Perverse Nostalgia

The lost world of secret gay sex clubs

Now closed and awaiting commercial transformation into another charmless chain coffee house or sandwich shop, for the next few weeks the former Prince’s Deli will be a sprawling, site-specific installation created by Christian Holstad—produced by Daniel Reich Gallery. The 34-year-old artist is known for extravagance, a tendency to utilize every inch of gallery space, and a critique of counterculture and its transformation from social and sexual rebellion into lock-step commercialism.

Rechristened “Leather Beach,” the deli has been transformed by Holstad into a sex emporium that is visually dreary, spiritually empty, and strangely funny; it’s an emotionally elegiac paean to the fading relic of Manhattan’s fabled underground gay sex culture. Employing a range of materials and objects including jockstraps, underwear, and leather, hemp, vegetable, and cotton fabrics, Holstad questions the utopian values of hippy culture and the liberationist ideologies of the sexual revolution and nods to their subsequent commodification and decline.

Leather Beach is easy to miss. Its entire façade is blacked out. Also there is no sign. It is largely unknown to an unsuspecting and hurried bourgeoisie as most underground sex establishments after 1950 were. If you’ve passed its Third Avenue entrance, you’ve unknowingly missed Holstad’s “Confessional,” a wooden revolving door through which you enter Leather Beach’s interior and feel as if you have arrived at a well-appointed hotel lobby. The contrast between something living, vivid, and breathing and its negative gets only better the further you progress from this threshold.

The space is dark and foreboding like so many leather stores are in their danger-chic manner. However, here the darkness is shadowy and funereal. The space’s previous life as a grocery competes with its present incarnation as a pretend playland for leather daddies and their pups. Holstad hasn’t changed the store’s original interior structure—a refrigerated display case and shelves are bare, lit by fluorescent light. Opposite are shelves containing Holstad’s fetishistic fashions—jeans made of hemp and chaps made from vegetable leather. Suspended or haphazardly placed everywhere are a cacophonic range of utilitarian objects, 30 in all, whose often Frankenstein-like combinations of environmentally friendly materials, queer references, and gothic eeriness all serve the theme of shattered utopian fantasies. Every object begs for attention, each one expanding Holstad’s story of social failure.

Yet, an ironic sensibility lurks in the details as well as in the titles. The hemp-and-cotton jeans have titles like “It’s Hard on the Knees,” and are wiped with wheat grass stains.

Overhead hangs “Practice Makes Practice,” a chandelier encrusted and adorned with 2(x)ist underwear, millinery flowers, nylon mesh, human hair, and other found objects that bubble up from and stick to its black base. It’s gooey, gross, erotic, and stunning, as if as if a young, throbbing, hot go-go boy suddenly combusted and melted. Incorporeality, the sense that the night crawlers of the fictional Leather Beach have left the building, follows in two overhanging mobiles. Made of hemp, zippers, vegetable leather, wheat grass, explosive wicks, or strike anywhere matches, each particle functions as a metaphor for the failure of a generation, real or imagined, to create a world in which sex is danger-free. The hot men, the bodies, the muscles, and the cocks are all absent, blown to bits; only their ghosts remain.

And the beach? Downstairs in the suffocatingly small basement is “Light Chamber,” Holstad’s most sinister and sobering work. The installation consists of a tanning booth that rests on oasis of black sand. A monument to vanity, its fluorescent whitish blue glow illuminates the noirish floor as well as a dead cockroach and a putrefying rattrap—the leftover inhabitants of an abandoned paradise.

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