August 17, 2022

“Transamerica/n” is the McNay Museum’s trailblazing exhibition on gender identity



To mark the 50th anniversary of Stonewall uprising, a survey exhibition in San Antonio explores the journey of gender since the Greenwich Village riots which ignited the LGBTQ movement.

In order to access “Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today” at the McNay Art Museum you must first walk through its companion exhibition “Andy Warhol: Portraits,” past the proverbial red velvet rope, into the decadence of New York City’s Studio 54 era. The Warhol show features over 100 paintings and prints — iconic images of the scions and celebrities Warhol once mingled with — mostly produced a full decade after the gay rights movement, at a time when the boozy vapidity of disco had drowned out the social solemnity of Stonewall.

But without Stonewall there may not have been a Warhol (his flamboyant silkscreens of the rich and famous, at least). And without Warhol, this moment at the McNay might not have happened, a broad survey show which celebrates, as much as commemorates, the history and legacy of the LGBTQ movement.

“Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today” brims with 59 artists — local, emerging, and established — who have dedicated their careers to exploring the role of gender in society, as well as in their own lives. Though the show contains a variety of mediums, film and photography prevail.

“Because of cellphones, everyone relates to photos and video now,” remarks René Paul Barilleaux, the McNay’s head of curatorial affairs. “Portraiture and self-portraiture are super familiar and seductive. We have very few conceptual or abstract works in this show.”

The photo-driven theme is undeniable. There’s large-scale photographs of a former monk dressed up as a nun, and an image of a man donning butterfly wings. JJ Levine’s Warhol-esque double portraits present a couple who have switched attire in order to swap genders. Thirty Polaroids — one for each year — document a trans woman’s journey through life in the comfort of her own home. One photograph by Lynn Hershman Leeson depicts a hybrid portrait of David Bowie and Katharine Hepburn. Another by Leesson features a collaged photo of Meryl Streep, Boy George, and Liz Taylor.

Lesley Dill, "Poem Dress for a Hermaphrodite,"
Lesley Dill, “Poem Dress for a Hermaphrodite,” 1995. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist and Nohra Haime Gallery, New York. © 2019 Lesley Dill

A film by Cassils, “Monument Push,” documents the performance artist pushing a boulder-like sculpture through the streets of Omaha, along with 70 members of the city’s local LGBTQ community, with Sisyphean determination. Finally, black and white images of trans couples and trans families hanging out on Christopher Street suggest that, really, nothing here is black and white.

There is a helpful glossary posted near the exhibit’s entrance to clarify which words mean what, in the ever-evolving sphere of LGBTQ terminology, setting the tone for openness and inclusivity. (In addition, each artist bio includes which pronoun he/she/they identify as, to further drive home this point.) Very little wall space has been spared, an unusual spatial choice for a major museum, but one that establishes an intimacy and immediacy with the already deeply personal art.

Installation view of “Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today” at the McNay Museum
Installation view of “Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today” at the McNay Museum

“This is a very dense installation, and it is meant to feel psychological and claustrophobic, as a way to think about the uncomfortable social spaces people deal with, as well as the coded language surrounding these topics,” says Barilleaux, who conceived of the exhibition.

Issues surrounding masculinity, femininity, and vulnerability course through the exhibition.

Jose Villalobos’s “Fragile Soles” is a video installation of the San Antonio artist’s live performance at the show’s opening earlier this summer. Dressed meticulously in a white mariachi uniform, Villalobos violently stomps on shoe soles made of clay and covered in glitter, each loud pop like a gunshot, before ripping apart a red rose, and tearing raw meat from his shirt — his own heart like a harvested organ. Spanish words are emblazoned across the screen: “fuerte y valiente” (strong and brave), “sangre” (blood), and “palpitación!” (palpitation!), further signaling the visceral nature of his performance. A pile of sparkly dust remains on the museum floor, just below the film footage, as proof of his pain within a machismo culture.

Lissa Rivera, “Metamorphosis,” archival pigment print
Lissa Rivera, “Metamorphosis,” archival pigment print, 2015. © Lissa Rivera

In “Beautiful Boy,” photographer Lissa Rivera presents a series of portraits of her domestic partner BJ, who, at times, enjoys exploring his feminine side by dressing in women’s clothing, or by wearing nothing at all, his thinness exuding its own delicate beauty for the camera. Rivera’s photos are fed to us on a large flat screen, creating an intimate narrative of her partner’s female-ness in a filmic manner: images of BJ dressed in bright shades, soft colors, lingerie, dresses, jewelry, with makeup, without makeup as well as one in which he lovingly caresses Rivera’s thigh while the couple lies in bed. These transformations feel subtle yet natural, even as BJ wears red lipstick or a strand of pearls, flashing at moments with undeniable femininity, before returning him to a more traditional gender role.

In “Pride Is Not Enough,” the most abstract — and arguably the most powerful — piece in the show, conceptual artist Michael Martinez has created an installation to honor the 49 victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, as well the 23 trans people murdered in the United States in 2018. Seventy-two bricks — one for each life lost — are evenly skewered on metal poles sticking up from a bright red platform, like some impersonal and unfinished structure. A mirror backdrop causes the bricks and gilded bars to multiply, evoking a feeling of imprisonment, as the viewer catches a glimpse of his/her/themselves in the obstructed reflection.

Truthful, beautiful, and sometimes painful, the voices of all 59 artists are clearly heard throughout this show: the underrepresented have been richly represented. Though the complexities of gender, sexuality, inequality, and identity far predate the Stonewall uprising in 1969, what happened on Christopher Street that summer continues to shape the way we consider these things. Half a century later, “Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today” succeeds in honoring that legacy.

“Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today” and “Andy Warhol: Portraits” are on view through Sept. 15 at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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