The feather boa has a sprinkle of sparkle, but the perfect oval of a face, shaped by a leopard-print headpiece, looks worse for wear — or wary, perhaps. Just visible at the right margin is a photo of two glamorous women; the mirror gapes black. Drag queen Mario Montez’s hand lies nervously in his lap as Peter Hujar shoots him backstage at the Palm Casino Revue in New York in 1974.
Drag queens are in some respects the perfect subjects for photographs: their layers and layers of play and artifice — style, story and gender all blended and confused — fight against the clarifying lens of the camera. Add to that Montez’s inscrutable expression and you have a captivating, perplexing story.
Not all of Hujar’s photos of drag queens are quite so ambiguous, but the quality threads itself through his portraits — of friends, stars, lovers and self — as a new show at Maureen Paley in London demonstrates. There is more formal glamour in “Drag Actress Backstage with Fan”, from the same series; she looks like a Russian countess, crown, fan and all, who has fallen on hard times but, dammit, is still making the effort.
The studio portraits, mainly nudes, substitute unadorned encounters for fans and feathers, though they are no less complex. “David Wojnarowicz Smoking” (1981) captures Hujar’s fellow artist and one-time lover looking like a granite sculpture, his collarbone as sharp as a mountain ridge. It would be easier to identify the emotions not playing across Wojnarowicz’s face than those that are. Hujar also acted as his mentor and artistic collaborator, so here one man is making art of another man who has in turn made art of him — this photo is like catching a glimpse of a private dialogue or peering into an endless hall of mirrors. Even Hujar seems unsettled when he encounters his own camera — the defensive hand clasp, the darkness tracing the side of his face.
There is a temptation to read these images through what came later that decade, when HIV/Aids started to kill hundreds of thousands of gay men, including, in 1987, Hujar himself — to read them as a final flash of glamour before the curtain fell. But we shouldn’t; otherwise, all we see is the shadow, not the life.
“Peter Hujar” is upcoming at Maureen Paley, maureenpaley.com
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