Saturday, September 25, 2010

Notes on Art: Marsden Hartley on Polar Bear Desire

Hartley-%22Portrait___%22 Portrait of a German Officer by Marsden Hartley, 1914.

I have recently done 4 short posts on the American artist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) which I think dear readers you will find intriguing on my Tumblr Polar Bear Desire.  I adore his work.

Here are the posts:

Portrait of a German Officer 1914

The Warriors 1913

Portrait 1914-15

Mount Katahdin Maine Number 2 1939-40

If you have a Tumblr blog, follow me and I will return the favor.

Also, look forward to an upcoming post on Marsden Hartley’s abstract portraits of a German officer in terms of homosexuality and uniform fetishism.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Queering the Image 7: An Early 20th Century Advertisement Illustrated by JC Leyendecker


J C Leyendecker (1874-1951) was a highly successful  American artist and illustrator in the early 20th century. He is well known for his poster, book, as well as most significantly advertising images and produced over 400 magazine covers with 322 covers solely for the Saturday Evening Post.  His most famous advertising campaign, The Arrow Collar Man, ran from 1905-1931.  Here is just one example from this long enduring campaignWithin this mass culture image meant to sell consumer goods, shirts and collars, is inscribed a palpable, vibrant and perhaps surprising  homoeroticism which is strikingly quite visible.  It was probably quite evident to a contemporaneous (homosexual) viewer at the moment of the ad’s production as it is to my queer self in 2010.


The advertisement presents a narrative of desire, an erotic longing for physical contact perhaps fulfilled, perhaps frustrated between 2 men. On the porch of an elegant house with grand steps and classical columns laden with wisteria (0r is it the country club manor) a handsome, stylish man and a woman presumably his wife in a Gibson Girl ensemble sit casually next to each other.  Between the man’s legs rests a bag of golf clubs and his wife looks at the family dog while petting it.


On the right side of the illustration stands another good looking, beautifully dressed man sporting a red cap.  He strikes a jaunty pose with his left hand on his hip; his right hand is placed on his golf bag. 

Perhaps, the 2 men have just finished a round of golf or are about to play one; but, that action is either in the recent past or the near future.  Instead, the intense gaze between the 2 men animates this scene and comprises its true narrative.  It is not a simple or unknowing look.  It is a gaze of intense want, a desire for physical interaction beyond the sanctioned practice of sports which allows masculine men to touch one another within a homosocial space.  These 2 men covet each other, each holding their “clubs”,  ready to potentially consummate their mutual attraction.

kruger Untitled by Barbara Kruger 1983


The woman/wife and her dog are obliterated and made irrelevant by this dual male gaze.  Although she sits physically close to her husband, there is no intimacy between them.  Her need for bodily contact is fulfilled by the family dog and not her husband.

But, although irrelevant to the illustration’s narrative, she is perhaps essential to it function as an advertisement.  She is the needed screen, the veneer of heterosexuality in the ad in order to make it acceptable, to hid its jcleyendeckergaze homoeroticism while it simultaneously asserts this same-sex desire quite vividly.  She elides the love that dare not speak its name of the image for those (men)who do not, cannot or will not see it.

In the end, this story of desire does not have any closure.  Is the desire between the 2 men consummated or is it left as an undercurrent between them, sublimated into a round of golf and never totally realized, but always displaced?  Does the seated man remain with his wife and the dog?  Does he not really play with his clubs and those of his companion?  One can never know the answer.

Yet, within this lack of closure is something viscerally sexual, something stimulating to me and the particular (homosexual) viewer.  In this way, it is more erotic, more charged- this story of want, then an image of its consummation.  It is truly erotic in the Barthesian sense.  Each (homosexual) viewer then could create their own story of these 2 men and imagine a series of events, followed by an ending of either fulfillment or frustration according to one’s own desires and fantasies.

Whatever the outcome of their narrative, this advertisement did not just sell shirts and collars, but explicitly displayed same-sex desire at a moment when such a desire was criminalized and medicalized.  And even today in 2010 it expresses this enduring desire.  It is a testament to a queer past.  It is my history.

JC_Leyendecker Leyendecker in 1895

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Silver Desire: A Late 19th Century Silverplate Biscuit Barrel

jdeakinbiscuitbarrel Biscuit barrel by James Deakin & Sons, c. 1880-1890, 10.5”x7.5”x5.5”

In my quest for ever more arcane use specific utensils and holloware in silver, I recently acquired an English silverplate biscuit barrel by the Sheffield maker James Deakin & Sons which opened in 1871 and closed in 1939.  The biscuit barrel was an essential table item of a more genteel time (well that is of course a fiction, but one can dream).  It uniquely appeared in England around 1860 and remained fashionable until the late 1930’s.  The barrel was made out of a variety of materials- silver, both plate and sterling as well as china, crystal and glass, many with silver mounts.  They were used to serve biscuits at tea time, luncheon or whenever the occasion called for it.


It is often quite difficult to date silverplate unlike English sterling with its rigorous hallmarks.  jdeakinbiscuitbarrel2 The maker’s mark on my barrel indicates a date of 1871-1897.  Yet, also judging by the style of the piece which combines both aesthetic and classical elements, I would venture to say that the date of the barrel could be narrowed down to 1880-1890.

My piece is, indeed, a barrel shape mounted on four cabriole legs with an overarching handle that attaches to the lid.  The lid opens ingeniously by simply lifting it by the finial and then sliding the entire lid and handle back in order to reveal the opening to the goodies inside.  Here is the lid in action:


The body of the barrel is decorated with an asymmetrical engraved design of no less than 6 types of foliage which surroundjdeakinbiscuitbarrel6b an open area meant to be used for a monogram.  I can identify ivy leaves at the bottom right, maiden hair fern on the left edge of the monogram space from which also emerges fern fronds.  I am sure the other leaves could be identified as well given time and inclination.

This naturalistic interest in plants is a hallmark of the aesthetic style.  It reminds me of designs on aesthetic pottery such as this large platter in my collection by Copeland in a pattern called Kew and dated to 1884:


In contrast to the aesthetic and naturalistic design of the front part of the barrel, the sides are embellished with stylized acanthus leavesjdeakinbiscuitbarrel5 in a very symmetrical and classical pattern like a piece of 19th century molding.  This motif is repeated in the lid of the biscuit barrel.  The cabriole legs of the barrel with claw and ball feet and lion masks at the “knees” of the legs evoke the 18th century and Chippendale furniture as does the shell motif located between the legs.

So, in this piece of silverplate there is an oscillation between tradition  and the fashionable aesthetic style of the moment of its production.  This movement is not disruptive, but fairly harmonious.  Stylistically, it holds together quite well.

Perhaps this form and it more 18th century decoration was an older model that was made over a long period of time and then updated with the aesthetic style engraving circa 1880.  This dynamic is in part the nature of silverplate which since it is not solid silver holds no intrinsic value.  The value is in the die that created the piece, an expensive process that would be used over a long period of time and sometimes sold to a new manufacturer when another went out of business.

This past Tuesday, my new biscuit barrel graced my table for the first time for a silver dessert soirée; it was filled with shortbread and proved to be quite a visual and tasty treat for my assembled guests.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Incomparable Justin Bond Wearing Karl Lagerfeld at Joe’s Pub

justinbond  Justin Bond at Joe’s Pub, September 2010Photo courtesy of JS

Last Sunday I saw Justin Bond perform at Joe’s Pub with my dear friends H____, A____ and J____.  We are all great fans of this singular chanteuse and I particularly remember with great fondness her raw rock performances at the legendary SqueezeBox!, her wickedly dark hosting of the party Foxy and the visceral grotesque yet cathartic display of her character Kiki of the musical duo, Kiki & Herb.  In contrast, her performance now, her cabaret act, is less raw, less physical; now it is more refined, more mature, less angry and more poignant, but still smart, sexy and compelling.  And indeed this recent show at Joe's Pub was just as emotional, just as intimate and just as bitingly funny as when I saw her there in April 2010 and way back in the 1990’s.

justinbond2 Photo courtesy of JS

After the show, my friend H____ remarked that despite the biting humor and dialogue between songs, a Justin Bond hallmark, there was something essentially “human” about her performance and persona.  Her comment deeply struck me at the time and has continued to linger in my head for days.  While Justin Bond can be devilishly funny, her choice of songs and the manner in which she sings are full of longing and loss.  They are always replete with tough emotion.  They are poignant.  They are cathartic.  In this sense her form and content expresses what is essentially human: that life is about loss- loss of youth, loss of love, loss of friends and family.  And despite our best efforts and the capitalist myths of everlasting life that surround us, we can never escape this haunting truth.

Justin Bond "In the End" live at Joe's Pub Easter 2010

The ultimate song of the show, In The End from the 2006 film Shortbus which Justin Bond starred in celebrates this fact and our own demise, our own loss.  As your last breath begins/ contentedly take it in/ cause we all get it in the end.  What we get in the end is not only death, but I imagine (and hope) a clarity about life and what is truly important- the love we gave and the love we received.  At Joe’s Pub, Justin encouraged the audience to sing along with the refrain of the song “…cause we all get it in the end…”  as if forcing us to acknowledge what we all try to forget.

justinbond3 Photo courtesy of JS

This notion of loss found in the song In The End for me pervaded the entire performance, not in a gloomy or depressing way, but simply as an honest human statement and emotion.  This feeling was evident in the nostalgic reminiscence of The Golden Age of Hustlers about sex workers in San Francisco lost but not forgotten to a rendition of The Carpenter’s Superstar, a song about love found, love lost and continual longing. 

Justin Bond The Golden Age of Hustlers Upright Cabaret Febuary 2010

justinbond This theme of loss was further underlined by Justin Bond’s outfit.  She was elegantly attired in a taupe grey Karl Lagerfeld cocktail dress and black Louboutin heels set off by a coiffed hair style with a black headband reminiscent of the 1960’s.  Justin told us that she had acquired the dress from a friend who died of AIDS.  This remark was delivered with humor and the audience laughed, but it was humor to get one through, to survive.  It was not a joke about AIDS , but a joke to endure and remember.  At this moment the dress was transformed into a memento mori, not only to Justin’s deceased friend, but to everyone who has died of AIDS and lives with HIV and  further to the horrors we all must suffer and struggle through- the sadomasochism of everyday life.  As the song In The End begins:  We all bear the scars/ yeah we all feign a laugh/ we all cry in the dark

So for me, Justin Bond’s performance was a moving exploration of loss and how we all must deal with it and survive in order to be human.  In this sense, the show was filled with hope through acceptance of the inevitable.  And also as always an evening with Justin Bond is for me utter bliss.