By Jason Foumberg
Gay leather subculture defies mass appeal, so it’s a wonder that uniforms are de facto. Black leather jackets and pants, black boots and leather muir caps define the “old guard,” or the traditional leather scene—a community of bars with backrooms, masters, slaves and slings. Think iconic early-1950s Marlon Brando on a Harley, and you’ll get a sense of the leather community’s adopted uniform. Many took it even further by branding their leather jackets with patches and pins specific to their bands of brothers and clubs.
That which was worn to originally evade camp has since become a symbol of it—yet another costume in the pantheon of gay masquerading (see drag; the Village People). The Brando attire, now complemented by metal spikes and chains, no longer bespeaks the hyper-masculine outlaw attitude that it intended to claim. Surely it was productively rebellious at one time; now it is on view as historical document in Chicago’s Leather Archives & Museum (LAM).
What is the face of the new gay avant-garde? The “new guard,” according to Scott Ian Ray, artist and curator of “Yes,” an exhibit at the LAM timed to coincide with the thirtieth-annual International Mr. Leather festival, embraces wearable kink just as the old did, but the uniform has been shed in favor of multitude fashions, from gas masks to latex to superhero costumes. A permanent exhibit at LAM in the dungeon room examines “pervertibles,” which are everyday objects converted into sex toys, including a meat tenderizer and a citrus juicer. Perhaps the new guard exemplifies this attitude to claim any object, “queer” it, wear it, use it and uphold it as the marker of a community solidified not by its uniformity, but by its diversity of means. “We don’t have to wear the same old leather our daddies did,” says artist and friend of the curator, Scott Nash.
The new guard’s extreme fetishes make the old guard seem mainstream. In a print by Axel, a Mr. Universal Pig character stands triumphant over a Tom of Finland-type character, classic old-school erotica rendered in shades of gray, and sitting on a toilet—the throne. Masks prevail, such as a nude self-portrait by Thistle Harlequin in pig mask and high heels, again on a toilet, and a print by Sean Fader of the artist in a bear mask and underwear in a hotel room. It seems the pig becomes a ubiquitous symbol, likely appropriated from the “squeal like a pig” rape scene in “Deliverance,” yet the new guard isn’t in search of a new iconic depiction or hero. The well-worn fetishes of old are giving way to the anything goes attitude where it may not even be necessary for the wearer of leather chaps to even be “into” such a scene.
Leather gear and the complex system of colored handkerchiefs provided a visual breakout. It’s a community that loves to see itself. The new guard multiplies the effect of seeing and being seen, but no clear signifiers remain. One could be into urine games one weekend and superheroes the next without breaking any codes, and the exact clothing to symbolize these fetishes may or may not be worn. The monumentalized depiction of gay leather, upheld by the LAM, is changing.
Another exhibition on the theme of contemporary representations of homosexuality is less than two miles away from the LAM at estudiotres gallery, in Andersonville. Whereas “Yes” at LAM is all about fringe culture and extremes, “Everyday People” considers homosexuality in the terms of “normal” lovemaking and common culture. Being gay may not have a look; being gay might mean shopping at Ikea or hanging out with one’s lover. The embrace of the disgusting in the LAM show is here pushed out of the frame. Instead, loving relationships take center stage in paintings by Brooke Barnett and photographs by Doug Ischar, Molly Landreth and Sean Fader, who is coincidentally featured in both exhibitions.
Barnett and Landreth show domestic scenes of gay intimacy, thus downplaying any notion of sexuality as difference; tenderness is tenderness. Ischar shows documentary photographs from 1984 of gay cruising on the Belmont beach cliffs. On the surface the scene could very well be a crowded beach of sunbathers. The subject is highly relatable because a hot body is, well, hot.
In Sean Fader’s photographs, self-portraits are manipulated so that each frame contains multiple selves, and sometimes the artist is pictured as wearing a false body, such as a pre-adolescent or an overweight man. His skin has a zipper in the front, revealing his real body beneath. Fader’s self-love affair, combined with his always expressionless stare, seems to be an honest portrayal even if it looks like acting. Playing the part just comes naturally.
“Yes” shows at Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 North Greenview, (773)761-9200, through October 18. “Everyday People” shows at estudiotres gallery, 5205 North Clark (773)271-0533, through June 27.