Using film and time-based art to illuminate queer histories and liminal spaces across Los Angeles and New York City, the Dirty Looks collective traces contemporary queer aesthetics through historical works, presenting quintessential LGBTQ film and video alongside up-and-coming artists and filmmakers. The collective, founded in the winter of 2011 in New York City by Bradford Nordeen, has striven to reflect its community in novel and thought-provoking ways, presenting programming at the Museum of Modern Art, the Kitchen, the Hammer, Participant Inc, White Columns, ONE Archives, Artists Space and Judson Memorial Church throughout its seven-year history. Its maiden voyage took place at Participant Inc. during a blizzard that didn’t stop anyone from attending; in fact, they ran out of chairs. That first screening featured the films of Curtis Harrington, a contemporary of Kenneth Anger who also worked with Roger Corman. In true cheeky Dirty Looks style, Nordeen included an episode of Dynasty that Harrington directed.
In an effort to expand its reach, the NYC screening event began programming regularly in Los Angeles in 2015, drawing audiences to programs including the 24-hour vintage gay porn cycle titled Sesión Continua. There rare and classic works of gay, lesbian and bisexual erotica with titillating and suggestive titles such as The Case of the Hooded Man and Greek Lightning (which sounds more like a brand of poppers, certainly no accident) reflected the X-rated movie house experience.
A recent memorable L.A. presentation, "Dirty Looks on Location," saw 31 screenings in 31 queer or formerly queer spaces across the city, boasting a curatorial advisory committee of transgressive international art luminaries including Vaginal Cream Davis and Ron Athey. The On Location festival celebrated thriving spaces while also paying homage to the lost LGBTQ bars, bookstores and significant queer cultural sites from which political activism once erupted. The films selected were matched with space and place and included a showing of Maya Deren’s films at Coaxial, across the street from a strip club, and a showing of all of the videos of Chicana performance icon Xandra Ibarra/La Chica Boom at the former site of the Red Head, a lesbian bar in East L.A. that counted Laura Aguilar among its habitués.
This fall's Dirty Looks event promises to be as compelling as any past offering — the first West Coast survey of early video work by trans organizer, artist and activist Chris E. Vargas, perhaps best known as the founder and executive director of the Museum of Transgender "Hirstory" and Art (MOTHA). MOTHA began in 2013 as a broadside poster featuring 250 trans artists and gender heroes, focused on inclusion in a critical, not so much celebratory way. The poster gave birth to subsequent MOTHA projects, lectures and exhibitions across the country, investigating the ways that queer and trans people negotiate space, institutions and popular culture. MOTHA has no permanent space; instead the amorphous residency program has been presented at venues such as the Henry Art Gallery, Cooper Union, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Hammer Museum.
In addition to being a trans organizer, Vargas' videos explore and subvert famous figures such as Angelina Jolie, the first pregnant man, Liberace and RuPaul. Vargas' queering (or re-queering) of these figures seeks to challenge homo-normative ideas and reinterpret parts of LGBTQ history in the process. The video montage of RuPaul performing her now legendary tagline “Sashay away” is an instant classic. It is both funny and sad, and serves as a mini retrospective of the celebrity queen's sartorial selections.
Vargas and Greg Youmans' web series Falling in Love … With Chris and Greg, a sitcom about a queer odd couple (one is liberal, one is radical; one is transgender, one is not) should be a highlight, as should their A Special Holiday Message, which hilariously looks at why avant-garde hippie theater group The Cockettes were rejected by New York City when they toured there hoping for stardom, but their opener Sylvester was embraced. Chris and Greg chalk it up to The Cockettes' not being prepared or rehearsed while the disco diva was polished AF. It's the kind of biting look at queer pop culture that Vargas has become known for, though the artist says his focus has shifted from straightforward video-making to conceptual works for the MOTHA project's physical iterations in museums and galleries. He currently has a show up at the New Museum in New York City.
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"The project is a celebration of trans (expansively defined) art and Hirstory (a gender-neutral take on 'history') and also looks at the gains and limits of institutional inclusion," he says. "All the video work I’ve done lately relates to [it]."
As for his goals with the more contemporary works, and how his output seeks to counter the current administration’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of trans people, Vargas says, "I think it’s a reminder that we need to fight to protect the most marginalized among us (poor, undocumented, POC, trans women). It's also an important wake-up call/reminder that even after this last recent wave of trans media attention (movies, TV shows, etc.), that the most marginalized among us were made more visible and thus even more vulnerable. It revealed the limits of simple visibility projects without lasting systemic change."
Dirty Looks feels unlimited by contrast, and Nordeen's effort to give artists like Vargas visibility is a step toward actual change. "I think, in a wry way, these films are critical of many of their subjects," he says."But they are ultimately far more optimistic than much of the rhetoric right now because they propose alternative telling, strategies or options rather than lament on the past or present. They’re searingly active."