Last week, the Institute for the Humanities Gallery opened “Beautiful By Night,” an exhibit from James Hosking following three drag queens of Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the last gay bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Beginning as a patron of Aunt Charlie’s, Hosking quickly developed relationships with the bar’s performers, establishing an intimacy that is revealed in the media of this exhibit. The exhibit follows three performers at Aunt Charlie’s — Donna Personna, Olivia Hart and Collette LeGrande — sensitively and skillfully crafting an ode to their art, revealing the multidimensionality that is inherent in human life.
“Beautiful By Night” is an exhibit in two parts. First, the viewer enters a small room, each wall dedicated to one of the protagonists, and the fourth covered in images representative of Aunt Charlie’s Lounge. This gallery features only photographs following the performers as they transition into their drag personas, lacking the black-fonted labels that one is accustomed to see accompanying a display of art. With this absence of written information, Hosking leans on his photos to tell the story, encouraging the viewers to fill any narrative gaps. Hosking’s framing and the exhibit design allow the viewer to enter the world of Aunt Charlie’s and get to know the performers in all their stages of being. There is rarely more than one subject in Hosking’s photographs, and with a wall devoted to each, the exhibit truly honors Donna, Olivia and Collette’s individuality. We see their differences in attitude, style, personality, yet there is unity in their beauty and authenticity. Hosking’s photographs excel in portraying the realness of his subjects; they are messy, they are complicated, they are colorful, they are human.
In a second room, Hosking’s documentary “Beautiful By Night” plays on a loop. The film echoes the story told on the walls of the gallery, filling in the gaps between photos. The viewer is again introduced to the protagonists but now gets to hear their voices and witness the fluidity of their lives. The same genuineness from Hosking’s photography is reflected in the film. As the queens don their makeup, they engage in frank, casual conversation. There is no rigidity of an interview, only a flow of thought and feeling and history. These initial conversations suggest a level of fatigue among the queens, but this fatigue disappears as soon as they slip into their heels and step into Aunt Charlie’s. As they smile and dance and converse, the years of their lives seem to fall away as they ease into the vibrancy of night life. By the end of the night, and the end of the film, they return to the state in which we met them. Earrings come off, makeup is wiped away. The fatigue returns, but is joined by a sense of joy — the smiles from Aunt Charlie linger, even after the bar has closed.
Current culture has been putting a spotlight on drag, fully embracing it as a mainstream form of entertainment. RuPaul’s Drag Race just entered a 14th season (with innumerable spinoffs) and the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula has now seen four seasons. Yet Hosking’s “Beautiful By Night” reveals the raw realness of drag that pristine pop culture never allows. As Hosking stated on the exhibition’s opening night: “Perfection is boring.” With his show, Hosking pays homage to the imperfect complexity of living in the extraordinary. Donna, Olivia and Collette reach out to us through the exhibit and remind us of the richness of life when we break free from the limits of ourselves.
Daily Arts Contributor Maya Levy can be reached at email@example.com.