Where the Daffodils Grow: On Narcissus and Queer Love: Affection and Romance in Contemporary Art at La MaMa Galleria and Lehman College Gallery
by Joanna Seifter, April 28, 2023
The daffodils we walk past each mid-April morning on the way to work embody the optimism of an auspicious spring while evoking the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man so beautiful he becomes enamored with his own poolside reflection. As Narcissus wastes away, his body gradually transmogrifies into spates of daffodils (or their botanical name narcissi). Narcissus’ self-obsession stems from his form’s paradoxical visibility and inaccessibility, a culmination of his long-standing quest for companionship. His yearning for a partner at the risk of ostracization, catalyzed by loneliness and a want to belong, parallels the labored, challenging paths to love often experienced within the LGBTQIA+ community. Narcissus’ refusal to conform, even at the cost of his acceptance, is emblematic of advocacy and fortitude in queer love, wherein romance turns radical amidst unabated homophobia.
La MaMa Galleria and Lehman College Gallery’s compelling two-part exhibition, “Queer Love: Affection and Romance in Contemporary Art”, celebrates these themes of love, community, and unwavering individuality, representing a variety of disparate narratives while cultivating solidarity. The exhibition establishes its foundational aspect of queer love as “setting”–displays of affection deemed taboo are formed by and adapt to the couple’s location and viewer’s perspective. James Bidgood (whose own mythological foray, his 1971 fantasy pornographic film “Pink Narcissus”, is rife with handsome men, mirrors and daffodils) explores setting’s impact on both physical and emotional intimacy in his “Smoking” photographs (c. 1960s, Images 1-2), which feature a young gay couple sharing a cigarette and conversations by the seaside. Bidgood’s hued lighting and muted metallic decor, sentimental and poignantly kitsch, curates a dreamlike, abstracted environment in which the couple is sequestered away from onlookers, free to openly express their mutual desire. While not necessarily romantic, this scene is a romanticized depiction of the euphoric, timeless potential of companionship, a utopian denouement to the Narcissus narrative. Other works in “Queer Love”, like ggggrimes’ cozy vignette “Poetry” (2021), Sola Olulode’s serene, contemplative quilt “Stitched to You” (2022), and Clifford Prince King’s quietly joyful “Growing Each Day” (2019), are candid moments elevated by tender yet intense passion, unabashed and unconstrained by outsiders’ judgment.
James Bidgood, "Smoking, Sandcastles 1960s", early 1960s. Digital C-print, 15x15 in. Image courtesy of La MaMa Galleria and Lehman College Gallery.
Still others, like Luis Carle’s exultant “Pride, Love and Fireworks” (2003) and Catherine Opie’s gleefully vampiric “Julie & Pigpen” (2012) center couples defiantly, directly acknowledging and challenging the viewer’s presence. Anabelle DeClement and Sophie Schwartz’s photographs “Kiss" and "One Thirtieth of a Second” (2022, Images 3-4) expand upon this concept by fusing personal relationships, a private construct, with artistic collaboration, a public act. Kiss leaves an embracing DeClement and Schwartz obscured in the background (even though they would be in the foreground of a more conventionally compositional portrait), instead focusing on a spherical light fixture, which subtly reflects the room’s interior and, by extension, the viewer. “One Thirtieth of a Second” captures DeClement photographing the light fixture in “Kiss” and Schwartz’s reflection in a mirror. The combined photographs’ references to the viewer and the artist’s creative (and romantic) partnership creates a third distinct environment, one that both documents and is the product of queer love. A.L. Steiner’s meditative “Untitled (rainbow roots)” (2007), Betsy Damon’s chimeric “Body Masks” (1976) and Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s intriguing, voyeuristic “Daylight Studio Mirror” (2021) also fall under this category.
Anabelle DeClement, "Kiss", 2022. Archival inkjet print, 24x30 inches. Image courtesy of La MaMa Galleria and Lehman College Gallery.
Sophie Schwartz, "One Thirtieth of a Second", 2022. Archival inkjet print, 24x30 inches. Image courtesy of La MaMa Galleria and Lehman College Gallery.
Musicians and artists Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge’s “Pandrogeny” project, involving the couple (collectively known as “Breyer P-Orridge”) homogenizing their appearances with cosmetic surgery, takes the notion of collaboration as an expression of queer love to its most extreme. An early stage of their transition is documented in Michael Fox’s photograph “Lovebirds” (2002/2019), which features the nude Breyer P-Orridge kissing and merging into the shape of a heart, signifying their devotion while emphasizing their identical bodies–the Narcissus myth taken to its most literal conclusion. Breyer P-Orridge regarded their synthesis as both a biological and metaphysical union, the ultimate romantic gesture that prevailed beyond Lady Jaye’s passing in 2005, after which Genesis referred to themselves (in the queer community, frequently used as singular pronouns) as the plural (not royal) “we.” Like Breyer P-Orridge, Narcissus’ transition from living to dead, from person to flower, allows him to, as Ovid describes, “die united, two in one spirit.”
This review examines only a handful of works in “Queer Love: Affection and Romance in Contemporary Art”, as the exhibition represents over forty artists across six decades, encompassing multitudinous perspectives, media, movements, and intersecting identities. “Queer Love’s” uniformly positive presentation of its material occasionally obscures its subjects’ complicated legacies (including Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s antisemitism, which takes the visible form of a tattoo in “Lovebirds” and is uncontextualized in the exhibition's publication and wall text). At times, these instances undercut and falsify the messages and history the exhibit showcases. Overall, however, the exhibition’s ambitions succeed, creating an uplifting, complexly layered tribute to love, friendship, pride, and resilience in the queer community and, most importantly, by queer artists.
Michael Fox, "Lovebirds", 2002/2019. C-print, 43x29 inches. Image courtesy of La MaMa Galleria and Lehman College Gallery.