New York

Matthew Leifheit, The Marie Antoinette Room (after Velázquez), 2018, dye-sublimation print on aluminum, 10 × 15".

Matthew Leifheit, The Marie Antoinette Room (after Velázquez), 2018, dye-sublimation print on aluminum, 10 × 15".

Matthew Leifheit

Deli Gallery | 110 Waterbury Street

Matthew Leifheit, The Marie Antoinette Room (after Velázquez), 2018, dye-sublimation print on aluminum, 10 × 15".

Fire Island is a sliver of sand, forest, and dunes four miles off the southern shore of Long Island. The hamlets of Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines have been—since the 1930s and ’50s, respectively—havens of gay emancipation and barometers of American queer experience. The locale has become a near-mythic ark, encompassing wild bacchanal and funereal poignancy for the generations that sought sanctuary within its pelagic atmospherics. It’s this hallowed ground that Matthew Leifheit took as his subject in the forty-three photographic works exhibited here.

Most of his nocturnal tableaux were hung in groups loosely themed around typical sights—a weekly underwear party, empty beaches—but one encountered a single, oval-shaped photo first. Ahmed, 2017, captures an eye in close-up, its lower lid pulled down, red and raw from conjunctivitis. The piece seems to be a subtle comment on infection, which inevitably and abruptly calls to mind the horrors brought by aids to the island’s population. The eye’s weepiness sets a tone of sadness and mourning.

Cherry Grove’s Belvedere Guest House for Men, a clothing-optional hotel established in 1957, is a fantasy of cupolas, a bell tower, winding passages, and themed suites, lavishly decorated to baroque excess. It is the setting for Leifheit’s images of nude men posed about the rambling folly. The Venetian Room, The Violet Chapel, and The Marie Antoinette Room (after Velázquez), all 2018, were titled after the opulent chambers in which they were taken and feature young models, but it was The Spiral Staircase, 2018, that most intrigued. It depicts five older males arranged on and around a pair of staircases within a soaring vestibule filled with trompe l’oeil stonework, glowing lamps, an interior balcony, and a glittering chandelier. These men are at once gods, seraphs, survivors, and celebrants. Some are seen directly through the camera lens, others are reflected in a vast gilded mirror—a smart conflation of absence and presence. The picture, snapped at a vertiginous angle, is as dizzying and magnificent as a Titian. The uppermost figure in the composition points overhead—how many viewers will know that above the azure ceiling is the Belvedere’s rooftop parlor, with its half-moon window, a detail that’s shown up in pornographic magazines? You can also park yourself on the terrace to absorb Fire Island’s other heavenly views.

The Meat Rack is a fabled half mile of woods and sandy knolls crossed by a tracery of timeworn paths between the Pines and Cherry Grove. For decades it has been synonymous with cruising and sex. But the aids crisis cast a pall over this ethereal natural environment. It is still, of course, an area for carnal abandon, but it is also now a memorial site. Leifheit’s vignettes of dewy, naked beauties draped among the Meat Rack’s gnarled branches are an understandable, enthusiastic attempt to evoke the landscape’s erotic lore—but they stall out as sophomoric cliché. In Meat Rack (Ryan and L), and Meat Rack Gathering, both 2018, languorous, coital assignations lacked the ruggedness, romance, and fleeting thrill of authentic trysts. The illuminated scenes and direct-to-camera stares are the antithesis of cruising’s furtiveness and flitting shadows. Such belabored stylings seem shallow facsimiles of the Meat Rack’s spiritual potency, and the silent etiquette of its indelicate traditions. Accompanying portraits of gratuitously pretty boys wearing the vacant expressions of dead-eyed fashion models further dulled the connections to Fire Island’s historical depths. In Marco, 2017, the subject’s brutalized face could have connoted violence, or the fear and power surrounding gay blood. Yet the black background isolates and effectively decontextualizes the titular character—the photograph could have been taken anywhere. The picture looks like something from an “edgy” ad campaign—perhaps for men’s cosmetics? Superficiality and narcissism are certainly a part of Fire Island culture; the art, however, needs to aim higher.

Leifheit’s Belvedere pieces sensitively combine humor, melancholy, and grandeur, showing that he has the capacity to engage with Fire Island’s legacy, but pressing beyond the tropes of homoerotic art, or the predictable symbolism used by many of Fire Island’s artists—architectural details, outdoor fucking, tidal detritus—might yield richer fruits. As alluring and momentous as summer nights can be, one wonders how the next day’s light, or a different season’s moods, would expand his field of vision.