At the Leslie-Lohman, Queer Artists Transform Our Understanding of Home

In Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), the Los Angeles–based photographer is pictured with her back to the camera. Etched into her skin are two stick figures with skirts holding hands, with a childlike illustration of a house beneath a cloud-covered sun. Her photograph—which cameoed in an early episode of The L-Word—balances vulnerability with defiance and, to this day, is a stark reflection of the ongoing struggle for inclusion for queer people. The visceral self-portrait conveys the artist’s yearning for a sense of place, a timeless and profoundly resonant sentiment in the queer community.

Gemma Rolls-Bentley, the guest curator for “Dreaming of Home,” which is on at the Leslie-Lohman Museum through January 7, 2024, first encountered the photograph in the mid-1990s. “For many young lesbians, seeing Cathy’s work is a really formative experience because she did so much to document, celebrate, and give visibility to queer life.” For her, Self-Portrait/Cutting—and all of Opie’s work—remains a beacon, consistently igniting conversations about representation, intimacy, and social progress. The show she has curated features the work of 20 LGBTQ+ artists to create an intergenerational dialogue about home, identity, and belonging.

The exhibition features a variety of media, from photography by Laurence Philomene and Rene Matić; to contemporary painting from Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, Shadi Al-Atallah, and Nicole Eisenman; to sculptures from Ro Robertson and Leilah Babirye.

After hanging a piece by Catherine Opie alongside works from younger queer artists in the Brighton Beacon Collection, Rolls-Bentley was struck by how Opie’s work retained its relevance and decided to foster a cross-generational dialogue in this show. “Cathy’s work felt as urgent—as relevant—as the work that had been made in the last couple of years,” Rolls-Bentley recalled, noting that younger artists said they were shocked to find out Opie’s image was 30 years old. In the Leslie-Lohman exhibition, younger and older artists confront both the beauty and anguish of queer life in conversation with one another, collectively offering a defiant counter-narrative to feelings of alienation.

In an interview with Artsy, Opie herself said that the work explores “the idea of home, especially in relationship to being queer and what that has meant” within a heteronormative society. According to Opie, the show not only celebrates the idea of a safe haven for queer individuals, but also acknowledges a new “construct outside of a heteronormative construct” by examining both “the celebratory and the dystopic” narratives. In this way, the show allows for a varied exploration of what “home” can mean to queer people and presents new models of love and domesticity.

Displayed prominently in the gallery windows, Cajsa von Zeipel’s sculptures, such as Covered in Me and A Milky Loop (both 2023), evoke a sense of domestic struggle. Covered in Me (2023) shows a mannequin, minus one tooth, toppling over a cat tower. Surrounding her, three plastic babies draw the eye: One pulls the tooth from her mouth, the second sits on her elevated leg, and the other is nestled in a baby carrier. The piece reappropriates common conservative criticisms about queer parenthood, embracing the banal chaos of parenthood to challenge traditional and narrow viewpoints.

A Milky Loop (2023) also manipulates the domestic tableau—with equally unsettling results. Above a stuffed elephant, a baby sits on top of another cat tower, but lurking behind, serpentine figures with baby bottles twist around the child. In her sculptures, von Zeipel confronts the idea of domestic stability, a luxury not often afforded to young LGBTQ+ people.

Meanwhile, Jenna Gribbon’s intimate paintings offer a more tender depiction of queer domesticity in the gallery. Her work Me looking at her looking at me (2018) captures a first-person perspective of a warm, compassionate moment between two women facing each other while reading on the couch. The painting, crafted with soft hues, captures the vulnerability and trust in everyday, passing exchanges. In her paintings, Gribbon studies the mundane moments of love, and, most notably, the sensation of being seen and acknowledged.

Above all, “Dreaming of Home” is curated to document queer life. In a parallel spirit to Opie’s documentary series, Charmaine Poh’s “How They Love” series documents the lives of queer youths in Singapore, where homosexuality, though legal, is met with severe social ostracism if not violence. Poh’s staged photographs capture intimate moments between queer individuals and couples—although, Rolls-Bentley explained, Poh struggled to find people willing to participate in the project.

“[Poh’s work] reminded me exactly of Joan Biren and her Portraits of Lesbians book that she made in the 1970s, and she had to go on a road trip across America to find women who would pose for that book,” Rolls-Bentley said. “Those women risked losing their children, losing their jobs, being deported by agreeing to be out in this photo project that ended up being so critical for lesbian visibility. That was nearly 45 years ago. What Charmaine was describing was five years ago. It’s a reminder that things are moving at very different paces and are very different in different global contexts.”

Noting escalating restrictions on gender-affirming treatment for trans people in both the U.S. and the U.K., Rolls-Bentley expressed concerns that things are only getting harder for queer people. “History will repeat itself,” she cautioned, noting the trauma and pain stirred up in the ’80s by discriminatory policies around the HIV epidemic. Still, spaces like Leslie-Lohman provide a sanctuary for voices and stories to be heard, bridging past and present issues. “Dreaming of Home” fosters a space where queer experiences are not only represented but valued in their dynamism.

“I wanted to put [Opie’s] work in dialogue with other artists and to collectively reflect on this 30-year period, and to think about what has changed,” said Rolls-Bentley. “Now, we see similar and worse challenges for trans people. It’s like the baton is being passed in a really sad way.”

At the heart of the exhibit is a poignant meditation on the relationship between queer bodies and space, which helps to shape our understanding of identity and self in constantly changing social contexts. Whether the artwork manipulates and contorts the body, like Christina Quarles’s painting Til/Shift (2020), or captures a tender embrace, like Sola Olulode’s deep blue canvas Before We Cross The Line (2023), every artwork in the show renegotiates how the body should or should not exist. Like Opie’s catalyzing photograph, this exhibition exists in the middle ground—inviting us to reflect and confront an oppressive status quo, where the traditional idea of home is often not a safe space.

“My hope is that these spaces are about larger conversations… in terms of the specificity of identity and the relationship to safe space in a world in which the laws are still going against us right now,” Opie said. “I’m happy to be fighting the good fight for all these years.”

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