Review: Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s
by danilo machado
“Time sets on your profile, / transient / taking me through the crevices of memory,” Diana Solís writes in her 1998 poem “For Tony,” recently reprinted in Poetry alongside a selection of images. Solís’s work in photography and organizing is one of six key subjects in Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s, curated by Ariel Goldberg and on view at Leslie-Lohman through July 30. The exhibition presents six projects that utilize photographic strategies for organizing, education, and self-determination. Through slideshows, portraits, posters, and ephemera, these post-Stonewall projects reflect the connectedness between queer, trans, feminist, and racial justice movements. They honor three decades of cross-community image-making, teaching, learning, and gathering, towards liberatory goals which propel us into our presents and futures.
The exhibition’s central form is the slideshow. Joan E. Biren (JEB)’s The Dyke Show, which she presented at least eighty times between 1979 and 1984, was a touring, ticketed slideshow event that showed over a hundred years of photographic history. In the new introduction to the 2022 presentation, JEB speaks about how she sought these images in libraries and archives. She tells the audience about having to photograph some of the books covertly in bathroom stalls, which, in her words, required some “scary balancing acts.”
The same year as JEB’s first slide presentation, Allan Bérubé presented Lesbian Masquerade: Some Lesbians in Early San Francisco Who Passed as Men at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. The slideshow was eventually promoted and toured by the writer Louis Sullivan, who was in the audience at the first screening. A decade later, in the context of the Helms AIDS Amendments, which sought to ban funding for HIV/AIDS educational materials that mentioned “homosexual activities” “directly or indirectly” (one of which, attached to a 1987 appropriations bill, was signed into law by Ronald Reagan), the ART+Positive (of which Lola Flash was an active member) presented This Up Against That Slideshow, 1989–1990, exposing the violence and hypocrisy of banning depictions of nudity and queerness. Images on which to build also features a selection of photographs first shown in Flash’s slideshow for the Clit Club, a weekly gathering founded in 1990 by Julie Tolentino and Jaguar Mary X. Presentations like these utilized projectors to share queer, trans, feminist and political histories and archives.
For these projects, the distribution and circulation of the images were just as intentional as their content. The exhibition “Keepin’ On”: Images of African American Lesbians from the Lesbian Herstory Archives featured high-quality color xeroxes mounted onto foam boards designed to be easily mailed and installed. Electric Blanket: AIDS Projection Project—created by Allen Frame, Frank Franca, and Nan Goldin with support from Visual AIDS—was shown in art spaces, museums, and large outdoor venues over fifty times across a decade beginning in 1990.
Part of what is being honored in Images on which to build are the ways photographers have formand support organizations, coalitions, and archives outside of mainstream institutions. Diana Solís, for example, not only documented large demonstrations and marches, but started photo education programs and darkrooms in her hometown of Chicago, including with Mujeres Latinas en Acción’s Women’s Education Project. An institution like Leslie-Lohman differs from many of their original sites of production. Nevertheless, Goldberg is able to present a dynamic display with sound elements and nods to original display strategies. In the gallery, one hears the Kodak Carousel 4400 projecting This Up Against That Slideshow. The steady advancement of the slides and the whirring of the machine are heard alongside music from “Keepin’ On” playing on a boombox. Compiled by co-curator Paula Grant in 1991, the playlist features songs by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Josephine Baker. In a text accompanying the original exhibition, Grant writes that “the lyrics of the early music, some sung by lesbian performers, some by our friends . . . might offend folks today. Back then—just like now?—most lesbians were singing lyrics about ‘my man.’ But not all, not even back then.”
Goldberg’s curatorial framing is at once focused and connective. It’s particularly effective in reflecting the ways that image-making and organizing are led by artists and communities whose identities are not singular. The exhibition portrays a complex legacy of countering many erasures and refusing separation between liberatory strategies—and without the too-common trope of evoking intersectionality flatly.
Two of the columns in the gallery space are covered in wheatpasted posters from each of the projects. Visual echoes between projects and time periods read as testaments to cross-movement, cross-genre connections between communities, archives, and artists. For example, Southern Black trans man James McHarris (also known as Annie Lee Grant) is depicted in passage of “Keepin’ On” taken from a 1954 issue Ebony Magazine; in JEB’s Dyke Show; and in Lesbian Masquerade. History-telling that emphasizes these throughlines is much more nuanced than overly-separatist tellings. It seems like an optimistic gesture, perhaps suggesting hope for continuing solidarities across identity categories in our challenging presents and futures.
In her on our backs review of JEB’s The Dyke Show, Carol Seajay (co-founder of Old Wives’ Tales, a feminist Bookstore in San Francisco) described the slideshow as making “images on which to build a future.” Our present—perhaps the future that Seejay imagined in 1980—is deeply felt in the exhibition. These recent histories continually conjure the present—one where Visual AIDS, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and Ben Power Alwin’s Sexual Minority Archives are still active, but also notably one where legislation censoring queer content is constantly being threatened, and regularly being enacted. Grant’s question “Back then—just like now?” echoes. Indeed, the soundtrack of Electric Blanket includes Jimmy Sommerville’s “If I Could Tell You,” a setting of W.H. Auden’s 1940 poem of the same name. “Time will say nothing but I told you so,” croons Sommerville with the Communards.
Photos are, of course, just time and light—and there is so much of both in Images on which to build. Dates decorate letters, magazines, and one-night-only flyers. Hanging on pins are two ART+Positive Calendars, one showing the glowing work of Flash for the month of December 1990. (“Please do not touch the artwork,” says the sign below it, calling out my urge to flip the pages.) Just time and light. There’s sunlight behind protest banners, street lamps surrounding nighttime presentations of Electric Blanket, refractions of disco balls, a set of bright windows above Ben Power Alwin—all suited and bespeckled and surrounded by flowers.
The light is the content and the material—it bounces off the cases of ephemera and illuminates the grid of slides from Lesbian Masquerade and the accompanying magnifying glass. It is the same kind that Solís tenderly holds in her 1982 self-portrait, taken in Chicago. The multiple slideshows in the room make it so that the content of the space is always changing, slide by slide. Slideshows themselves were often evolving, their carousels allowing for easy editing and the addition of images. Streams of light travel from the projector onto the gallery wall and, if you walk in front of it, your shadow shows, too.