An Altar to Ourselves

Adrien Leavitt’s Queer Feelings devours the walls of the Factory with some 250 unframed photographs pinned edge to edge across nearly every surface inside the cozy gallery. There are so many photos that Leavitt lost count. Collectively they reveal the flesh of 30 individuals, including three sets of couples. Leavitt worked on the series for nearly a year.

It’s impossible to describe the exhibit in its entirety. Most subjects have been documented in the privacy of bedrooms or bathrooms drenched in spring light, surrounded by their private things. In the swell of images, small details bark for attention, like the glossy image of a meticulously trimmed triangle of public hair dyed bright violet. In the photograph, the subject’s head and face is out of frame; instead the camera is pointed at a pair of legs spread wide apart, seated on the edge of a bathtub. Hands rest limply on the legs, with fingernails painted violet. A tiny tattoo of a dripping slice of pizza is visible where thumb meets forefinger. Next to that photo, another portrait of the same subject—a close-up crop—shows a belly gently creased with stretch marks, punctuated by a navel piercing. Another shot from behind reveals illuminated buttocks, with the smallest bud of labia peeking between the thighs. In the center of the cluster of photos is finally a face: head shaved, eyes lined in purple to match the pubic hair. It takes a moment to piece together the whole image of a person who’s been captured in patchwork fragments, demanding a slow, studied piecing together. 

Leavitt, an attorney and public defender by day, spent years exploring self-portraiture before turning his camera toward his community, focusing in particular on people frequently marginalized, such as queer people of color. The result of the year of documentation is overwhelming. 

“I hoped by hanging the show salon-style it would recall the days many of us remember,” Leavitt says, “when we would create wall-to-wall collages in our middle school and high school bedrooms, creating a space that’s really an altar to ourselves. I wanted the show to feel like an altar to vulnerability, intimacy, self-love and to our own physical selves in all of their beauty and complexity.”  

One thing that jumps out—beyond the sheer fleshiness of the bodies that swim into and around each other—are the wide, unfettered smiles on so many of the faces. This radiance isn’t posed. In one of the few outdoor scenes, an undressed couple is lounging with their small sheepdog in a bucolic meadow hemmed by groves of trees. It reads like a throwback to an Edenic era, a time before shame. 

As in the work of Nan Goldin, who extensively documented her own drag and LGBTQ community as early as the 1970s, Leavitt’s subjects challenge the notion of binaries. It’s no use trying to tease out whether a given portrait is he or she—which suggests that it doesn’t matter. Leavitt shines in this current of fluidity without being didactic or candy-coating the imagery for easy consumption. His subjects are aggressively present in their bodies.

Queer Feelings will be on view at the Factory from 7-9 p.m. this Thursday and at a closing party Thursday, June 23, 6-10 p.m.