On a recent unseasonably warm morning, William J. Simmons, an eager graduate student at City University of New York, was sweating and talking about art theory. It was one of the first humid days of the year, and Simmons was overdressed, but when he spoke to me about a show he was working on called “Queer Fantasy,” he seemed comfortable.
“Queer Fantasy,” which opened at OHWOW Gallery on July 11, is a summer group show that brings together ten American queer artists in an ambitious survey of queer art history from the late ’50s to now. The catch: the focus will not be gay men working during the height of the AIDS crisis, as is often the case with surveys of this kind. “I really want to revise the queer art narrative,” Simmons said, “because at once you have to focus on what’s come before—issues of AIDS, of identity politics, of these things that people don’t want to talk about so much these days—but you also have to work on a new narrative.”
David Benjamin Sherry, whose psychedelic landscape photography and homoerotic portraiture are included in “Queer Fantasy,” was the starting point for the show. “I saw his work as very queer because he depicts queer subject matter, obviously, but he also revises the modernist narrative of high photography,” Simmons told me. “I saw that as a queer act. And so I got to thinking about different ways in which queerness can be expressed without the depiction of expressly queer subject matter.”
The canonical queer artists—the ones who are taught in undergraduate art-history surveys—mostly came out of the late ’80s, but more than two decades have passed since then. As Simmons told me, there are more queer artists than just the men who dealt with AIDS, death, and bodies. Using what he calls a “queer feminist perspective,” Simmons picked artists working today who go beyond these subjects in their work. Five of the artists in “Queer Fantasy” are women, which Simmons says is important because he wants this history to be “supplemented by these voices that haven’t really been heard so far.” (He’d like to do future versions of the show, perhaps including artists who would be considered heterosexual.)
Simmons gushed about the show’s artists, both the up-and-comers and the misunderstood stars. On Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, the painter: “She’s really poised to enter this group of painters and thinkers who are the vanguard of queer thought, and also painterly thought.” On Jimmy DeSana, the photographer who Simmons wrote his undergraduate thesis on: “He’s going to be the next big thing.” On John Waters, the director and provocateur: “He’s so much more than a celebrity. I think people really need to see the value of his art for what it is.”
Gay Is Not Enough (2006), one of several Waters film stills in the show, epitomizes most of what Simmons told me about “Queer Fantasy.” The title appears in the work, written in an unfashionable font and superimposed on an image blurred to the point of non-recognition. Everything in the still is just barely stable, and at any second, it could all change.