Since 1994, Cubbyhole has been a kitsch haven for the city’s LGBT community. Inside, fizzy pop tunes reverberate against $2 happy hours and a ceiling covered with paper holiday ornaments. Outside, though, you’re crashed back into the touristy, suburban feel of the West Village.
That’s what queer artist Gwen Shockey saw during her Sunday morning excursions. “On Sundays, you get a true sense of who is now living in these neighborhoods. They are mostly straight white families with a lot of wealth,” she says, sitting across Cubbyhole in mid-October. “But this place has held up.” Camera in hand, she’s been documenting the history of lesbian bars like Cubbyhole – one of four sites still standing in the five boroughs.
Compelled by this changing landscape, the 29-year-old wanted to make the invisible lesbian bar scene visible again. These forgotten watering holes, many of which have been razed or repurposed into restaurants, will resurface in her solo show Addresses, which opened today at Amos Eno Gallery in Bushwick. She uncovers almost a century’s worth of lesbian herstory through photographs accompanied by back issues of the Village Voice and audio interviews.
Shockey and I met outside Cubbyhole in mid-October. She came across as a Lewis and Clark-like explorer of No Man’s Land, wearing a green windbreaker and brown cowboy boots. She combed through hundreds of party invitations, memoirs and films, archived at the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She then made a list of almost 100 lesbian bars lost in time. So far, she’s verified 46 sites that will be displayed chronologically. “There’s power in quantity,” she says. “When you’re standing there, surrounded by all these images, of what once were queer gathering spaces, there’s power in that.”
Addresses remaps the city according to these epicenters of queer gathering. Each digital print contains a photo of the current location where the bar once stood, and explanatory text quoting news sources, such as the Times, Go magazine and Gay News. She then framed and hanged them against a backdrop of the second-to-last print issue of the Village Voice. That vanguard of queer culture discontinued its print edition on Sept. 20.
The earliest known site Shockey uncovered is Eve’s Hangout. Eve Adams (or Addams), a Polish Jew, opened a lesbian speakeasy and tea room in 1925. The venture on 129 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village lasted a year. According to Shockey’s research, Adams was deported in late 1926 when an upstairs neighbor alerted immigration authorities.
Until the mid sixties, the New York Liquor Authority banned bars from serving gay people. And police raids were common. They shut down establishments lasting months to several years. The main problems were missing liquor licenses, noise complaints and usually public attitudes toward homosexuality.
A recent case of this conflict was Pandora’s Box in Greenwich Village. Now an apartment building, Pandora’s Box was a popular bar among black and Hispanic women in the early 1990s, according to a Times story Shockey cites. Testimony of rooftop bar brawls jolted residents to sign a petition urging the city and the NYPD to take action, the Times reported in 1993.Yet rampant gentrification has been by far the biggest antagonist, Shockey says. “In the course of this project, some of these photos I took a year ago, they’re already out of date. The city changes in a blink of an eye,” she adds. “Nothing stays the same here.”
Meow Mix on the Lower East Side once showcased female DJs and bands like Sleater-Kinney. It closed in 2004 and it’s now a cocktail bar called Suffolk Arms. From the mid to late 1990s, Portofino Restaurant on Thompson Street in the West Village was a Friday night hangout for lesbian women. Edith Windsor, who challenged the constitutionality of DOMA at the Supreme Court, met her wife Thea Clara Spyer there. The Malt House has since replaced Portofino. It’s the only location that’s aware of its queer roots, Shockey says.
Addresses isn’t necessarily a memorial of the past. Voices of interviews with living lesbian women will reverberate off the works – much like the music animating Cubbyhole. Shockey spoke with about 20 to 25 women of varying ages. She heard from older women who came out in the 1970s and 1980s and often described the bars as refuges. Younger women talked more about their frustrations with dating apps; they longed for physically meeting. Shockey is biased toward the latter. “The first thing I did when I moved to New York was I googled ‘lesbian bars.’ It was part of the reason I moved here,” she says.
Shockey first thought of something like Addresses in the summer of 2016. She attended the vigil at Stonewall for the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando. She then mourned and drank copiously at Cubbyhole where she had an epiphany. “I realized how much Cubbyhole means to me and how my own process of coming out has affected my artwork,” she says, as her gray eyes shimmered like the light of a disco ball.
Shockey channeled this dichotomy between euphoria and tragedy into her thesis show at the Pratt Institute, where she earned her M.F.A. in 2017. In Sites of Love and Fascination, she made a large-scale 3-D installation that combined sculpture, video projections and photography. Nine bathroom doors, replicated from the four remaining lesbian bars, evoked a haunting yet celebratory ambiance. The doors surrounded viewers who stood under glittering disco balls while listening to voices of lesbian women who frequented the bars.Viewers praised the historically rooted yet emotionally wrought Sites. Ken Lustbader, co-director of the Historic Sites Project, compares the installation’s large-scale immersive authenticity to “archaeological artifacts” resembling “tombstones.” Tal Gilboa, a close friend who attended Pratt with Shockey, reacted viscerally. “I felt seen through her art,” she says. “In queer culture, beauty and party and nightlife merge into marginality and sadness. That was one of the beautiful things she did.”
All the time Shockey waited in line for Cubbyhole’s bathroom eventually paid off. It served as the setting for most of her pieces like Cubby Hole Bar Bathroom, a series of relief prints made with drilled holes. The pointillist quality refers to both the bar’s name and the sexual undertones of what she calls a “loaded space.” Similarly, the drawing Interior Castle, For Jill Posener depicts women having sex in a stall. The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan added Interior Castle to its permanent collection last year. “To be hung next to Cathy Opie and Robert Mapplethorpe is the epitome of a win,” Shockey says.
Ever the nomad, Shockey is searching for a new manifest destiny. Now an art professor at Connecticut College, she plans to leave the Amos Eno Gallery (where she’s been a longtime member) after Addresses opens this week. She wants more time to “play” and experiment. Her next projects include a series of portraits of unsung gay “angels” and a coffee table-style book once she’s verified the existence of 90 lesbian bars in the city.
“That’s why Addresses has been frustrating. The end is not in sight,” she says. “For me, that’s hard. I can’t decide when it’s over.”
Addresses runs Nov. 2-19 at the Amos Eno Gallery (http://www.amoseno.org/upcoming) in Bushwick. An opening reception will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 3. Admission is free. The gallery is open 12-6 p.m., Thursday to Sunday.
Shockey needs help verifying her list of remaining bars. Visit her website for more information.