As I walked through the Friday night rain, clutching an umbrella with a price that far exceeded its quality, I felt lost. I was looking for the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, which that evening was opening Queer WAH, an exhibition of contemporary work by queer artists. Little did I know the shabby green door I had confusedly paused by was the very place. Despite the official sounding name that calls to mind tours and pamphlets, the WAH Center sat far more unassuming than I had initially guessed.
I walked up the three flights of stairs to the exhibit, and was greeted by an older Japanese woman sitting at a sign-in sheet. As I wrote down my name and email, she remarked in a quiet voice how nice it was that my writing was easy to read, as many people who fill in such forms do so carelessly. I thanked her politely and moved on.
Little did I know this was the WAH Center’s founder herself, Yuko Nii. Nii moved to New York from Japan at age 20 in 1963 to pursue art and attend the Pratt Institute. She purchased a run-down Williamsburg building in 1986, which she renovated herself and began renting to artists. As the neighborhood began to see its first influx of artists, Nii realized the need for a larger-scale exhibition space in the area.
In 1996, she learned a three-story building she had admired for a while was for sale—former home of the Kings County Savings Center, it was designated as a historical landmark in 1966.
“Yuko contacted the owner and the owner said, ‘Well, who are you?’ She said, ‘I’m an artist.’ And they go, ‘Don’t bother asking about buying this building, because you can’t afford it.’ Well, she persisted, and to their surprise she made an offer,” explained the WAH Center’s President and Treasurer Terrance Lindall at the opening. “And after she acquired it, she only had $50 left in her bank. That’s a big risk. But she’s a risk-taker. She believed in herself, she believed in the building, and she believed in Williamsburg.”
It was refreshing to see a gallery with such a history and an owner that has built a legacy of neighborhood artistic revitalization working so closely with the Center still today, but what does it have to do with queer art?
“This happens to be a special exhibition,” Nii told us all. “L G B T Q.” The way the letters fell off her tongue sounded foreign, as if she was saying them for the first time.
The WAH Center’s large exhibition space was peppered with swankily-dressed people flitting across its dark wood floors. Easy listening music softly filled the space. This traditional feel was the opposite of what I expected from a show displaying only works by “non-normative” artists.
However, a closer look at the work on display provided a different perspective. Though curator Richard Sanchez was a man of few words, his curation skills proved to be deft. My experience walking the exhibit from one end to the other created a clear artistic narrative, with clear groupings of works representing a variety of queer experiences. It also illustrated the real truth that birds of a feather, queer or not, indeed flock together.
The first chunk seemed to reflect a more mainstream gay male experience. The first thing I saw was John Hanning’s large and unwavering print, featuring a yearbook-esque photograph of a smiling blonde boy against a bold red background with the equally bold “I Survived AIDS” plastered in thick text below. Alongside it is John Thomas Paradiso’s Tulips and Pansies, a coy collage of gay male erotica and floral illustrations stitched together with thread. Nearby lay an impressive and sprawling work by curator Sanchez himself, consisting of a collage of charcoal sketches arranged to form a standard male nude, but one that is put together a little bit wrong, showing a yearning for bodily perfection but an inability to achieve it.
Further down the line, we see the seeds of subversion beginning. Lindsay Wolkowicz’s large paintings focus on specifics of the human form but are abstract and focused enough to be effortlessly genderless. Marc Dessauvage’s six self-portraits depict him, clearly male, dressed as a nurse, nun, and schoolgirl respectively. While his multiple faces are colored in an ethereal and dewy way, the feminine clothing he dons is flat, not quite fitting into the same fleshed-out world.
Next to this, the clear presence of women finally makes itself clear. Jaime Ford’s Drunk Chicks Suck Dick is fearless in its display of female sexuality. A tough-looking chick with a phallic beer keg in tow squirts a white foam into the face of a blonde person kneeling at her feet. Carmen Porfido’s snappy embroidery, Leaving Town, is a wink to the classic Eve story that grants its leading lady a lot more agency than the man upstairs does.
The WAH Center’s mission, Nii told us, is that of a bridge: “to reach between you and me, men and women, young and old, as well as local, national, [and] international artists.” The gallery wall between the two longer walls smartly acted as just that. Dedicated to nightlife—historically a space of subcultural expression for queer folks of all sorts to convene—it boasted a clever panorama of a disco ball that mirrored the phases of the moon, vivid prints of colorful characters by Richard Hatter, and a collection of black and white portraits of trans socialite Amanda Lepore. Putting her body on full display in a way that recalled Marilyn Monroe, the photos had a timeless feel typically only reserved for conventional starlets.
Cross the nightlife bridge, and you’re entered into a dazzling and childlike world of nearly nauseating color. Jamison Sarteschi’s Growing Up Gaudy is a sculpture that is part enticing, part abhorrent: a gleaming conglomerate of junk food, childhood relics, and a leaking penis with a color most similar to that of cheese puffs. However, the clear ringleader of this realm is JD Raenbeau, with several works across multiple mediums. Most impressive (and shocking) is Bathtime, a 60×60 pink-saturated acrylic beast that is part Garden of Earthly Delights, part 120 Days of Sodom, part My Little Pony. It is a multifaceted and decadent human-cartoon orgy, and it is truly an achievement to behold.
For those who wish for something simpler, he also has an interactive piece of ornate golden hats hanging from the ceiling above a couch, of course also involving ponies. The hats are wearable, and Raenbeau was present to photograph anyone wearing his creations, encouraging them to upload the photos to social media using the appropriate hashtags.
The press release stated it would be displaying artists not only of queer sexualities but also transgender and intersex artists. This very well may have been true, but it was difficult to detect their presence in the midst of more recognizable queerness. While it is true queerness ranges on a spectrum and that was generally well-illustrated in the exhibit, the components that typically fall outside the mainstream with less notice (queer women, trans, nonbinary and intersex folk) seemed to experience the same fate here.
“’Wah’ in Japanese is peace, harmony, and unity. So through the international language of art, we’ve come to love each other, we respect each other. That is the WAH Center’s mission,” Nii said. “So for those of you who have been here before, you know we’ve produced quite a few interesting shows. So please bring people here. We need your support.”
However, as I looked around at the faces in the packed room taking in Nii’s warm words, I couldn’t ignore the homogeneity. Nearly every single person, save for Nii and Sanchez, was white. C’est la vie.
Perhaps the audience of art openings such as Queer WAH will one day be as colorful and subversive as the work on display, but in a Williamsburg of 2015, once a haven for the fringe that some now find to be as “Disneyfied” as Times Square, perhaps this is fate.
Queer WAH is on view until November 1 at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, 135 Broadway, Williamsburg.