Cubby Hole. Henrietta Hudson. Ginger’s. Bum Bum Bar: These are the last remnants of New York’s once-thriving lesbian bar scene.
Saddened by the evaporation of queer-girl nightlife, artist Gwen Shockey is doing her part to bring it back to life—at least symbolically—with a new exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Opening Friday, “Project Space: No Man’s Land” repurposes materials from long-defunct New York dyke bars—flyers, invites, bathroom-wall graffiti, and the like—into drawings, projections, sculptures, performance pieces, and even sound art.
Assembling the pieces was a labor of love, Shockey tells NewNowNext. She spent months interviewing women about their experiences at lesbian watering holes from the 1970s to the early 2000s, and countless afternoons researching bar culture at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope.
“They have this amazing archive of party invitations from lesbian bars that are long-closed,” she says. “I started scanning the invitations because the images were so gorgeous and sexy. You can identify the progression of the gay rights movement, changes in style, and identity politics.”
Though New York bars—both gay and lesbian—continues to fade, Shockey says they’re integral to building ties within the LGBT community. “Queer bars provide a stable location for community-forming in an otherwise unstable world—for women, lesbians, trans people, and queer people in general. As wonderful as dating apps may be, for a lot of people they exacerbate [that] lack of community.”
A recent MFA graduate from Pratt, Shockey now teaches visual arts at Connecticut College. She decided to focus on lesbian themes in her art in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. “I have become more aware than ever that acts of celebration and mourning often occur at the same time for the LGBTQ community,” she writes on her website. “For so many of us bars and nightlife continue to foster a stable sense of freedom and belonging through experiences of collective trauma and joy.”
“No Man’s Land” runs through September 24 at Leslie-Lohman. Shockey’s next exhibition, also highlighting lesbian bar culture, opens November 3 at the Amos Eno Gallery in Bushwick.