Unconventional Wisdom

Left: Tall Paul (Gellman), curators Sarvia Jasso and Kathryn Garcia, artist Matt Greene, and Human Resources cofounder Eric Kim. Right: Fine Art Union.

ON THE EVENING of June 24, as lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage in New York, a group of artists and activists on the opposite coast were instigating a less normative (though perhaps no less traditional) celebration of sexuality: the opening night of “Queering Sex,” a weeklong performance and video series at the downtown Los Angeles nonprofit Human Resources. While the event-cum-exhibition didn’t start any fires with the boilerplate press-release “positing” that “queer exists on multiple planes of non-linearity and is beyond hetero and homo-normative distinctions,” the lineup itself comprised a group of folk whose varying practices demonstrate a happily nuanced take on sex (as a critical and aesthetic tool), with special emphasis on historical constructions of queerness, the hyperbolic performance of “outness,” and our (hopefully) evolving relationships to genders and identities. True to form, the sizable crowd that spilled out of the gallery (a former movie theater in Chinatown) resembled the young, aggressively polysexual (trans)demographic that curators (and Vice magazine “power couple”) Kathryn Garcia and Sarvia Jasso aimed to represent: women in tailored blazers and work boots; men in girdles and Fluevogs; dads with babies; babes with daddies; femmes, womyn, twinks, dykes, beards, “straights,” a lady in a vagina costume—but mostly typical arty Eastsiders. People comfortable with quotation marks.

The exhibition commenced (after a successful Kickstarter campaign) with a screening to set the feel: works by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Orlan, Skip Arnold, Nadja Verena Marcin, Marnie Weber, and Lovett/Codagnonem, among many others. But I missed all that. So I jumped into the fray via a performance by the Norwegian collaborative Fine Art Union (artists Synnøve G. Wetten and Annette Stav Johanssen). The masked, bald-capped glamazons crooned, screamed, toppled a cardboard monolith, simulated fighting and fucking, hurled turdlike rubber wads at the audience, and smeared “menstrual-y” crimson paint onto each other’s faces. Against a backdrop of Freudian projections (a black hole, a snake), Fine Art Union performed what could be considered a “girling” of femininity, or id-like primitivism, or the resignification of sexual subjectivity . . . but maybe it was all just a drag. After the performance, artist Brian Getnick—the only viewer to throw turds back at the performers—whispered, “I wish it was as cathartic for us as it was for them.”

Left: Sphinx in performance. Right: Artist Bobbi Woods and Joe Deutch with Semiotext(e)'s Hedi El Kholti.

Matt Greene’s performance the following night was a comparatively repressed affair. As the audience found their seats, two severe-looking women in black—artists Lisa Anne Auerbach and Jennifer Cohen—appeared carrying trays of meatballs (veggie and beef) to satiate the crowd. As a black-clad Greene joined them, they took to a table at the center of the gallery and proceeded to read a hypnotizing narrative of dislocated desire: “There are those who in soft eunuchs place their bliss and shun the scrubbing of a bearded kiss [. . .] beautiful, take-charge type females believe in loving but old-fashion type methods when dealing with haughty husbands [. . .] cuckoldry is not all that it is cracked up to be.” Playing the joyless ballbusters, the women riffed on Greene’s self-deprecating delivery by subtly altering their vocal range from monotone to snobbish taunt, at times almost panting. “I’ve been researching castration anxiety, which Freud called the root of all fetishes,” Greene offered after the action. “I also recently watched The Empress Dowager, and the plot involves a fake eunuch. There’s a lot of comedy potential with a fake eunuch.” Slapstick may have been a more appropriate term.

Speaking of terms, there was a lot of chatter all weekend around the word “queering”: “The queerest thing about the idea of queer is the word itself,” summed up artist Spencer Douglass, who then added, “Why is queer so gay?” More clues came Sunday afternoon at a release party at a private home in Los Feliz (unrelated to Human Resources) for the fifth issue of writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s zine Pep Talk, a collection of brilliant wordsmith Bruce Hainley’s writings and letters. The issue’s introduction offered a list of keywords for “getting in the mood”: ANAL, LANA, WARHOL, FAGGOTRY, ENGENDER, (DIS)EMBODIED, RAMIFICATIONS, (GET A) LOAD, BLEW (MY MIND), BLUELY, BEAUTY, AVITAL RONELL, WITHDRAWAL . . . As I caught up with partygoers, it seemed that just about everyone had their own publication to talk about: artist Brian Kennon’s latest 2nd Cannons release Alice Cooper/Suzi Simpson; artist William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself; books in the works by Semiotext(e)’s Hedi El Kholti, ZG Press’s Rosetta Brooks, and art historian Jane McFadden; and more to come from Hainley on Sturtevant. Reflecting on the cool, relaxed scene, writer Jennifer Krasinski and artist Jeff Burton observed that only in LA do intellectuals sit around a swimming pool, smoke pot, and talk literature. “People in New York just don’t believe that this is what a typical party is like out here,” mused Krazinski. And she was right—this was the third pool party I had stopped by over the weekend (and, sadly, the only one without skinny-dippers).

Left: Artist Dawn Kasper in performance. Right: Artist Jennifer Cohen.

I slipped away from the bookishly chic affair and cruised back to “Queering Sex” in time to catch the last jewel tones of Jack Smith’s Normal Love flickering in lapidary complexity, reflecting that parallel world where curiosities shape-shift into conventions. Garcia gave props to Gladstone Gallery for facilitating the loan of the film. “The fate of Jack Smith’s archive was so uncertain.” The rarely screened, never-finished follow-up to the infamous/infectious Flaming Creatures was a wise inclusion in the program. Its decadent denizens and simulated screen sirens delivered the perfect filmic appositeness of (and also, strangely, escape from) so much queering. Alongside the many inclusions of “Queering Sex”—absurdist rock-’n’-rollerblader Tall Paul (Gellman); New York femdom-metal band Sphinx; the frenetic, abstrusely feminist, and gravity-defying actions of Dawn Kasper; the hypnotically hetero stoner slowness of Joel Kyack’s band Street Buddy; and countless other videos—Normal Love stands out as a touchstone for generations fighting against sexual conformity in all its articulations. Let’s just hope the next generation of polysexuals, et al., can plug a little realness into the new “normal.”