With Speedwell Projects’ current exhibition The Loved Ones, photographs by Smith Galtney of Maine and Matthew Papa of New York City, I wondered whether I could write an objective review.
Smith is a friend and I love his work. But not every relationship is perfect and some of the issues I have with ours offered perspective. For this review, I decided to let go of objectivity.
Speedwell Projects is a new gallery on outer Forest Avenue near Woodfords Corner opened by the nationally recognized photographer Jocelyn Lee. From what I’ve seen, hers is a measured and gracious force that I trust will ground this newly minted multi-use art and performance venue. Her eye is honed and has a story of its own.
The legacy represented and propelling the work shown in The Loved Ones, in both culture and production, is fully intertwined with my own. Look no further than the book of Alvin Baltrop photography on the coffee table that greets you in what is Smith’s attempt to lay a historical groundwork for the exhibition. Baltrop was under-recognized during his lifetime for his photographs from the ‘70s and ‘80s of gay black men cruising the West Side Highway piers, the center of New York City’s gay sex underground. While the visual language of this time is more evident in the subjects and poses in Matthew’s work, Smith pins it to a contemporary moment in the form of a slideshow video, schooling us on the art of deadpan photographic delivery, unadorned commitment to light and inside views of domesticity.
Photograph by Smith Galtney
Let’s rewind to right before I’m getting ready to see the exhibition. The routine is familiar: eat a balanced meal, pack an extra layer, park my bicycle at least a block away so that I have time to prepare myself to be surrounded by a room full of white dudes. Smith greeted me as soon as I entered.
Before even looking at the work I ask, “So what about race?” Of course, he fumbles nervously. Then he replies. “I love photography,” he says, and adds something about just trying to be a decent human being. Before even seeing the show, I went into this all hung up on the issue of naming in the context of identity politics. The press release introduces The Loved Ones as a show by two gay photographers. That’s it. Just two gay photographers. So. Like. What kind of gay? Would it be like black and brown fem bodies dancing to fierce house music and burning incense? No? Not that type of gay? Oh right, the middle-aged white dude type of gay. The default.
This is hard to explain. “Gay white male” is more specific than just gay. Just gay assumes whiteness (unless there are black artists present, then it would be othered and called a gay black show). But what’s more specific than gay white male — and this is the point I’m trying to make — are Smith and Matthew’s individual visions. So at first glance, the show looks very gay white male. I’m mostly talking about the audience — the people who came to the reception and the legacy the work is coming from. Looking again, there is some gender and ethnic diversity. The show doesn’t feel as white as the framing of it did in its press release and advertising. But that too is interesting — that presumption of whiteness.
I know Smith. I have collaborated with him, and while I may not look like the middle-aged gay white man represented in this exhibition, I know his ways and have been supported by his work. We have overlapping themes in our work as artists which reference the way gay men cruise for casual intimacy and negotiate acceptance. I see the Matthew Papa photographs and their daring nod to art created in a time when sex could first mean death. I know what it feels like to fight for something only to be told that it can now kill you.
What about you? Did you know about a sea of gay white dudes in the Castro, rising and falling in the alternating triumph of sexual liberation and the caustic ruin of AIDS? Did you also know about their dance parties and political tirades? The press release describes Smith and Matthew as two gay artists. Why is whiteness left out as an assumed default?
Keep it real and call it what it is — two middle-aged gay white dudes taking photos on fairly opposite ends of the respectability spectrum. One takes them as a way of documenting a settled and pedestrian middle-aged gay married life (Galtney) and the other makes images with nudes and ephemerality (Papa). If you’re gonna name something, don’t beat around the identity bush — name it! If this is “gay white male” culture, then it is one with a history that overlaps with my own (and many others’). Will these labels help us see in these photographs the heartbreaking beauty in what it means to forge ahead? To live? To die? To be seen? To celebrate and to hesitate? To be human and to be loved? This is the legacy I see living and breathing in this work. Whether or not it belongs to the identity and culture of gay white men is a question that will have to sit alongside the historical importance and quiet bravery on display.
The Loved Ones, photography by Smith Galtney & Matthew Papa | Through September 1 | SPEEDWELL Projects, 630 Forest Ave., Portland | Tues-Sat 2-6pm | Artist talk July 28 5:30pm