The entryway piece into “Drag Show”—the final exhibition at CSULB’s Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum—is a heavy one masked as something sweet: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)’ is an ever-shifting installation that always begins with about 175 pieces of candy, of which patrons are encouraged to take as they please. As the stack of candy withers away, the visual is intended to represent the same withering away of Ross’s body when he passed of AIDS in the 1990s.
Gonzalez-Torres’s piece is one of the more abstract reminders of queer history throughout the show but a reminder nonetheless of the struggles that both Baby Boomer and Gen X queers faced throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
It is also a celebration.
Polaroid images, lining the main gallery, are are a much-needed reminder of the joy of the very community which was faced with a disease that decimated an entire generation of queer artists, thinkers, writers, musicians, performers, and provokers. While there are photographs from a handful of others, it is the work of David Yarritu that shines bright: Lady Bunny posing in her early days. Happily handsome men donning fake mustaches to simultaneously uplift and mock excessive masculinity. Themed nights from the queer clubs of yesterday…
“We heard a lot of feedback that students were hungry for content, not only about Black American life, but about queer American life, LGBT life,” said Paul Baker Prindle, director of the Kleefeld, following the success of a previous exhibition that featured a collection of photographs by Black artist Clifford Prince King. “We also noted that there were some gaps in students’ knowledge of LGBT history in America. And then also, as we were thinking about this, there were a ton of anti-drag laws, anti-trans laws being considered.”
Noting that this exhibition was a way to “learn inter-generationally” via exhibiting how artistic communities—in this show’s case, the East Village community in New York City—responded crisis. And, of course, that crisis was AIDS and, though AIDS is seemingly and fortunately further in our past as a death sentence, the queer community still faces an onslaught of battles.
From campy and humor-centric posters advertising the famed Pyramid club in the East Village to niche magazines like My Comrade featuring RuPaul in her earlier drag days showcase resilience through cultural presence: We will be seen and you will see us.
“The artists in this exhibit really invented this sort of diaristic documenting of one’s everyday life, and that is most certainly the foundation of Instagram and Facebook,” Prindle said. “I think the exhibition is truthful, but it’s not a particularly political exhibition. Everyone living today knows that there’s a lot of political division about these issues. I’m not really interested in talking about that. I’m more interested in putting factual data in front of people and letting them deal with it themselves.”
The Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum is located at 1250 N Bellflower Blvd.