New York

View of “Cast of Characters,” 2018. Photo: Regan Wood Studio.

View of “Cast of Characters,” 2018. Photo: Regan Wood Studio.

“Cast of Characters”

Bureau of General Services—Queer Division (BGSQD)

As if looking out toward an audience in a theater-in-the-round, I sat alone on a white pleather cube eyeing portraits. “Cast of Characters,” a salon of likenesses by more than one hundred queer artists, was organized by Liz Collins for Pride Month in June. The show didn’t fall prey to the usual tropes of gay portraiture—images of shirtless young men were minimized in favor of a more wide-ranging panoply of bodies. Hannah Barrett’s oil painting Staying and Going, 2017, featured a knobby androgynous figure in a floral jumpsuit whose limbs are twisted into the extremities of a chair. Pregnant Butch, 2014, a silk-screened print by A. K. Summers, was a blowup of the cover image from the artist’s titular 2014 graphic novel, which wrestles with the societal link between femininity and motherhood. The show was mostly made up of paintings and photographs, but some portraits were sculptures, such as Midori’s Object 0.0, 2011, an assemblage of animal teeth formed into the shape of a vagina, and Chest, 2017, by Rindon Johnson, comprising two pink foam pads that looked like nipples nailed to the wall. Admittedly, some of the works felt slapdash. One could say this quality underscored the messiness of queerness—how it refuses to be as clean or well-defined as straightness claims to be. With certain pieces, however, I found myself wanting more technical refinement.

Nonetheless, “Cast of Characters” was as much about creating a community space as it was about showing artwork. It took over the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division (BGSQD) bookstore, which normally has a pared-down interior. Collins outfitted the room with her own pink floral wallpaper, a zig-zag patterned floor, and an unconventional seating arrangement, giving the place a fun-house vibe. My friend Marcelo came to the exhibit as I was looking at Chain Chair Pair, 2017, Collins’s collaboration with the designer Harry Allen.The piece was created from two chairs connected to each other by braided magenta fabric. One chair was stationary, while the other had wheels; they faced different directions. Marcelo and I have a long-distance friendship; I imagined sitting in one chair while he sat in the other, the two of us tethered together but also able to scoot closer or farther at will. In that moment, I was surprised to see more of myself in a couple of chairs than in a tsunami of queer portraits.

When Marcelo and I left the exhibition, we walked by a Capital One bank with a roomful of ATMs outfitted in neon rainbow lights and #nycpride slogans. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign continue to applaud Capital One for funding Pride events (and the recent renovation of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center), while behind the scenes the bank has donated more than 70 percent of its federal political contributions to Republican candidates since 2010. Gay pride can form an aesthetic rainbow veneer that distracts from the realities of capitalism. I thought about this as I watched a gay couple using an ATM, pulling out cash from their dual male incomes. Who benefits from mainstream gay pride? With this question in mind, I understood the political urgency of “Cast of Characters.” The exhibit eschewed a commodified gay image in favor of a selection of highly individual, diverse portraits—a cross section of queer fuckery showing only a tiny sampling of its many faces.