“Stonewall @ 50,” the show running this month at Drexel University’s Pearlstein Gallery, bills itself as “the largest LGBTQ+ exhibition in Philadelphia history.”

I have no reason to doubt it, if only because the initials used to denote those who are out of the conventional heterosexual mainstream become ever more numerous.

They’re also ever more ambiguous. What does the Q mean? Most would say queer, though there are plenty of gay people, including me, who remember the term as a hurtful attack on our identity. A handful of others are happy to think of themselves as queens. Others say they are questioning. I guess the + is suggesting that in gender, as in the universe, there are always new worlds to be found and named.

In Celebration (2015) by Linda Lee Alter, which is hung near the show’s entrance, takes the matter of initials even further. She has made 20 small panels, each with a letter, starting with the standard LGBT... and adds letter after letter until there is an eye chart’s worth of identities ending in a climactic BAAAQ.

The piece seems funny and good-natured, a gentle satire on the difficulty of staying up to date with one’s nomenclature. But there is something hopeful about it too. Maybe if we get to so many letters to describe every shading of gender, every kink, every costume, we will generate so many classifications that there will be nothing left to do but treat people as the individuals we are.

Lesbian, one of 20 panels from "In Celebration" (2015) by Linda Lee Alter.
Linda Lee Alter, artist
Lesbian, one of 20 panels from "In Celebration" (2015) by Linda Lee Alter.

This tension between classification and self-realization permeates the show. Many artists recount on their labels their struggle to be themselves, and the joy and knowledge they gained from succeeding. For many, “coming out” begins as a solitary process, the discovery, as the old song goes, that “something deep inside cannot be denied.” At many times and places in history, there has been homoerotic art, and we recognize it by the way it expresses desire.

But coming out is also a social process, the discovery of others with whom you have much in common. These are often marginal people, the sort your parents warn you against. This sense of solidarity among outcasts is thrilling, and it helped to make a movement. “I was not like the other boys,” says some writing on Andrew Guth’s 2019 three-panel multimedia work Orion (Tales I Wish He Had Told Me). But the men shown here look exactly like the grown-up versions of the boys who were not like other boys. They are what used to be called clones.

Guth’s young men, with their clear kinship to gay male pornography, and to the cloaked homoeroticism that now seems evident in midcentury American advertising and culture, is perhaps the most clichéd imagery in the show. But by writing on the painting, and pasting on news clippings, Guth makes it into a poignant yet joyous expression of youthful desire. “He was made of stars,” Guth writes of one hunk. We crave flesh, and also transcendence.

Orion (Tales I Wish He Had Told Me) 2019 detail THIS "CROP" IS THE CORRECT ORIENTATION -- MAN SHOULD APPEAR TO STAND UPRIGHT
Andrew Guth, artist
Orion (Tales I Wish He Had Told Me) 2019 detail THIS "CROP" IS THE CORRECT ORIENTATION -- MAN SHOULD APPEAR TO STAND UPRIGHT

The exhibition was curated by David Acosta, who’s an artist and teacher, and Janus Ourma, a longtime activist and writer, as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn, the conventional starting date of the gay-rights movement.

It includes a handful of artists, beginning with Violet Oakley, who were active long before Stonewall, and others for whom this event at a dingy Greenwich Village bar is a historical event as distant as Gettysburg. A substantial percentage of the work was done for this show, in response to the curators’ invitation.

Half a century ago, men could be arrested for dancing with each other. Now same-sex couples can marry, and a gay man is running, credibly, for president of the United States. Perhaps because this is such a good moment in the history of “queer” America, the show feels a bit lifeless and anodyne. Anyone who was paying attention knows that this was a tough 50 years, but with the notable exceptions of H.D. Ivey’s furious, polemical scratchboard paintings Aids Profiteers (1990) and Court of No Appeal (1991), the plague years of the AIDS crisis are absent.

“If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture,” Fran Lebowitz wrote in 1987, “you would be pretty much left with `Let’s Make a Deal.' ” This seems a slight exaggeration, but it’s important to remember that she was writing at a moment when there was reason to fear it might happen.

A show on Stonewall @ 25, in 1994, would clearly have been very different. It would have missed the nuances of transsexuality and nonbinary gender that are such an important part of contemporary discourse.

A wonderful photograph like Marcus Branch’s Untitled (Hello Love) might have been included (though the artist would have been only 3 years old then.) It is clearly a same-sex embrace, though what makes it contemporary is our uncertainty of what the genders of the lovers are. And the terrific digital collages of Eva Wŏ would not have been there because they reflect a more contemporary sensibility.

Marcus Branch's 2018 work "Untitled (Hello Love)"
Marcus Branch, photographer
Marcus Branch's 2018 work "Untitled (Hello Love)"

But I suspect that a 1994 show would have been funnier, angrier, sexier, and queerer. Camp is now a subject for a blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it used to be a precision weapon, wielded by the formerly bullied. A bit of that is evident in Gabriel Martinez’s 2019 array of sanded denim rectangles that contain slogans and ripostes. “That’s MR. Faggot to you,” reads one.

Because so much of the work in the show is so recent, works from earlier decades tend to get lost in the crowd of tepid celebrations and remembrances. It would have been a lot more difficult and expensive to do a historical show truly representative of the half-century since Stonewall. It would have been good if a major museum had made that happen, but it did not.

Much of what is haunting in the current show consists of recollections on the labels. One artist remembers seeing reports of Stonewall on the television as a little boy, and feeling connected to it, even though he did not understand why. Another recounts an unwillingness to see himself as queer, even though his friends, playmates, and enemies had been telling him that for years.

What stays with me, though, is a photograph, Self Portrait: Light and Shadow (2018) by Uta Fellechner, who was born in Germany in 1941. It shows only part of an aged face. There is nothing obviously LGBTQ+ about it, and the artist has certainly experienced events more momentous than Stonewall. She looks directly at us, and her gaze is formidable. We sense that over time, she became herself.

And that’s the biggest thing the protesters at Stonewall were fighting for.

ART REVIEW

Stonewall @ 50

Through July 26 at Drexel University’s Pearlstein Gallery, 3401 Filbert St.

Hours: Wed.-Fri. noon-4 p.m., Sat. noon-5 p.m. Closed Sun.-Tues.

Admission: Free.

Information: 215-895-2548, drexel.edu/pearlsteingallery