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Across the United States, museums are eager to present identity-based shows addressing issues of gender, sexuality, and identity during the fiftieth-anniversary year of the 1969 Stonewall uprisings. This year, the McNay Art Museum dedicated its entire temporary exhibition program to such an effort, with Andy Warhol: Portraits, Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today, and TransSanAntonian: Examining Trans Identities and Gender Fluidity in the Archives. These three exhibitions constituted a broad consideration of contemporary artists undermining the entrenched gender binary and historical sexual normativity.
Transamerica/n, the largest of the three temporary exhibitions, presented a wide range of artists who image multiple and overlapping identities in conflict with normative pressures around gender, sexuality, and identity. The exhibition was loosely structured with six thematic sections—such as “The Authentic Body” and “Home and Community”—but was by and large built on portraiture and self-portraiture practices. Some works were single-object pieces, such as Frank Benson’s 3-D-printed sculpture of transgender artist and performer Juliana Huxtable, one of the most-talked-about works in the 2015 New Museum Triennial. But predominantly, the selected works were created in series. In Becoming Antonia (1985–2015), Antonia Padilla documented her transition as a trans woman over thirty years with Polaroids; Luis Arturo Aguirre photographs a wide range of drag queens, varying in age and ability.
Equally prevalent was the medium of photography. Some of the best-known artists in the field were present, including Zoe Leonard, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, and Greer Lankton. Critical was the inclusion of selections from Relationship (2008–13) by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, the now-fundamental photographic series in which the two documented their relationship as they transitioned simultaneously. Drucker has said elsewhere, “I [am] part of a long tradition of trans people using photography to construct identities outside the constraints of their physical and social realities” (April Dawn Alison, MACK, 2019).
This attention to portraiture, self-portraiture, and photography seems to be a natural extension of Andy Warhol: Portraits, which visitors passed through in order to see Transamerica/n. The Warhol show was largely dominated by the rhythm of diptych silkscreen portraits, but a wall of Polaroids signaled the following Transamerica/n show and content with multiple photos by Warhol, titled Self-Portrait in Drag (1980–81). The final emphasis on the figures of Mick Jagger and Prince—both famously gender-bending in their public appearance—guided the visitor to Transamerica/n’s first thematic section, “Beyond 15 Minutes: Andy Warhol and His Legacy.” Given the layout of the exhibitions, there seemed to be a conceptual thrust in presenting Warhol as a sort of godfather to the contemporary artists in Transamerica/n. While many of the artists in Transamerica/n do not take such a hard cue from Warhol, the content development allowed a nice transition from one show to the next.
There was a noticeable educational effort by the exhibition team of Transamerica/n, one that worked to acknowledge the diversity of visitor identities and elevate the level of inclusion by the museum. Transamerica/n depended on didactics and wall texts that not only were bilingual (English and Spanish) but also indicated each artist’s gender expression pronouns. The McNay consistently creates bilingual didactics across its galleries, including the permanent collection, a practice that unfortunately is not integrated across the art world. The exhibition team also created a bilingual glossary of terms relevant to the fields of gender and sexuality studies (for example, cisgender, gender expression, and genderqueer). The glossary worked to expose visitors to the wide range of experiences presented throughout the exhibition. In some ways, it signaled the ever-evolving nature of vocabulary and language in relation to society’s growing awareness of and engagement with identity continuums.
The artists included in Transamerica/n address many of the political, social, and economic issues facing the LGBTQ+ community today. Centered in the far room of the gallery space was Pride Is Not Enough by Michael Martinez, a large sculptural installation consisting of twelve metal rods piercing a total of seventy-two bricks. Martinez therein accounts for the forty-nine victims of the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the twenty-three victims of anti-transgender violence in the United States in 2018, thus taking part in the long-standing practice of queer artists creating art as activism, much of which protests ongoing transphobic and homophobic violence.
Similarly, artists Chuck Ramirez and Hunter Reynolds, both HIV-positive men and long-term survivors, create work confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ramirez’s photographic diptych Long Term Survivor Series: Chaps (1999) centers on a pair of black leather chaps, mirrored between the two large pigment prints. Reynolds, a member of the New York–based AIDS activist group ACT UP, collaged newspaper clippings covering the AIDS crisis with photographs from previous performances for Survival AIDS ACT UP Chicago – A Revolution (2015).
There was also a strong presence of Latinx artists in the exhibition, such as the work of Nelson Morales, which highlights the varying approaches to gender and sexuality across cultures. Morales spent eight years photographing the community of Muxes living in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they are regarded as a third gender, considered neither male nor female. With selections from his series Fantastic Woman, Fluid Gender, Muxes, and Transamazonicas (all 2010–18), Morales reveals the complexities of his subjects’ lives and confronts his own identity as he joined their community. Elsewhere, a slick and vibrant portrait had been transferred in vinyl onto the hood of a car by San Antonio artist Saakred, who creates work that deals with masculinity and manhood in Latino culture through lowrider aesthetics.
It is important that the curators included artists with a strong zine practice. Throughout the histories of queer artistic practices, DIY culture has been a key strategy—one usually born out of economic necessity and issues of access. Zine culture goes hand in hand with these histories of queer production (and often punk culture). Claudia Zapata is a cofounder of the Latinx art group Puro Chingón Collective and creates Excuse Me Sir, an informational zine that addresses queer history and gender identity. In the show, a bright yellow page protruded from the wall in a double-side frame, answering questions like, “What does queer mean?” “What is a zine?” “What is gender expression?” “What is gender identity?” In an exhibition case nearby were numerous issues of Original Plumbing by Amos Mac, a magazine that focuses on the lifestyles of trans men and diversity within the trans community.
There was a potential conceptual pitfall in the basis of Transamerica/n, one that is always an aspect of identity-based shows. The artists presented represent a broad spectrum of intersectional identities, which, taken as a whole, might seem like a collapsing of experiences. But another impression the show provided, given this broad spectrum, was the complexity of gender and sexuality continuums—a poignant refute to the gender binary and normative identity experiences.
One of the strongest conceptual statements by the McNay was the concurrent presentation of TransSanAntonian: Examining Trans Identities and Gender Fluidity in the Archives, an archival exhibition presenting the lives and activism of local members of the LGBTQ+ community—and the communities they created. A center case presented an arrangement of personal snapshots by Victor Lopez, who, with Rudy Cardona, cocreated Texas Crown Productions, which organized drag pageants in the Corpus Christi area from 1990 to 1996. There was a selection of historical transgender publications, with titles such as Female Mimics, Lady Like, and Drag. Although it provided only small glimpses into the lives and communities of those presented, the exhibition as a whole was a gesture to the importance of archives in voicing histories. As archives are only products of humans and their bias, these records are often structurally silent around certain communities.
What Transamerica/n and TransSanAntonian presented were individuals pushing for presence and speaking to silences. Historically lacking nuanced representation, these artists—and the museum’s exhibition team—emphasized the importance of self-representation and self-imaging. For many artists, the process is an act of self-historicizing, of documenting transitions and in-between spaces. Many are invested in staking a claim to visual culture and history. For the sum of the parts, I think of Nan Goldin’s words for her 1986 book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She ends by writing, “I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”
Martha Scott Burton
MA Candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin