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Three to see: New York

Three takes on gender identity and sexuality, from Edo-period Japan to contemporary feminism

by Victoria Stapley-Brown  |  9 March 2017
Three to see: New York
The printmaker Suzuki Harunobu's depiction of two Japanese couples in a teahouse  (1769-70). (Brian Boyle/Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)
Explore the collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, which reopened its SoHo home this week after a renovation that included an expansion into a former retail space next door. Around 240 works are included in the exhibition Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting (10 March-21 May), which offers an overview of themes in queer history and visual culture, including the Culture Wars of the 1980s-90, the AIDS crisis and censorship laws. The show is also a demonstration of how the museum has continued to widen its collection by, for instance, acquiring more works by female and female-presenting artists. (The nucleus of the collection in the 1980s was mostly by gay men). The show includes work by artists like Sophia Wallace, Berenice Abbott and Robert Mapplethorpe and features a striking sculpture by Edward A. Hochschild titled Vial Cross (1994) of a wooden cross pierced with vials containing pills, sand, hair and fluids—a visceral and powerful depiction of his suffering from AIDS. 

See how feminist art from the 1970s to the present has played with gender identity in the exhibition The Intersectional Self at the 8th Floor gallery (until 19 May). Some of the works are playful or wry (yet no less insightful), such as Ana Mendieta’s 1972 work Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), a suite of photographs in which Mendieta puts on her face the beard of a male classmate at the University of Iowa. Others are more raw, like Abigail DeVille’s assemblage sculpture, Title: Untitled (Till, Martin, Garner, Brown) (2016), which addresses black male victims of police violence. One particularly compelling focus of the show is its examination of families, with works like a photograph by Catherine Opie of a lesbian couple in a pool, one heavily pregnant, from her Domestic series. Also included is a self-portrait by Opie of herself bare-chested and breastfeeding her baby son that melds the Madonna and Child theme with a play on the butch/femme dichotomy in lesbian culture.

The Japan Society brings conversations about non-binary gender expression to Edo-period Japan (1603-1868) in the exhibition A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints (10 March-11 June). At the time, adolescent males were known as Wakashu (“beautiful youths”), a gender outside of men or women, with its own specific dress and hairstyle. Wakashu were considered appropriate and desirable sexual partners for both men and women. See the different ways Wakashu were depicted through around 70 woodblock prints and paintings on scrolls and screens and personal items like lacquered hair combs. The show also looks at other gender expressions in Edo-period Japan, such as female prostitutes who wore the Wakashu’s distinctive shaved hairstyle and men’s overcoats (one is shown dominating a male client in a risqué print). Visitors “can take a big historic journey with us, and hopefully come out of it with a knowledge of the past that might help inform the present conversation" on gender identity, says the curator, Michael Chagnon. 

• Click here for a complete list of previously recommended New York shows

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