I HAVE ONLY BEEN TO PHILADELPHIA three times in my life. In high school, I went to nationals for speech and debate during that painful period where I was very clearly gay, but had not yet come out (I did a performance of Ani DiFranco poems, for those interested). I went again in 2008 for a Manowar concert. And more recently, I ended up on an accidental triple-date that concluded with our car breaking down in the Holland Tunnel. So, when I was asked to write a Diary on the three coterminous exhibitions opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia––“Cary Leibowitz: Museum Show,” “Broadcasting: EAI at ICA,” and “Tag: A Proposal on Queer Play and the Ways Forward,” curated by Nayland Blake––I was excited to add to my growing repertoire of weird Philly stories. I had also been told Nayland’s opening was going to be a Philadelphia furry meet-and-greet! But alas, it’s scheduled for Valentine’s Day.
When I arrived to Philly via Amtrak, I realized that I was sitting across from Rhonda Lieberman, the Diary’s patron saint and an Artforum contributing editor who wrote an essay for her good friend Cary Leibowitz’s exhibition catalog. As we stepped off the train we ran into the Bronx Museum’s Antonio Sergio Bessa, who also contributed a text for Cary. Sergio jokingly asked if we were in town for the Liza Minnelli concert (ha—our plans were far gayer). Rhonda and I hustled to the museum because we were running late. By the time we arrived, ICA director Amy Sadao was giving introductory remarks about the exhibitions.
Alex Klein and Rebecca Cleman, the cocurators of “Broadcasting,” talked about their show, which features video pieces by artists such as Dara Birnbaum, Shigeko Kubota, and Ulysses Jenkins. Nayland took the stage to introduce his show—the fourth in a series of exhibitions curated by artists at the ICA—dressed in a short-sleeve leather policeman shirt, a utility kilt, galaxy-print leggings, a white ostrich feather clutch, and a jeweled-headpiece á la Swan Lake.
Cary, also known as “Candyass,” showed up to the auditorium in a matching Grandma Moses blazer-and-tie set with Anastasia James of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (where his show first opened) to discuss the exhibition. At one point the talk elicited an admiring collective gasp from the crowd when it was mentioned that one of Cary’s themed yarmulkes—an homage to the Liberty Bell, complete with its own crack!—was just upstairs in his show. There’s a lot of simpatico between the artist and Philadelphia’s taste for souvenir kitsch. Cary thoughtfully highlighted this in his retrospective by covering all the seats with “historic” Philadelphia landmark bed skirts.
Once I was free to roam the building to enjoy drinks and large, heart-shaped pretzels, I caught up with Nayland so that I could inquire about his lewk. He then pointed out that the real scene-stealer would be artist Dusty Shoulder’s performance that evening (Shoulder’s elaborate costume-sculptures are in “Tag”). He was right: Dusty came in sporting a disco dress made from juvenile bedding. When I hugged him hello, he called me out for grabbing a napkin to get his sweat off my hand. Taking it all in, I tried to discern if a reveler was an eccentric jumpsuit-sporting art patron or a member of the lesbian art mafia. Frequently they’re both. There was a lovely and odd symmetry between all three shows and their respective crowds.
I was quite excited to see the performance and sculptures by Japanese artist Saeborg Latex. I’ve been obsessively following her on social media for nearly two years now. Her work in “Tag” is a humongous, glammed-out, postnatal sow (made from latex, of course) feeding a passel of piglets. Later in the night Saeborg—donning a piglet costume she could barely breathe out of—was herded through the gallery by a man in farmer’s overalls. She gently entered the swine through the back of its head, then miraculously birthed herself from its nether regions. Sharon Hayes and Brooke O’Harra’s daughter Alice explained it to me in a much more articulate manner, but my phone died when I tried to transcribe her thoughts.
Elsewhere, people sat transfixed by a Shana Moulton crypto–New Age infomercial, and mingled throughout Leibowitz’s Jordan almond–hued, salon-style exhibition. Cary and Rhonda held court by a three-tiered video of a satirical talk show they both hosted in the 1990s absorbing, somewhat uncomfortably, congratulations from admiring fans. Cary, a bashful, self-depreciating artist with a lilting, generation-specific lisp, often smiled and demurred.
As the museum was closing, crowds headed over to a Mexican restaurant to eat, drink, and obviously, be gay. On the way someone told a story about explaining furries to Matthew Marks, Nayland’s dealer—admittedly a difficult task without visuals. I have a theory about how hearty and distinct laughs are an essential key to success in the art world. Amy Sadao’s rang throughout the afterparty. Artists Arnold Kemp and Cliff Hengst, both in “Tag” and former residents of San Francisco, lamented about the corporate lathing of SF’s gay scene while a karaoke session (the established queer pastime) took place behind us. I then realized that my train back home was leaving in fifteen minutes, so I called an Uber and slipped out. On the way to the station my driver asked where I was headed to and when I mentioned New York he jokingly added, “fuck the Patriots, right?” And when reflecting on my evening—revolving around sex, fetish gear, camp, and queer experimentation, I asked the cabbie, “Do you think the Eagles’ mascot wears his bird costume when he’s not working?”