“Sleep with me and die” is written, in careful, loopy cursive, on a piece of paper, kissed with a blood-red lipsticked mouth and framed. Nine more of these “love” notes are hung around the room, alluding cheekily to the fearmongering surrounding gay sex during the AIDS crisis (to paraphrase theorists at the time: the homosexual phallus a gun, the rectum a grave). Hunter Reynolds’s show at PPOW Gallery in New York, on view until December 21, 2019, takes up questions of identity, gender and mourning in ways that feel innovative even twenty-five years after some of the works were made. For Reynolds, an artist, organizer for ACT UP and member of the Downtown queer and drag scenes of the 1980s and 90s, the history of AIDS is deeply personal, for in addition to being forced to mourn (and fight for) so many of his peers, he is himself HIV-positive.
The work on display is by Reynolds’s drag alter-ego, Patina du Prey—who was born, the artist recalls, on October 21, 1989, on route to an opening at the Kitchen—and consists of dresses worn during her performances, self-portraits, photo weavings (photographs sewn together to make quilt-like hangings), films, and relics, such as a vanity-cum-shrine, from the labor-intensive gender construction that is drag.
Three of the four dresses on display stand on slowly rotating platforms, and thanks to documentation of her performances it is easy to imagine a young du Prey filling out the gowns, arms in the air like a life-sized jewelry-box dancer. A suite of three hazy photographs of the artist in a white dress, her skirt a mass of tulle, call to mind Edgar Degas’s luminous ballerina paintings. These slow-motion pirouettes and painterly photos are more than just feminine signifiers in a show about gender, however. On closer inspection, the dresses are documents, their wearer’s pose one of defiance.
The wall behind Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress (1993–2007), a ballgown silkscreened with the names of 25,000 people who died of AIDS-related complications, is papered with more names of those killed in the epidemic. Among these additions, some surnames are not listed, and other designations, such as “John ‘with the black leather jacket,’” are informal. Rather than suggesting a lack of familiarity with those listed, these omissions and associations gesture to the brutal, alienating spread of the disease; I can’t help thinking of neighbors, acquaintances, one night stands—people encountered every day or just once, intimately, and whose last names we never come to know.
“From Drag to Dervish” is a vast personal and community archive, spanning decades, genders and forms. And like all good archives, Reynolds’s/du Prey’s is dynamic and accessible. In what at first look like gallery guestbooks, visitors are invited to record the names of those they want to see added to this homemade census. Reading them is, unsurprisingly, wrenching. Often the pages reveal a desire to memorialize beyond naming (which can feel, paradoxically, quite anonymous); “I miss you,” one reads. “My sweet friend,” says another. By providing the opportunity for a community-based record—its siting in the money-drenched, not-so-public public space of a Chelsea gallery aside—Reynolds offers a critique of the ways in which so-called marginal histories are reified, sterilized or forgotten.