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115 Portraits Capture the Queer Sexy 70s

'The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment' explores gay liberation.

by Antwaun Sargent
27 May 2016, 2:15pm

Rink Foto, Lovers in a 1951 Mercury, 1979/2009, Archival inkjet print, 16 x 20 in. Founders’ gift. Collection of Leslie- Lohman Museum.

A 1979 black and white Rink Foto photograph entitled, Lovers in a 1951 Mercury, of a nude gay couple, in the throes of sexual ecstasy, captures the full force of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s current exhibition, The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment. The 115 art works on exhibit, like the couple in the Foto picture, who are having sex on the street with their car door wide open, shows how the 70s were a time of sexual liberation and political expression for LGBTQ people.

"This particular theme about the 1970s and the period between Stone Wall and the very first time people heard anything about AIDS, has been on my mind a lot,” explains the exhibition curator Hunter O’Hanian to The Creators Project. ”The 1970s, I think really is a very pivotal period. For me, it's pivotal to the extent that it reflects what's happening today. In a funny way even though this is about the 1970s, I see the show reflecting what's going on around us right now."

Cathy Cade, Fat Chance, 1979/2011, Digital print, 12 x 18 in. Foundation purchase. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum. 

The show’s contemporary feel resides in the way the art works evoke contemporary conversations about identity. The works of photographs, paintings, and drawings, show how artists at the time thought about their bodies, gender, and sexual identities. Cathy Cade’s Fat Chance, also taken in 1979, depicts a group of lesbians holding hands while running in circle. The work is commentary on the ways in which LGBTQ people formed community. Harvey Milk’s San Francisco Gay Parade shows how those coming of age in the 70s blended both identity and politics to articulate their desires and versions of visibility. The exhibition has a dedicated section to artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1977 series X Portfolio. The graphic images are of members of New York’s late 70s BDSM scene with the artist engaging in sexual acts. The photographs reveal a public sexual confidence that enveloped the broader community’s understanding of sex at that time. 

“Now you see people really addressing a lot of gender questions and living gender queer and fluid lifestyles,” says O’Hanian. “These images are of gay people looking at themselves and addressing questions of sexuality and gender,” adds O’Hanian who includes a drawing by Sandra De Sando entitled, Flavia, that shows a highly stylised young woman posing for the artist. The image suggests that is the way the woman wanted to be seen. The show also ties the past and present together in its inclusion with Diana Davies documentary-style photographs like Demonstration at City Hall and her 1971 Gay rights demonstration, Albany capturing gay rights activists marching for freedoms like marriage, which has been recognized, and evoke the inequality LGBTQ folk still face.

Harvey Milk, San Francisco Gay Parade, 1974/2009, Archival inkjet print, 8 x 10 in. © The Estate of Harvey Milk. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum. 

"There has been a lot of things that has affected how gay people are treated and certainly we have seen huge improvements in gay rights but there's a real importance in thinking about how we express ourselves,” says the curator. “It feels to me at least that there may be this enlightenment that we may be on the cusp of again. I think people are thinking about things sexually in a different way.” He says, “And if this show has the effect of empowering people to take control of their own bodies and who they are as individuals, by looking back at something that happened 40 years ago, I think that's an amazing thing."

The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment continues through June 26. For more information click here.

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