In a 1975 letter to a friend, the writer Christina Stead attempted to capture the solace that writing gave her in the wake of the depression that followed her partner’s death. Stead wrote that “every love story was a ghost story.” There are two things happening here. The first is that love is a rupture, a Santa Ana wind that changes you. You can’t forget that feeling. The beloved lingers in each unbound suture, whether you like it or not. They’re everywhere and nowhere. They make even an empty space pulsate with life, with memory. The second is that writing, creating something with weight, something you can touch, brings a little of your beloved back to you. Piece by piece, inch by inch, they are no longer so gone.
The same logic holds for Catholic saints. Delicate knuckle bones and pelvic shards, alive with light and shadow, give weight to faith. You breathe in the resin, the warmth of smoke, the immensity of knowing that death and love can be something indistinguishable and forever intertwined. You are blessed. The beloved, the divine, the untouchable, comes alive once again.
Hold this feeling.
When you enter the inner chambers of the Leather Archives and Museum and descend the stairs, you might meet the first, or second, chapter of artist Gabriel Martinez’s exhibition, “Sparks in a Dark Room: Exchange, Pleasure and Play.” Regardless of your beginning, you encounter an altar. Respect must be paid. A leather jacket hangs against a warm light, below it sits a bowl of human hair. The jacket belongs to queer activist, artist and esteemed choreographer Dom Orejudos, better known by his artist’s moniker Etienne. The bowl—most likely containing a great deal of Etienne’s hair according to the LA&M’s head archivist—belonged to Chuck Renslow, the founder of the Leather Archives and Museum. It is hair that calls to mind Victorian-era mourning art; the intricate braids, swirls and whorls of locks that gave the deceased new life. The sense of ritual in both these acts of braiding and Renslow’s own hair-cutting possess a kinship with the broader ritual inherent to BDSM, Leather and all Queer communities. Ritual, whether it be communal or personal, is a way to keep love alive. Ritual, written upon and with the body, is a way to say I was here, in a world hellbent upon my erasure.
Renslow founded the LA&M with the intent for the space to house the art of his longtime love and business partner, Orejudos. Their shared life in its many permeations imbue the space with an otherworldly aura, the many hauntings of love. It’s this porousness, the spaces between life and death, the future and the end, where Gabriel Martinez and curator Heather Phillips situate “Sparks.” Taking place in three chapters, “Leather Archives 1981,” “Altars,” and “Etienne Restaged,” the exhibition blends moments within Queer histories and archives (those policed, hidden and subaltern) to expand and intertwine what it can mean to be connected, to love those who are here but not present in the face of state-sanctioned violences. Queer trauma, death and erasure then are a part of Martinez’s conversation, but they are rendered in union with Queer ecstasy, life and undeniable presence. Yet, when you walk within those in-between spaces, how do you claim the hurts, the pains, the tragedies that are visited upon you? How do you mourn and how do you live?
These are the questions that Martinez enshrines in the 2014 “Fraternal Order.” Straddling the spaces between “Leather Archives 1981” and “Altars,” the monumental “Fraternal Order” offers one of many bridges between the two chapters. With “Leather Archives 1981” marking a time in Queer history where the specter of HIV caused much of LGBTQIA+ life to be imbued with fear and driven underground by murderous political and economic policies, “Fraternal Order”’s twenty-five wooden panels adorned with black handkerchiefs (black denoting an interest in S&M sex) features the repeated motif of the biohazard symbol branded or tattooed on the bodies of anonymous individuals. Martinez intended the piece to both probe the disproportionate rate of HIV within LatinX communities and connect the nonverbal communication of the tattoo with the cruising scene’s handkerchief code. There is a purity in communicating through languages other than speech; the secret, the forbidden, the profane all carry their own beauty. It’s a sense of the immaculate that’s shared with supposed hazards; the things, the places, the people that seem too bright, too alive to touch, to hold. Yet, when you meet someone unafraid to reach out and grasp you, you know with surety the preciousness of this moment, this meeting, this chance encounter that leads to the relief of finally being seen.
Would you then, for those rare and sacred moments of recognition, die for sex? It’s a question asked by the characters of John Rechy’s 1999 novel, “The Coming of the Night,” and the featured text on Martinez’s “New York, One Year Ago” (2016). The installation hangs within the spaces between the exhibitions three chapters. You stop and stand on the archive stairs to make out Rechy’s words upon Martinez’s carved linoleum tiles. Over the tiles Martinez sanded denim so that Rechy’s words appear through the grooves of stone, their curves molded by fabric that once again brings to mind the aesthetics of cruising. Reading Rechy’s story, you’re introduced to two men who encounter one another through cruising; the type of sex that reminds them that they’re alive and beautiful in a world filled with death and ugliness.
It’s this beauty; the beauty that is to be found in the hidden, in the forgotten, in memory writ large and small that imbues all three chapters of the show. “Leather Archives 1981″’s archival images of Queer clubs and kink, which Martinez manipulated through non-traditional techniques both in-camera and in the development process—and “Altars”’ homage to Etienne’s body of work, enmeshing it within Martinez’s unique photographic practices—birth a new type of visual vocabulary. People captured in the midst of ecstatic torment and Etienne’s own hyper-masculine figures, shimmer in and out of focus. Points of rupture appear, like constellations or orifices, and body parts multiply and expand. It is a psychedelic vision of what your body could do, what it could be in this world. The images of “Leather Archives 1981” and “Altars” lead to the show’s climax in “Etienne Restaged.”
Taking place in the Etienne Auditorium, “Etienne Restaged” is a dance of light, of memory, of sweat, of semen, of blood, and flesh. The stuff of life. Photographs of the young artist merge with drawings from his archives to illuminate the stage in colossal murals that seem to shift in tone as the auditorium’s light changes. Alongside Etienne’s massive paintings, some of which hung upon clubs and bathhouses opened by Orejudos and Renslow across the city, handkerchiefs hang like banners upon which Etienne’s men are bound, dominated, and taken to feel something other, beautiful and beyond.
Like the church and the dance floor, memory abounds in “Sparks.” This is the story of a haunting, of the ghosts that you can’t help but remember. “Sparks” is the story of the beloved brought back to life; the story of a beloved that never left you.
“Sparks in a Dark Room: Exchange, Pleasure and Play,” by Gabriel Martinez is on view at Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 North Greenview, through July 28.