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“Daybreak” Exhibit Highlights New LGBTQ Photographers

Dan Avery
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A host of exciting new artists explore LGBTQ identity at Daybreak: New Affirmations in Queer Photography, an exhibit this summer at NYC’s Leslie-Lohman Museum Gay and Lesbian Art. Matthew Jensen co-curated Daybreak with fellow Parsons School of Design instructor Ka-Man Tse, explaining that there was no preconceived narrative when they envisioned a show meant to highlight up-and-coming voices in the art world.

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daybreak, exhibition image Photo: Ka-Man Tse

“We started as educators—looking at who was graduating, who was breaking institutional boundaries, whose work needs to get out,” says Jensen. “We ended up with a really exciting mix of a dozen gay, lesbian, trans, queer, femme-presenting and straight artists.”

If anything, the through line in Daybreak is that there is no one monolithic idea of what queer photography is according to the curators. “It can operate in so many different ways—loudly and quietly,” adds Tse. “There are themes of being and subject-hood, and of navigating one’s sense of self in the world. The range of methods goes from darkroom silver printing to wheat-pasting.” 

Daybreak, exhibition interior Photo: Ka-Man Tse

The 12 artists featured in the show are all based in New York, though many were not raised here: Mikaela Lungulov-Klotz is Serbian and Chilean, Alexis Ruiseco-Lombera is Cuban and Ryan Duffin is Canadian. Groana Melendez’s work illustrates the sense of otherness she feels both in her native Dominican Republic and her adopted American homeland.

“My art explores what it means to be the product of immigration,” Melendez said at a recent artist talkback at the museum. “We spoke Spanish at home—I consider myself Dominican.”

Groana Melendez, mona lisa, daybreak, Untitled (Mona Lisa). Groana Melendez, 2015

But her friends and family there often categorize her as an American. In a self-portrait used as Daybreak’s featured image, she’s pictured pulling a Mona Lisa T-shirt over her face, obscuring her Latin features with the paragon of Western beauty. It’s part of a series of portraits of her family. In another shot from this work, Melendez’s wife is turned away from the camera reaching into the sofa cushions to retrieve something.

“These artists are showing you a part of themselves; often you’re literally in their homes,” says Jensen. “You don’t have to be in their bedroom, or see the sex act, to understand that they’re queer.”

Daybreak, exhibition image Photo: Ka-Man Tse

The exhibit’s title comes from the optimism Jensen and Tse felt when they conceived the show back in 2016. “Marriage equality had just been legalized and we thought we were about to have Hillary Clinton as president. It felt like the first light of daybreak,” says Jensen. “It was the dawn of a new generation—we had a whole group of adults who only really knew Obama as president.” 

However, given changes in the world since, Tse adds that their intention isn’t to be tone deaf to the present turmoil but to underscore how there is still potential and possibility. “What I like about the word daybreak is that there is a sense of temporality, of transition and new beginnings.”

matthew papa, the things we do for love, daybreak The Things We Do for Love. Photo: Matthew Papa

Photographer Matthew Papa’s work embraces that optimism in a very autobiographical way: in one image in the show he’s seen wearing pantyhose, something he first attempted as a little boy exploring his identity. In another photo, his husband sits shirtless on a crate blowing bubble gum. The two married in 2016, a year after the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide.

Papa’s final submission is a picture of a box overflowing with magazines, books, mail and other detritus amassed over a lifetime. The 50-year-old artist, who tested HIV-positive in the 1990s, says he never expected to reach this age, let alone be exploring new facets of his life. (Papa got his MFA two years ago at ICP/Bard.) “When I found out I was positive, I thought, well, if I lived to 50 that would be OK. I never considered the notion of really growing older, of facing the normal debilitation of the aging process.”  

Daybreak, exhibiton shot Photo: Ka-Man Tse

For both curators and artists, having this exhibition at Leslie-Lohman, the only museum in the world devoted to LGBTQ art, has been a gift. “Their mission and vision is aligned with what we’re about,” Tse explains. “Sharing with each other, creating dialogue and fostering community.”  

Papa says he remembers being told not to be “too gay” when he first started making art. “There’s just a sense of being supported here, and of being part of a community rather than having to constantly explain yourself.”

Daybreak: New Affirmations in Queer Photography is on view at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 26 Wooster St., through September 2, 2018

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