What does Stonewall mean to you? It can be a fraught question, with as many answers as people who might contemplate it. At the beginning of 2019, the year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, that very question was posed in New York at a panel surrounding the New Museum show “Consciousness Razing: The Stonewall Re-memorialization Project,” for which Chris E. Vargas asked other artists to propose new monuments to the event that many consider the flashpoint that kicked off Gay Liberation.
What struck me most that day was the response of Devin N. Morris, which was something to the effect of “not much.” Morris was not dismissing the importance of Stonewall so much as saying that the way history had been told until very recently had centered on the white, cis gay men who had co-opted the movement at the expense of people of color, including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and Stormè DeLarverie.
The question lingered with me all year as I visited various queer-related exhibitions and performances, thinking and re-thinking exactly what Stonewall meant to me—a queer Chicanx arts journalist—all these 50 years later. For the anniversary, New York had on offer numerous exhibitions that marked the occasion and some of those appear on this list. But some of the most affecting work I saw this year wasn’t necessarily tied to Stonewall, at least directly. Below, a look at the best of 2019.
10. “Tiona Nekkia McClodden: Hold on, let me take the safety” at Company Gallery
In her elegant exhibition, which opened shortly after she won the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney Biennial (and continues into February 2020), Tiona Nekkia McClodden presents various objects used by the leather and BDSM communities, of which the artist is a part. A black-painted Manual cattle squeeze chute sits in front of a black modernist chair that at first looks inviting—until you see the razor planted in the center of the seat. The stark white walls contrast with the deep blacks of leather jackets, harnesses, and boots that McClodden installed in a moving show that addresses the specificity of rituals in a community that has long been denigrated for running counter to the assimilationist views of some LGBTQ+ people. What McClodden wants us to see is the aesthetic beauty in these rituals and devices. Only by testing the limits of what pleasure can be can we find true beauty in this world.
9. John Edmonds in the Whitney Biennial
Though only occupying what was essentially a hallway of the Whitney Biennial, John Edmonds’s elegant portraits of young queer black people were among the best works the exhibition had to offer. Installed on an elegant marigold-painted wall and hung salon-style, the portraits were elegant and touching. More than that, they look at the ways in which African objects have been co-opted in Modernist photography, particularly as seen in Man Ray’s 1926 Kiki with African mask. Edmonds updates that piece with Tête de Femme, but instead of a white model appearing passively as she holds the mask, Edmonds’s model looks directly at the camera, asserting her place in art history. She is not the object of a gaze that our oppressive, racist society wants to make her to be.
8. Jonathan Weinberg, Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront (Penn State University Press)
This game-changing book by Jonathan Weinberg draws on about a decade of research into the art made along Manhattan’s West Side piers. In his youth, Weinberg visited the area and cautions against the nostalgia that renders the piers a safe haven. (There was danger involved in visiting, which was part of the appeal for some.) Weinberg charts the careers of numerous artists ranging from well-known (David Wojnarowicz) to only recently remembered (Alvin Baltrop) to those still underappreciated (Tava). Most revelatory is Weinberg writing about not recognizing Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End when he visited; to the queer community then, Matta-Clark wasn’t the most important artist. Instead that designation went to Tava, whose mural-sized paintings of men with erect penises could be seen from the ferry boats traversing the Hudson River. It’s an important commentary on how—and to whom—value is assigned.
7. “The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kent Monkman has long created stunning paintings that turn the conventions of Western painting on their heads. Conversations around his work, however, often gloss over the importance of queerness in what he’s trying to do. Years ago, Monkman created a persona named Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a Cree deity whose gender doesn’t conform to Western binaries but instead to indigenous conceptions of gender prior to colonization. (Monkman is currently at work on her memoir, which begins with her creation story.) In two large-scale paintings installed in the Met’s Grand Hall for all to see, Miss Chief—scantily clad in a piece of red fabric and black Louboutin pumps—is a central figure. The compositions draw on elements from works in the museum’s collection, from George Washington crossing the Delaware to problematic paintings of indigenous peoples by Delacroix and Henry Inman. The works represent the alpha and omega of sorts, from the arrival of Europeans (the wooden boat people) to a lush “New World” to the departure of the indigenous peoples from post-apocalyptic territory. Through it all, Miss Chief is a fearless leader who will help us find where we’re meant to go and how to exist once we get there.
6. “The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
This stunning retrospective brought together some 200 photographs by Alvin Baltrop, the late photographer whose impressive and important—and, during his lifetime, under-recognized—work centered on photographing New York City, particularly its queer communities. Running into February 2020, the exhibition explores the full-range of Baltrop’s output, beginning with the images he produced while in the Navy, which already show his gift for capturing complex compositions that are revelatory in their connections with architecture and intimate moments that are at once sexually and sensually charged. His shots of the decks of Navy ships inform his aerial views of the West Side piers. While some of his more famous photos are missing from the show, here we see an expanded side of Baltrop and his work.
5. The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
In his Broadway play The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez gives voice to the generations of queer men who came of age after 1996, the year in which antiretroviral therapy drugs became available and made an HIV-positive diagnosis no longer a death sentence to those who could afford treatment. The death of a generation of gay men between 1981 and 1996 looms large over this ambitious seven-hour production, and while the work is indeed taxing, it is well-worth it. Based on E.M. Forrester’s Howards End, the play begins in the mode of a writing workshop as the main characters try to figure out how to best to tell the story—a tale of loss in which a passing generation looks for spiritual heirs to carry on the important work of caring for queer people who have been cast aside by mainstream society. In one of several scenes inflected with magical realism, Forrester makes an appearance as a character (and his own status as a flawed hero is touched upon). Moments of levity and laughter mix with deep periods of sadness and tenderness—a full range of queerness is conveyed. The Inheritance is deeply affecting and, staged one year after the 50th-anniversary revival of seminal gay play The Boys in the Band, feels like a spiritual heir.
4. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre
The theme of fallen heroes is taken up in this riotous production by the Philadelphia-based group the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. The piece was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries for its commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the American poet Walt Whitman, and in one song here, Whitman, a closeted gay man who has been celebrated in the queer community, is referred to as a singer’s “daddy.” When few heroes exist, we’ll take what we can get, the Bearded Ladies seem to tell us. And therein lies a problem, as blindly celebrating Whitman elides his overt racism. He called Black people “baboons,” and quickly the celebration of Whitman turns into a trial over his legacy. Should he be canceled? The show doesn’t settle so much on a resolution as to whether he or anyone else should be written off. Instead, it leaves the audience feeling that maybe we should all be canceled.
3. “Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989” at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art and Grey Art Gallery
This exhibition, which looked to chart the ways in which Stonewall caused a rupture in contemporary society with far reaches, proved historic. Co-curated by Jonathan Weinberg, Tyler Cann, and Drew Sayer, it brought together many important works by generations of artists (both queer and straight-identified) including Martin Wong, Judith F. Baca, Lyle Ashton Harris, Greer Lankton, Vaginal Davis, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Nayland Blake, Harmony Hammond, Jimmy DeSana, and Robert Gober, as well as less-recognized but equally important figures like Michela Griffo, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Leonard Fink, Marion Pinto, Geoffrey Hendricks, and Kay Tobin Lahusen. While there were of course still more artists who should have been included (Asco and Cyclona, for example), this show offered the first big step in acknowledging how important Stonewall is to the history—of art and society as a whole—of the United States.
2. “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” at Brooklyn Museum
This is how you do a thematic group exhibition of what it means to be a queer contemporary artist working today. “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow” was exceptional, particularly in the ways it centered emerging artists of color. The work ranged from the mournful and the rageful to the touching and the tender—covering many of the highs and the lows that young queer people face. Stunning contributions came from Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, Linda LaBeija, Felipe Baeza, Kiyan Williams, and Elektra KB. Among the highlights were a Constantina Zavitsanos sculpture with a framed yellow mattress topper marked with the sensual curves of a lover who seems to have just left; LJ Robert’s light-box dedication to Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian whose involvement with the Stonewall Uprising has long been unrecognized; and Mark Aguhar’s column dedicated to the “sisses,” “boi dykes,” and “high femmes”—with text reading, in part, “Blessed are the beloved who I didn’t describe, I couldn’t describe, will learn to describe and respect and love.”
1. Julie Tolentino’s Slipping Into Darkness at Performance Space New York
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived at Performance Space in the early evening on a Friday. After a brief shower in the venue’s dressing room, I descended to the courtyard, where I entered a tent whose interior had been painted gold. There, in a circular cedar pool, with water heated to close to 100 degrees, was Julie Tolentino—waiting for me. For Slipping Into Darkness, the artist wanted to engage one-on-one with near strangers. (We had never met before, but I have long admired her work.) Key to the piece was breathing and immersion in water. As I learned to focus on breathing through my mouth, Tolentino and I sat close together, as if we were next to each other on the subway. Then, when it was time for me to go under, she slowly guided me down and back up again. The experience was utterly calming—the water all-encompassing. When I began to forget where I was, I simply focused on my breathing. It made for a poignant metaphor: when it seems like you can’t keep your head above water, all you have to do is breathe. Tolentino has been an AIDS activist for over 30 years, and her piece felt akin to radical therapy that someone living with HIV/AIDS might seek to alleviate the pain they suffer. It was also a powerful reminder that queer women of color have long been the caretakers of our community. When I had learned to slip into darkness, I felt whole again.
Honorable Mentions: Kia LaBeija, Untitled (The Black Act), Performance Space New York, commissioned for Performa Biennial 19; Antonio Ramos, No Agenda Genda, the High Line at the Spur, part of the “Out of Line” series; “Pacifico Silano: Speaking Little, Perhaps Not a Word” at the Bronx Museum’s Block Gallery
Correction, 12/31/19, 12:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified an object in Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s solo exhibition at Company gallery. It is a Manual cattle squeeze chute, not a folded-up bed frame. The post has been updated to reflect this.