Jade Yumang’s artistic practice focuses on the concept of queer form traced through the summoning of historical amnesia, by means of myths, scandal trials, obscenity laws, and filmic tropes. Thumb Through is a series of sculptures that reference a 1972 legal scandal in New Jersey where police officers, without warrant, entered a gay bookstore and seized publications that were deemed obscene. Each sculpture in the exhibition represents a page from an issue of My-O-My, a 1970s North American gay erotic magazine that was used as evidence in the case and compared to an unauthorized weapon. For Thumb Through, Yumang scanned and printed the issue on fabric page-by-page, combining them with contemporaneous materials to construct abstract sculptural forms that evoke the forthcoming visibility of queer desire.
Exhibition Essay: Thumb Through: Jade Yumang and My-O-My
“If men were angels no government would be necessary.” James Madison, Federalist No. 51.
- Case document excerpt, New Jersey v. Shapiro, 1973
In July of 2012 I bought Jade Yumang a vintage gay porn magazine on Fire Island. A pop-up shop in Cherry Grove, New York was selling high quality reprints of 1970s stud mags like Dynamo! and HONCHO, along with island knick-knacks and some belongings from the estate of Rue McClanahan (God rest her soul). I immediately thumbed through a few issues, grabbed two or three, and ran back to the house to proudly flaunt my finds and offer a few gifts. The magazine covers were reprinted in a sturdy glossy plastic laminate—no doubt a material response to the flimsy, fading paper covers of the 1970s that clung to their staples with all the commitment of a short-term relationship. Two of the magazines were more traditionally hardcore: locker room scenes, hikers in denim cut-offs with tall striped tube socks and hiking boots, leather scenes, that sort of thing. The issue I had in mind for Jade was far more romantic and unimaginably colorful.
Printed and distributed in the early 1970s, My-O-My Volume II focused exclusively on two male models in a studio whose sexual narrative unfolded over the course of the 32-page book, at first intimately kissing and undressing page by page before eventually succumbing to one another for several more pages. The models were set against lush monochromatic backdrops of what can only be described as deeply timely colors for the 1970s: rust, ochre, sea foam, deep mauve, avocado green. Solid backdrops of color cast focus on the rich textures and character of each man’s garments and their pink and peach bodies in various states of passion and undress.
My-O-My also had another life as material evidence in New Jersey v. Shapiro, the Superior Court trial of Edward Shapiro and Milton Nerenberg after two police raids of their bookstore, Action Auction, in 1972. At question frequently in the suit was whether indecent material had any “redeeming social significance.” What is remarkable about the language in the case is that it refers to the content of the magazine as “nude males making love to one another,” which in descriptive terms is actually quite sweet. (The title of the other magazine obtained from the raids was Togetherness.) Apart from this, the case language makes no other mention of the magazines’ sexual content, apart from their “obscene” nature. These notions of speaking around bodies and transforming desire into something harmful are at the center of Jade Yumang’s Thumb Through series.
Consistent among the 32 objects, which vary in form and content for each page in My-O-My, is the use of page scans printed in archival ink on cotton and wrapped around long tubular forms, like pillow-soft porcupine quills. Some hang from or jut out of vintage fabrics and objects, resembling—or fastened to—fringe, tube socks, and refashioned garments from the early 1970s. Others like Page 28 (2015), bright and colorful and collected in a corner, offer sewn-cotton candy echoes of Felix Gonzalez-Torres piles. Like Felix’s practice and the pornographic images in My-O-My, Yumang’s works transfer intimate emotion out into the public realm.
The magazine’s retro design features, like typesettings, borders, layouts, and ads for back issues of other magazines in the series, frame the desire on adjacent pages. The edges of the artist’s sculptures pay careful attention to this detail. Fabric borders and underbellies of objects flaunt fringe, long strands of fibers, satin rope, and smooth patches of leather, recalling both nostalgia and biological features of organic creatures. Each sculpture’s tendrils appear both soft and dangerous, wielding a tender and uncertain harm. Like the models in My-O-My, works like Page 10 (2015), Page 12 (2015) and Page 5 (2016) themselves appear to be in states of undress, with zippers revealing inner layers, teasing and unveiling their private contents.
For a time that summer on Fire Island, Jade was tucked away in a basement studio designing and sewing elegant garments of white tulle that resembled diaphanous dragon spirits made of slender clouds. Objects in Thumb Through find echoes of these queered monster-forms, combining intimacy and absence, perceived potential harm and soft surfaces. Neither Jade nor I were yet aware of the power—and the redeeming social significance—of this random porn mag. Looking back it seems fitting that it was a gift from the island. (Had the nude men in the pictures cruised these beach forest paths? Were their ashes underfoot?) In Yumang’s careful hands, the intimate layers of these queer, quiet histories are shed one by one, transformed into something strange—and strangely powerful.
 State v. Shapiro (Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division (Criminal) January 26, 1973), Law.justia.com 300 A.2d 595.
By Evan Garza
Evan Garza is Director of Public Art at Rice University. In 2011, he co-founded Fire Island Artist Residency in Cherry Grove, New York, the first residency program in the United States exclusively for LGBTQ artists. Garza served as Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin from 2014–2016 and was Exhibitions and Programs Director at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 2011–2014. He has organized and curated several exhibitions internationally and his writing has been published by Hyperallergic, Flash Art, ART PAPERS, and Artforum.com.