PST, A to Z: ‘Cruising’ at ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives
Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
To see “Cruising the Archive: Queer Art and Culture in Los Angeles, 1945-1980,” you have to do some cruising yourself — not necessarily in a libidinal sense, but between three small venues: two in Exposition Park and one in West Hollywood. Consequently, the exhibition feels a bit fragmented, with a single artist’s work often spread across multiple spaces, but it’s very much in keeping with the sprawling structure of Pacific Standard Time and the diversity of the queer community itself.
Drawn from the collections of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, the materials on view are a mix of art and documentation from a spectrum of artists, from relatively well-known names — Don Bachardy, Gronk, Sister Mary Corita Kent — to those who remain completely anonymous. The show also encompasses a wide array of sexual identities and movements whose aims and attitudes weren’t always aligned. The result is an unruly history of queer culture in Los Angeles that is inspiring in its depth and vibrancy.
The ONE Archives began as ONE Magazine, founded in 1953, and the display at USC's Doheny Library is largely devoted to the history of queer publications including PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education, which later became The Advocate), The Ladder, The Lesbian Tide, and more obscure titles like Edith Eyde’s Vice Versa: America’s Gayest Magazine, hand-typed in editions of 10 from 1947-48, and Transvestia, dedicated to straight-identified male cross-dressers, published by Virginia Prince (born Arnold Lowman) starting in 1960. There’s also some fascinating early 20th century sheet music from the collection of Ralph W. Judd with titles like, “My Regular Girl is a Feller,” and “I Only Want a Buddy…Not a Sweetheart.”
The show at the ONE Archives also includes documentation of the 1969 performance “Caca Roaches Have No Friends” by Gronk and Cyclona (Robert Legorreta), in which a simulated sex act involving the breaking of a water balloon so incensed the audience that they literally set the building on fire. The reaction seems out of proportion considering the risqué behavior of many of the artists’ heterosexual contemporaries, but that difference in reception — i.e., homophobia — comes through loud and clear.
Indeed, as the times often dictated, many queer artists and writers operated under pseudonyms, even when they weren’t in drag. The founders of The Ladder wrote as Helen Sanders (Helen Sandoz), and Sten Russell (Stella Rush). Paintings by a person known only as McAlister, likely created in prison in the mid-1970s, depict remarkable fantasies. One features well-muscled jailors in vaguely Roman armor guarding a pair of equally brawny slaves, clad only in strategically placed drapery. It would be a rather standard master-slave scenario except that the jailors are black and the slaves are white.
Other artists are completely anonymous. The exhibition at the ONE Archives includes a selection of sketchbooks in which people created their own erotica, perhaps because it simply wasn’t available, or because their sexuality was a secret. Some feature rather conventional, Tom of Finland-style drawings, while others are more fanciful and idiosyncratic. One particularly beautiful, outlandish example depicts nude male bodies as colorful composites of twining vines, lush flowers, and animalistic facial features.
Fantasy, imagination, and play are themes that run throughout the show, providing a creative outlet it seems, for otherwise repressed and outlawed desires. In the late 1940s, Jim Kepner started a gay, Marxist science fiction fanzine called Toward Tomorrow, writing, “I think science fiction is a form of gay vision.” A 1945 painting by Alva Rogers depicts two men wearing space suits gazing out over a craggy, alien landscape. There’s nothing overtly sexual about the image, but forging visible queer communities must’ve sometimes felt like a journey to the final frontier.
Still, what emerges most forcefully from “Cruising the Archive” is not pain or ostracism, but an exhortation to never take oneself too seriously. On view at the West Hollywood space is a paper doll that artist and musician Phranc made of 1970s Lesbian Tide editor Jeanne Córdova. Her outfits include the requisite overalls, leather jacket, and baseball uniform, but there’s also one demure little dress with an apron tied around the waist. And why not? True liberation isn’t about prescribing new identities, but accepting all of them.
-- Sharon Mizota
ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, 909 W. Adams Blvd., (213) 741-0094, through May 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cruisingthearchive.org
ONE Archives Gallery & Museum, 626 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, through April 1. Closed Monday through Thursday. www.cruisingthearchive.org
Doheny Memorial Library, Treasure Room, USC, 3550 Trousdale Pkwy., (213) 740-2924, through May 31. Open daily. www.usc.edu/libraries/locations/doheny
Photos, from top: Anthony Friedkin, "Lesbian Couple, Hollywood," 1972. Credits: Morris Kight Collection. ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles.
Sidney Bronstein, "Unknown (Sailor with Schlitz)," 1952. Credit: ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.
Patssi Valdez, "Cyclona," 1982. Credits: Cyclona Collection. ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.