Del LaGrace Volcano: A Remarkable Mid-Career Retrospective
I did not know that the very first state-accredited LBGT art museum, the Leslie-Lohman Museum, is located in NYC until I heard that it was exhibiting a mid-career retrospective of the unique photographic work of Del LaGrace Volcano. Volcano (now resident in Sweden) is an artist I have known personally since the early 1990s when we were both living in London. In her life and her art, she has been dissecting and refiguring the concept, the performance, and the social understanding of gender. He rejects language that distorts the complex reality of trans and intersex identity and so I will use pronouns in this piece in as fluid a way as suits the artistic work. Volcano hermself uses imaginative, inclusive terms – including s/he and herm.
The photos from the 1990s featured in the show reminded me of how ubiquitous Del’s work was during that time in London. Their familiarity did not, however, dim my fresh view of them in this show. By exploring the real density of the experience of gender variant folks in a world that is organized around a simple binary divide between (so-called) men and women, these photos chart the increasing sophistication and intricacy of the burgeoning movements around and against gender.
Del’s own self-portraits are a map of the progress of the gender-aware community in articulating the multiple permutations of he and she and breasts and chest hair and moustaches and ringlets. Check out “Gender Optional: The Mutating Self Portrait 2000” - at top. The iconic shot of the muscular inverted triangle of one figure’s back leads to the accompanying surprise reverse front image of a woman with breasts. (See “GI Johnny, Jax Back, Jax Revealed” from 1992 on left.) Del is pointing out to the viewer that a simple gaze is never all that simple. The work that was new to me was far more decorative as Del begins in the new millennium to work with color. Here Volcano brings in a whole new playful aspect to enhance the work.
Never dour or pedantic, Del combines wit and surprise with his significant social commentary. Gender is not isolated from race – another intricate social construct. And sexuality – from romance to kink – underpins the counter-gender attitude that has produced this startling, distinctive work. For decades Volcano’s photos have had a very positive – even therapeutic – impact on all those non-conforming bodies and beings looking for themselves in the world of art. In fact, that was her personal motivation. Del told me, “I started making queer images in the late 70s when there was nothing out there that reflected my queer/sex positive reality.”
That this is Del LaGrace Volcano’s first one-person-show in the USA is both a shocking indictment of America’s museums and a point of pride for the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, which has a collection of thousands of queer images and objects going back 300 years. The museum’s events attract hundreds of art lovers and every day up to 40 guests pass through. While they have mounted many edgy shows, Jerry Kajpust, Director of External Affairs told me, this mid-career retrospective of Del LaGrace Volcano has engendered some of the most emotional, jaw-dropping responses. Special kudos to the curators, Jonathan David Katz and Julia Haas, the latter of whom told me that curating this show was a magnificent experience.
If you can get to New York City before November 11, 2012, drop by the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art , 26 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10013, to enrich your understanding of human diversity and to enjoy some damned riveting photography.
Sue Katz, an author, journalist, blogger and rebel, used to be most proud of her martial arts career and her world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog Consenting Adult. Sue is a regular contributor to Open Media Boston.