The Vanishing Queer Underground of Los Angeles

The Vanishing Queer Underground of Los Angeles

The Vanishing Queer Underground of Los Angeles

Reynaldo Rivera’s photos of the city’s nightlife document a time of cheap rent and possibility.


Before the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to be temporarily shuttered, La Plaza was one of the oldest running gay bars in Los Angeles. A fixture in the city for over four decades and serving a mainly Latino clientele, the club was a favorite of the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, who described it in his book Cruising Utopia as having a “kind of gay Mexican cowhands feel.” When he visited, Muñoz took in the spirited, folksy drag shows that were staged at the bar. The Spanish-speaking performers, running through lip-synched routines of Latin anthems and English-language pop songs, helped transform the dingy space. Their songs and the bar conjured stories of “migratory crossings, both legal and illegal,” where the sea of bodies onstage and in the audience, so often in the process of flux, finally seemed on the cusp of belonging.

Another audience member was photographer Reynaldo Rivera. Charmed by La Plaza’s atmosphere and its two-for-one margaritas, he was a habitué of the club for years, all the while documenting its culture and those of other underground drag bars throughout the city’s Eastside in photographs from 1989 to the start of the new millennium. Little seen or exhibited since their making, his artful and accomplished black-and-white images conjure a shimmering, emotive world of performance and communion achieved against a backdrop of modest means. While they occasionally present recognizable figures such as the musician Alice Bag and the performance artist Ron Athey, the pictures document lesser-known subjects for posterity. The photographs affectionately observe people—from performers whose notoriety was limited to that moment and impeded onerous circumstance to Rivera’s group of vibrant young friends—whose lives don’t often find this level of representation and close attention. Given that gap, it’s predictable that Rivera’s work is emerging only now, when so much of the environment it portrays has fractured and faded away.

This year Rivera’s photos appear in the Hammer Museum Biennial, “Made in LA,” and 200 pictures from his vast archive are collected for the first time in a monograph published by Semiotext(e) and edited by the exhibition’s cocurator Lauren Mackler and Semioxtet(e)’s Hedi El Kholti. The book is interspersed with essays and stories by the writers Chris Kraus and Luis Bauz and the multi-hyphenate performance legend Vaginal Davis, all of whom knew Rivera when he took the pictures in the collection. It was a moment, the book stresses, when LA was different: a halcyon city of cheap rents and cultural multiplicity that is little remembered or memorialized, in part because—whether in the physical city or in the narrow confines of collective memory—there are so few traces of it left.

Born in Mexicali in 1964, Rivera was brought to Los Angeles by his mother at the age of 5. He spent his youth shuttling between the borderlands of Mexico and Southern and Central California. As a young teenager, he followed his father’s map of itinerant work, joining him in Stockton to pick cherries in the orchards during the spring and some years later at a Campbell Soup cannery job. Another way Rivera’s father made money was by moving stolen goods between Stockton, LA, and Mexico, and it was in a pile of fenced merchandise that Rivera found his first camera. Barely in his 20s, he got his start professionally as a chronicler of LA’s live music scene, selling concert photos of bands like Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, and Siouxsie and the Banshees to LA Weekly, where he once worked as a janitor. But he was discouraged by some of the homophobia and monochromatic hue of the punk and rock scenes. The balance of immigrants and the unrepentant, outsize glamour of the drag bars, which friends introduced him to, proved more compelling.

He began to photograph the performers of La Plaza (the majority of whom lived as women) in the late 1980s. In his book they appear gliding spotlit through the seated crowd, with fans of dollar bills swirling at their hips, or illumined on stage mid-song, enveloped by a cool darkness. Rivera befriended many of the performers—like Miss Alex, a boy from Veracruz turned “It” girl in Mexico City, who penned a column on an exalted version of her life in Hollywood for the newspaper La Jornada back home—and offered them copies of his black-snd-white prints. Eventually they granted him access to La Plaza’s dressing room: a bustling space, fertile not just with the drama of primping and quick changes (as well as a pleasant jumble of costumes, mirrors, and oblique angles) but also with the sense of emergence. Rivera captures the quiet interlude of becoming as the performers put on their faces and style their expressions for the stage (and perhaps, in some way, their lives). He tells Kraus, for her introductory essay, “The stage…was almost like a come down [after that]…. the dressing room—that’s where you heard all the gossip and the fights.”

As a photographer, Rivera is partial to the portrait. His tight frame focuses on the interior life of the individual, dispelling any sense of critical remove or irony. Indeed, his closeness to his subjects is literal: He often turns up in the mirror alongside them, his willowy frame leaning in to take the shot. A student of old Hollywood films and golden age Mexican cinema, he has a preternatural ability to make people look like movie stars, which is part of what drew the performers of La Plaza to him. His pictures are replete with a warm, untroubled intimacy.

In one photo, friends gather, their arms draped across one another at a candlelit dinner party. In others, bodies braid and enmesh in dressing rooms and pack tightly into the hallway of a house party. We see Athey, known for his extreme, endurance-based body art, tenderly embrace the artist Elyse Reger on her wedding day, holding her hand to his chest. In another picture, two young women lean close at a bar, their faces meeting in a crescent moon of shadow. Whereas other documentarians of nightlife such as Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans often portray the scene as a debauched form of dissolution, with blurry focus, trailing light, and hollowed-out, ghostly looks, Rivera is more formally restrained, composing his work in soft, contrasting tones. The people in his photographs project attitude more than oblivion, and the emphasis falls on a distinct sense of joy and the seductive power of fantasy. In his photographs, whether his partiers are posing in a toilet stall, a makeshift dressing room that resembles a utility closet, or even in one case with what look like bloodstains on the floor of a club, nearly everyone is smiling.

Drag, of course, takes from a pantheon of female icons, and the elements of showgirl glamour—taffeta, sequins, wigs, and feathers—have been fairly unchanged over at least the past century. This lends a timeless quality to Rivera’s work. Muñoz detailed his experience at La Plaza as one of temporal displacement, as if he had been transported to “Guadalajara in the 1950s,” and Kraus smartly compares Rivera’s scenes of the backstage life there to Paris music halls described by the Colette in her novel The Vagabond. At the same time, Rivera’s images document a specific moment of Los Angeles’s history. Of all the clubs he photographed in the 1990s, La Plaza happens to be the only one that hasn’t closed or completely changed demographics. The Silverlake Lounge; the Filipino-owned Little Joy; Mugy’s, whose proprietor, Yoshi, was known for the flamenco-kabuki routine he performed; the kitsch paradise that was El Conquistador Mexican restaurant, with its gay folk paintings on the walls and giant paper flowers hanging from the ceiling; and even the house parties in Echo Park that Rivera threw and attended all represent an area of the city that was once defined by ethnic diversity, a queerness that was sometimes in harmony or at odds with it, and inexpensive rents. In the intervening years, these areas have become a few of the most expensive to live in LA. “It’s amazing how many of these neighborhoods that now look so chic, were once, not that long ago, Latino,” Rivera tells Kraus. “They completely wiped us clean.”

The story of erasure is not new in Los Angeles, where entire neighborhoods of poor and Black and brown people have been readily bulldozed in the name of office buildings, freeways, and stadiums. But in the case of the Eastside neighborhoods where Rivera lived and photographed, the change has been more insidious. “We were never seen as a multicultural city,” Rivera writes in an essay included in the book. “It seems that everyone that came here or critiqued the city always did by the west side or the white folk they met without acknowledging that the majority of the city was not white and was not here to be a star…. The majority of us were either born into this dream world or ended up here for other reasons.” This type of oversight must be a part of why the enormous shifts that have taken place in the city over the past 20 years have never quite registered on the scale of those in New York or San Francisco, where a lost, mostly white bohemianism regularly finds eulogy.

Even as rents have increased 65 percent over the past decade, according to one study published by the Los Angeles Times, and as LA has ascended to the third-most-rent-burdened market in the country, the fantasy of it as a cheap, open haven for artists and creatives of all types—as opposed to a town where longtime residents can no longer afford to stay in their homes—has taken too long to expire. (Though the comment was instantly derided, the assertion in 2018 of the curator Klaus Biesenbach when he took his post as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles that the city was “becoming the new Berlin,” which itself has recently been remade by gentrification, seems indicative of the way many still view LA, or at least did pre-pandemic.) The lack of awareness makes the mournful note of Rivera’s book and the bread crumbs that his pictures provide all the more vital.

The work is also haunted by the knowledge that many of the performers Rivera photographed are no longer alive. While his project seems, in part, about returning to a more carefree and integrated, if perilous era (he writes, for instance, not without a little longing, of the Suki Suki club in Echo Park, which “served murder like margys on tap”), he is less nostalgic for the plight of people like Miss Alex, who, for lack of better options, engaged in prostitution and became addicted to drugs. “They couldn’t get a job pumping gas,” Rivera tells Kraus. “It was their inability to get financial stability that was the tragedy. It made for a very unstable life.” Then there is Rivera’s cousin Patricia, a stunning, daring young woman, also from Mexico, who introduced him to a fashionable milieu of other photographers and record industry types, as well as cocaine, speed, and heroin. “She ended up killing herself at the turn of the Century,” Rivera writes. “I don’t think she would have been able to deal with getting old; I don’t think she knew how to do old and ugly.”

Rivera seems to see a photograph as a small defense against the torrents of loss most of us face during our lifetimes, and this extends to places as much as people. His work joins that of other artists who in the past few years have sought to record ephemeral spaces of belonging in LA, such as Wu Tsang’s film Wildness, on the Westlake trans bar the Silver Platter; Leilah Weinraub’s documentary about a Black lesbian strip club, Shakedown; and Guadalupe Rosales’s Instagram archive Veteranas and Rucas, which collects pictures of Latina party crews from the 1990s. In addition to the wealth of his images, Rivera extends this map of the no longer visible through a memoir in e-mails with Davis that is included in the text. Full of gossip and recollection, beyond Davis’s especially colorful storytelling, the exchange broadens the context of Rivera’s work, filling it out with an impossible register of other clubs, bathhouses, delis, zines, stores, bands, gangs, boys, galleries, musicians, and artists.

Davis and Rivera share many things: an alienation from the dominant gay culture of their youth, when bars in West Hollywood would ask for three forms of identification “to keep out women, femmes, blacks, Latinos, and Asians.” They were both autodidacts who learned rather than trained to be artists. They also share a sense of shock over what LA has become, and who could blame them when confronting the depth of the city’s inequity? When Davis returns to her old neighborhood, she doesn’t recognize it. “The people I passed were either these well-off clueless types or the very ragged and bedraggled, worn down by the harshness of what is life now in Los Angeles,” she writes to Rivera. A rising tide of evictions has produced an alarming increase of homelessness in the city, with tent encampments ringing around new development. Then there’s the threat of Covid-19 to minority-owned businesses, the recent indictment of one City Council member who worked in the pocket of developers for years and remade downtown in the process—a displacement problem so pronounced that certain activist groups have dedicated themselves to harassing all the art spaces in some neighborhoods, regardless of whom they serve or their history or ownership.

Looking at Rivera’s pictures at the moment of pandemic makes the pleasure and community they portray seem that much more remote. And yet the horizon of inspiration remains. Davis decamped to Berlin in 2006 and writes that she could never move back to the States. Rivera still lives in Los Angeles.

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