Three’s Company

Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, New York

Left: FIAR cofounders Evan Garza and Chris Bogia. Right: Dealer Brent Sikkema with BOFFO cofounder Faris Al-Shathir. (Except where noted, all photos: Alex Fialho)

“EVERYONE IS COMING UP with a creative excuse to hang out and make art on Fire Island,” artist Lee Maida told me as we watched the tide roll in.

And why not? Two of Fire Island’s hamlets—Cherry Grove and the neighboring Pines—are gay oases with a storied artistic lineage. Roughly three hours from NYC by train and ferry, Fire Island offers both respite and raunchiness for queers and comrades. Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar all summered and made work there. And over the past four years, programs such as the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR), the New York Performance Artists Collective (NYPAC), and BOFFO have built a flamboyant infrastructure for creative types.

Four recent days testified to the growth of Fire Island’s cultural scene. It all started on a Thursday in early August with a Nicole Eisenman lecture for FIAR—though in true Fire Island fashion, it was preceded by a little drama. The Meat Rack—a wooded sexual cruising ground that separates Cherry Grove from The Pines—had caught fire, sending black smoke billowing over the ocean. “A burning post-blow-job cigarette might wipe out the Meat Rack!” yelled a local. In Cherry Grove, where FIAR is located, the mostly lesbian group of volunteer firefighters sped along the wooden walks in service vehicles—the only sign of automobiles in the otherwise car-free community—eventually containing the blaze.

Left: Artist Nicole Eisenman and MoMA curatorial assistant Lanka Tattersall. Right: Artist Josh Thorson with FIAR residents Jonah Groeneboer, Sam Ashby, and Dana DeGiulio at the BOFFO benefit.

Unfazed, Eisenman went ahead with her talk: “I packed this one full of queer signifiers for that asshole Putin,” Eisenman described It Is So, her painting referencing Eve Fowler and Ulrike Müller that’s currently on view at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg for Manifesta 10. The striking work, depicting an ambiguously gendered pair caught in the act, definitely resonated with the below-the-belt-friendly audience.

The crowded lecture took place in the Cherry Grove Community House, a newly landmarked building that in 1948 became the first theater continually producing work for a gay audience. Drinks and a drawing game with Eisenman followed at the Holly House, where FIAR’s monthlong residency takes place. FIAR’s makeshift live/work space is more beach bungalow than artist studio, but living on top of one another seems to encourage close relations among the group. Rihanna rave remixes from the adjacent Ice Palace bar wafted into the living room as the residents and Eisenman swapped sketches and talked “gay utopias.” The dynamic that FIAR’s cofounders Chris Bogia and Evan Garza foster among the visiting artists and the queer artists-in-residence is a strength of their program.

“Nicole’s visit was a highlight,” Garza gushed. “But girl, you should have seen Rashaad Newsome when he was here doing vogue drops on the Cherry Grove pier!”

Studio visits on Friday with FIAR’s five residents—RJ Messineo, Dana DeGiulio, Jonah Groeneboer, Sam Ashby, and Ginger Brooks Takahashi—proved fruitful. Ashby had been splicing together footage of Fire Island’s filmic history into a “narrativistic essay portrait of the island.” Titles shot in the area include Andy Warhol’s 1965 My Hustler, Wakefield Poole’s 1971 The Boys in the Sand (an early mainstream gay porn flick), Derek Jarman’s 1974 Fire Island, and Norman René’s 1989 Longtime Companion. Wandering deer, outdoor showers, and bathing-suit tan lines are common tropes throughout. From early physique posturing in the 1950s to the “gay golden age” of the 1970s to the impact of AIDS, Ashby’s project explores shifts in queer identity over the past half century and promises to be an art-fag crowd-pleaser.

Left: BOFFO resident Malik Gaines and FIAR resident Ginger Brooks Takahashi. Right: BOFFO resident Alex Segade and collaborator Robbie Acklen.

When the topic turned to FIAR’s explicit mandate for queer-identified artists, the residents were in full support. “I get better reads on my work from queer artists and curators,” Messineo said. “I think there is a felt reality there, an intuitive understanding between form and content being one and the same.” DeGiulio seconded: “I often feel myself outnumbered; it’s been great to lose that and expect to be understood because of the shared fluency of language we seem to have out here.”

DeGiulio also waxed poetic about the “straight-up diversity of confident bodies” in Cherry Grove, where body-positive beach nudity is on prideful display. (I counted four leopard-print banana hammock speedos within as many hours.) Events for the bear community and the black community brought additional contingents together on the beach on Saturday, when much of the island moved slowly after the antics of Friday night’s popular underwear party. “Gay men are very sentimental about their jock straps!” laughed artist K8 Hardy, an alum of BOFFO’s residency in the Pines.

If Cherry Grove reflects queer diversity, the Pines is a hotbed for bodies burnished by David Barton and Equinox gyms. “Your shoulders are so chic, so gay ’70s” was the oddest (best?) compliment I heard over the weekend. An impromptu Saturday pool party at dealer Brent Sikkema’s well-appointed home in the Pines drew architect Charles Renfro and Fabian Bernal, founder of NYPAC, whose recent programming included Gerard & Kelly’s The Frank O’Hara Memorial Library. O’Hara died after being hit by a dune buggy on the beach in Fire Island; the memorial library is a mobile unit in his honor, with circulating texts in tribute to the poet who wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island.” (In a related gesture, the Frank O’Hara Fire Island Pines Poetry Festival earlier in the summer featured readings from Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Rickey Laurentiis, and Edmund White.)

Pool party at the BOFFO Art Camp Block Party Benefit (Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic)

Saturday evening brought the weekend’s flashiest event, the BOFFO Fire Island Art Camp Block Party Benefit. Coordinated by BOFFO founder Faris Al-Shathir, the fete spread across three extravagant homes on a boardwalk lined with flyers from the residency’s recent sessions with LaFawndah and Raul de Nieves, among others. Nightlife fixture Frankie Sharp DJed by the pool, which quickly became host to a skinny-dipping bacchanal. Let’s just say I saw “more” of the gay New York art world in that hour of debauchery than I will during a year of openings. BOFFO’s beachfront lobster dinner after was surely lost on many of the guests, causalities of the Tanqueray-sponsored open bar.

“Last night I think I made out with half of the gay artists from the city,” one reveler confessed the next morning. “I hope they don’t remember come September.”

With its “sunset musical performances” and movie screenings, BOFFO’s model of artistic incubator advertised as discotheque is an effective lure for the party-friendly Pines crowd. BOFFO’s resident artists, Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, kept up their creative collaborations. Along with Robbie Acklen, the trio used historical Fire Island photographs by PaJaMa—a collective comprising Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French—as a jumping off point for their own scenic tableaux.

“Fire Island seemed like a great place to make work exploring multiple affective relationships,” Gaines said.

“Three-ways, basically,” said Segade.

Left: Antonio Blair (House of Ladosha), DJ Frankie Sharp, and Bailey Stiles (Chez Deep). (Photo: Alex Fialho) Right: Artist TM Davy DJs the BOFFO after party.

By Sunday, the Cherry Grove Art Show brought a calm conclusion to the week’s festivities. The event was produced by the Arts Project of Cherry Grove (APCG), which, founded in 1948, is the longest running arts organization on Fire Island. Amid the recent surge of creative arrivistes, APCG exemplifies the local community’s long-standing commitment to the arts. Chaired by Dennis McConkey, the art show featured booths by approximately fifteen artists of scenic landscapes and primarily Fire Island–sited work.

These days, even strung-out circuit-party queens would find it hard to ignore the recent cultural energy on Fire Island. Now when walking down Fire Island Boulevard, pasted alongside flyers for Shady Bingo and sex parties are posters advertising visiting artist lectures and performances. “If you haven’t founded an arts nonprofit on Fire Island, then you’re a nobody out here,” joked DAP vice president Alex Galan. Sounds like utopia to me.

Alex Fialho

“Frank and Andy Meet us at the Beach,” Cherry Grove Bear party. (Photo: Alan Charlesworth)

The BOFFO Art Camp Block Party Benefit dinner. (Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic)

Left: DAP publicist Luke P. Brown. Right: Faris Al-Shathir, Paul Bernstein, and more at the BOFFO Art Camp Block Party Benefit. (Photos: Marcelo Krasilcic)

Left: DAP publicist Luke P. Brown, pianist Daniel Gortler, architect Charles Renfro, and NYPAC founder Fabian Bernal. Right: BOFFO Art Camp Block Party Benefit flyers.

Left: Artist Tyler Ashley. Right: The Third Eye cofounder Justin Conner. (Photos: Marcelo Krasilcic)

Left: Arts Project of Cherry Grove VP Dennis McConkey outside the Art Show. Right: The pier at Cherry Grove.

Left: Fire Island ephemera. Right: Fire Island deer.