delight for walkers and bikers because there are almost no vehicles (the occasional golf cart carrying Personnel from Somewhere doing Something excepted).

Everything looks like art from Governor's Island, even the industrial shipping containers

The island is made for strolling along fairly circuitous paths; there is no Manhattan-style grid. You can’t even see where you’re going, since the paths wind so much, and that lent some charm for us. There are picnic opportunities, a beach bar with sand and volleyball courts, and strolls along the waterfront. For art, there are wide-open spaces ripe with sculptural installations, like the current work by Mark di Suvero.

The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council uses studio space in one of the many former military buildings; artists can be found lingering outside doorways that lead to studios or pop-up galleries. Even though Manhattan is only nine minutes away, Governor’s Island has the feel of a remote artist’s residency. By that, I mean the chance for calm and reflection, away from the everyday experience. There is a gravitas to the stately buildings, and some of the more residential ones physically resemble the buildings at the Vermont Studio Center, with their front porches and low-key vibe.

Governor’s Island hosts artists’ sales, festivals like the NY Electronic Arts Festival and is worth checking out.

Bonus: the ferry is free!

Public Art: Fashion District

By artist Joan Benefiel/Photo by Maura McGurk

Check out these red female figures that float and twist on posts above eye-level on Broadway in the Fashion District. This project by Joan Benefiel seems to add light to Broadway from the inside of these figures, radiating out. Anything that adds a little light to NYC is a great thing.

Road Trip: Sedona, Pictographs and Petroglyphs

In Sedona, we went to visit the Palatki ruins, which feature pictographs (images painted on rocks) and a few petroglyphs (images carved on rocks).

The area was inhabited by a tribe called the Sinagua (in Spanish, that means “without water”) around 650 AD, although some of the paintings and carvings date from 3000 – 6000 years ago.

I love petroglyphs and pictrographs from the Southwest, but these are significant because of the variety–black painted figures, white painted figures, scratches in the rock (petroglyphs), red figures, animals, hands, geometric and landscape paintings…

As with most rock carvings and paintings, it’s hard to interpret now what they meant to the artists. It’s thought that the repetitive scratching were ritualistic acts performed by shamans; the antelope and other animals may have been prey.

Petroglyph (rock carving) at Palatki ruins, Sedona

Sedona Pictograph with black figures

Sedona Pictograph with black and white figures

Public Art: The Andy Monument

The Andy Monument by Rob Pruitt/Photo by Maura McGurk

New Yorkers always tend to look down as they speed around town, probably to avoid stepping in anything nasty.  But there’s lots to see when you keep your eyes above street level.  This sculpture of Andy Warhol, by Rob Pruitt, is located at the northwest corner of Union Square Park, outside of the building where his Factory was housed and where he gave away copies of his Interview magazine.  The statue wears Levi’s 501 jeans and carries a Bloomingdale’s medium brown bag; as the single most famous Pop artist, Andy would have been proud of so many pop references.

Pruitt’s statement on The Andy Monument is also worth noting:

Like so many other artists and performers, and people who don’t fit in because they’re gay or otherwise different, Andy moved here to become who he was, to fulfill his dreams, and make it big. He still represents that courage and that possibility. That’s why I came to New York, and that’s what my Andy Monument is about.

The Andy Monument is on view until October 2–worth checking out.

The Museum of Motherhood

As I was walking down the street the other day, I saw a large banner that proclaimed a new museum opening, right in my neighborhood. This was news, and how could I not have known about it, just three blocks from my place? It’s called the Museum of Motherhood. I wandered over and poked my head in, and was treated to a personal tour of the new museum by its Director and Founder, Joy Rose.

What fun! It’s not just for moms or their kids. The approach is deliberately multi-pronged and multi-leveled. Exhibits included a pictorial one on the history of childbirth, illustrating, for example, how pregnant women in the Middle Ages were given last rites by the Catholic Church because of the likelihood of death. Several art exhibitions dealt with different views of motherhood. In one, photographs and financial notes contrast the labor a mother performs at home (caring for the kids, gardening in the yard) with the labor of a professional performing the same duties (daycare provider, landscaper); the only difference is that one is paid and the other is not. Another exhibition takes a more lighthearted, Pop Art look at the domestic side of caring for kids, with garments like aprons made of laminated cereal boxes. This art was created by Joy, who also confided that she founded the so-called “Mom Rock” band “Housewives on Prozac”. I recall reading about them in Entertainment Weekly a few years ago, and my sister was a fan too. Street cred!

Other exhibits feature a pregnancy vest which can be donned to simulate the weight and feel of being pregnant (boy, it was heavy); a chalkboard wall for recording thoughts, grievances, etc; and more artwork.

My Guerrilla Girls trading card

Joy also gave me a sneak peek at upcoming events — the Guerrilla Girls will be performing! She also was very specific that there are different kinds of mothering and that we all have some experience with it, whether we have gone through childbirth or not — mothering a project, a pet, a family member. The Museum’s premise is that there is a different reality to motherhood than the syrupy, Hallmark version which is what gets presented and swallowed most often.

Her comments on mothering a creative endeavor echoed an ongoing discussion in grad school, about artists considering their artworks to be their children…you bring them into the world, sometimes at great personal labor, you care for them, and it can be difficult to see them leave. There’s a very powerful mythology there for many artists.

This museum sounds ambitious and fun, and scholarly too. At the moment, it’s a pop-up, set for four months, but if it does well, it may stick around for another two years or more. The art changes frequently, and lots of programs and readings and concerts are being planned for the near future, so it’s worth a look.


Marisa Tomei and Josh Lucas present Prop 8 testimony

Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson put their money where their mouth is. A year ago, when the Prop 8 trial in California wasn’t allowed to be televised, they re-enacted scenes themselves in parks, Marisa in LA, Cheyenne in NYC. Watch Marisa’s video here and Cheyenne’s here.

Marisa’s involvement inspired me to produce an afternoon of testimony in Washington Square Park last August. Extremely talented actors took on the roles of gay plaintiffs who had sued for the right to marry, as well as lawyers, witnesses, and Judge Vaughn Walker, who ultimately ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional because it denied gays the equal right to marry.

Marisa and Cheyenne were among the very first celebrities to support this endeavor by filming testimony. Now, they’re taking the show to Broadway, and bringing Morgan Freeman, Anthony Edwards, Christine Lahti, Yeardley Smith, and Rob Reiner with them.

The play is written by Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the Oscar-winning movie, Milk.

The Broadway premiere and benefit reading will be Monday, September 19, 8 p.m. at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

To purchase tickets and for more information visit:

Back to School

Before and After, Acrylic/Mixed media on panel, 24" x 24", $1500

Every once in a while, someone asks me why I paint about gay bullying. This kind of conversation usually goes like this: “Why do you paint about gay bullying? I mean, aren’t there plenty of other kids getting bullied? Aren’t you giving special treatment to the gay ones?”

This always reminds me of the first few pages of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, where she comments on people who give away more about themselves than they realize, by the questions they ask, and the way they ask them.

But anyway. As we start the new school year, let’s remember:

That’s about twice as many gay kids being bullied, and that’s way too many.

First Day of School

Girasole, Watercolor, 9x12, $75

As I was going through my little “ideas folder”, looking for projects to round out my arts courses this semester, I ran across an old article I’d clipped (out of an actual newspaper; it was a long time ago) and saved.

As relevant now–or maybe more–than when I first read it as I was beginning my very first teaching job outside of grad school, the article, “Art for Our Sake” by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland is about why art should be taught in schools. It presented a couple of the usual tropes, then smashed them, especially the one that says that using a creative part of the brain allows students to learn math, science, etc. more easily. (There is actually no scientific basis for this belief).

What makes me sad, just as we’re enduring another round of cuts to arts education because of our current “double-dip” recession, is how the research in this article shows that students learn important skills from art class that they’re not learning anywhere else, in a curriculum based on memorization and standardized tests.

When my students go outside to paint and draw the landscape (as we’re going to do this week), they’re going to learn a few techniques, yes. We’re going to explore how to translate a three-dimensional scene believably onto two-dimensional paper, including mixing paint, and proper studio practices. But they’re learning much more, and mostly skills that can’t be measured on standardized tests, and which are therefore ignored in classes that “teach to” these tests.

I won’t go into all of the skills here, but some of my favorites mentioned in the article include:

  • persistence (our class, after all, is four hours long)
  • reflection (I’ll ask students to step back from their easels and assess what they’re doing)
  • self-criticism (that assessment may lead to changing things around because they don’t like what they see)
  • willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes (I’ve already advised my students not to throw away any of their work, especially their very worst drawings; that’s how they’ll learn the most)
  • making connections between class work and the world outside the classroom (whether we go out on the lawn to draw, to a gallery on a field trip, or look at Powerpoint examples of how a few famous artists struggled with the same issues). These connections between a student’s own artistic work and the real world could mean making a landscape painting look believable, addressing a social issue through an artwork, or looking at how marketers use color to persuade consumers to buy.
  • moving past preconceptions. Leaves are green, so I’m going to paint all these leaves the same. Are they? Which branches have light shining on them, making their leaves lighter? Are the leaves on that elm tree a lighter or darker green than the pine tree next to it? Than the grass the tree is growing out of? Which trees’ leaves actually seem more yellow (or blue, or purplish-red, etc) when you give them a more careful look?

The article makes the case that looking beyond preconceived expectations is even more important outside of art class, and is practically a job requirement for any profession. (This has been on my mind recently as I watch the trailers for a movie I can’t wait to see, based on a book I loved: Moneyball, the story of how an upstart baseball executive found new ways to analyze game statistics, in order to judge the true worth of players to their teams. Unexpected statistics led to the ability to acquire better players for less money, and in the case of the Red Sox, remake the team and win a World Series for the first time in 86 years! Getting rid of the old notions of what makes a good player has remade the entire game of baseball).

But I digress. That’s for another post.

The arts article goes on to explore how the educational system could adapt, in order to educate students so that they’re equipped to deal with the complex problems the world is facing. Spoiler alert–their solution is not to rely on art classes to let students just “express themselves” (though I’m not denying that’s important), or hope that using another part of their brain will cause their test scores to rise. Their answer is rather to make academic classes more like art classes–let them rely on investigation, experimentation, and real-world data, not memorization and timelines.

As an artist and teacher, this is a great way to start the year, validating the approaches I’ve been using in the classroom, and backing them up with data (which I didn’t address very deeply here). Even though it bothers me that short-sighted budget cuts are hampering our students on a fundamental level, I hope my students, and others, can take the skills they learn in class and apply them in other parts of their lives.

Here’s to a great school year!