Exhibition

Rowan Renee: Airport Beach

20 Nov 2021 – 2 Jan 2022

Regular hours

Monday
Closed
Tuesday
10:00 – 18:00
Wednesday
10:00 – 18:00
Thursday
10:00 – 18:00
Friday
10:00 – 18:00
Saturday
10:00 – 18:00
Sunday
10:00 – 18:00

Free admission

Smack Mellon

New York
New York, United States

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Airport Beach is a site-specific, immersive installation of weavings, sculpture, and a handmade accordion book by artist Rowan Renee that spans Smack Mellon’s main gallery space.

About

Created over the past year and a half, the artworks in this exhibition use imagery and information documenting the Lavender Scare—a term coined by historian David K. Johnson to classify the public outing and persecution of the LGBTQ+ community by the Federal Government during the McCarthy Era. Although the Lavender Scare was consequential throughout the United States, Renee’s research concentrates on their home region of South Florida and the power wielded by the State legislature’s conservative majority. The subsequent  anti-gay agenda shaped the admission policies, hiring practices and curriculum of public schools and Universities, expanding the of role of police in the surveillance of burgeoning queer communities across Florida in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Renee draws on publicly accessible records from the State Archives of Florida about the Johns Committee—an investigation committee established by the Florida legislature in 1956 to investigate the “subversive” activities of the civil rights movement, homosexuality and communist political groups, as well as articles from local newspapers, and video stills from the Wolfson Archives, which are housed at Miami Dade College. Through these documents, the exhibition looks at the historic role of news media and jurisprudence in a time when legislation is currently being passed restricting the rights of queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people in conservative states like Florida. Through this source material, Airport Beach reflects on an era known for enforcing panoptic surveillance between friends, families, neighbors, and coworkers. Much of the violence and public shaming was enacted through the threat of being named and having personal information published in the news media. The consequences of public outing were so great that many people were coerced into cooperating with interrogations. For this installation, Renee dives into the troubling histories recorded in the text itself—recognizing the power of language to constrain and condemn those persecuted, but also as material that moves forward in time, creating possibilities for connection, recognition, and revision.  

In contrast with the stark text and imagery in the archival documents, the artist constructs the installation from sensuous materials, such as silk, linen, suminagashi marbled paper, copper hardware, and stained glass, as well as durable materials such as security glass. Through slow and meditative responses using weaving, book-making, and stained glass, craft becomes a practice of embodiment, care, and repair. Renee screen printed documents from the archives onto the warp threads of the textiles on display. The tension of the loom and the addition of unprinted weft fibers distort the images and text, rendering them fragmented and unrecognizable. Suspended from Smack Mellon’s 18-35 foot ceilings, the monumental scale of the transformed documents evokes the overwhelming weight of history. 

Installed diagonally across the main hall of the gallery, obstructing clear passage, is a 30-foot long sculptural table supporting an 86-page accordion book that contains redacted excerpts from one “list of homosexuals” published by the Johns Committee. Beneath the table hang stained glass book-forms that incorporate video stills taken of people dancing, playing and enjoying each other’s company at 21st Street Beach, a gay beach in Miami. These images, which are now housed within the Wolfson Archives at Miami Dade College, were originally filmed from a hidden camera and aired in April 1966 as part of an anti-gay program on local television. The content, form, and placement of these materials within the installation embody the complicated pleasures that exist alongside pain or shame, where records created with the intent to criminalize double as affirmations of the presence and persistence of queer joy through this era.

Although this installation diverges from their own family history, Renee began this research as a way to understand what queer life was like in Florida in the time period when their dad (who was born in 1929) grew up. Their dad, who was the focus of their other recent projects, never participated in any queer community, but went to prison for the first time in 1957 for a “crime against nature” offense. The “crime against nature” refers to the statute that criminalized homosexual sex. Although some states, like New York, began to repeal these laws in the 1960’s, in Florida it remained a felony offense with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison until 2003. The harsh penalties associated with a crime against nature conviction made living openly gay an untenable risk. Through this installation, Renee acknowledges the complex negotiations of visibility and discretion that were necesary for survival, and also honors the determination of those who took tremendous risks to pave the way for the gay liberation movement. In an era of expanded LGBTQ+ civil rights, Renee underscores the fragility of these accomplishments and highlights those left on the margins as mid-century conservatism adapts its rhetoric to the current discourse in politics, culture, and the courts.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Smack Mellon will host two public talks with the artist, the first with writer and researcher Stacy Braukman and the second with Gabriel Arkles, a litigator who works with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. Both events will illuminate the artist’s research into the pre-Stonewall time period through legal and historical archives.

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Exhibiting artists

Rowan Renee

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