Pablo Lerma uncovers candid queer histories within the international archive

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Drawing on Amsterdam’s IHLIA LGBT Heritage and Homologie magazine, Lerma pieces together a new narrative to represent the experience of gay men outside of stereotype

While the goal of many archival artists is simply to make an existing archive a public-facing entity, Pablo Lerma approaches collections as an excavator, meticulously unearthing our unnoticed narratives to re-root them in the foreground. By creating counter-narratives, Lerma reveals the queerness coursing through our perceived normality in vernacular photographs. Most recently, his dedication to uncovering queer histories evolved into his current project with Amsterdam’s IHLIA LGBTI Heritage, an international archive boasting countless rare documentation of queer experiences.

Image © Pablo Lerma.
Image © Pablo Lerma.

When Lerma arrived at the archive for the first time, he was overwhelmed. In his previous work, his hyper vigilance was attuned to subtleties, but here, sexuality felt more explicit. “I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of visual materials made with specific standards of beauty and masculinity espoused in the gay community,” he explains. “It felt voyeuristic, and it didn’t represent my own experience as a gay man.” Despite sifting amongst a myriad of queer visual histories, Lerma’s established process of making opaque representation transparent still proved essential. 

Eventually, his search led him to the discovery of Homologie, a magazine established in 1978 through the University of Amsterdam’s Documentation Centre of Gay Studies. Brimming with topics ranging from pop culture to international intellectual movements, Homologie’s content isn’t defined by the stereotypical objectification of queer bodies. “I went through the magazines chronologically and selected images that specifically represented the experience of gay men,” he explains. To Lerma, the texts, written in Dutch, appeared as buzzing halos circulating their illustrations, allowing him to hone in on their visual content in a way the original compilers likely never imagined.

Image © Pablo Lerma.
Image © Pablo Lerma.

Focusing on the visuals sprinkled throughout Homologie’s text, Lerma has now amassed an archive of 3000 images, dividing them into three separate narratives. The first contains the icons and heroes of the magazine’s community, including portraits of Jean Genet, images from Fassbinder films, and photos of Boy George interlaced with heartthrobs James Dean and River Phoenix. The second group contains images about desire and representation of the body – a nod to Lerma’s initial point of tension in the archive. “I have to embrace the clichés of nudity, masculinity and desire, but through these magazines, I was able to do it through a point of view that is more in line with my own experience.” The third grouping contains visualisations of love, relationships, and community. “There are images of demonstrations, but there are also images of gay men ageing, which is often taboo in our representation; we don’t see gay men ageing – we just vanish.”

Image © Pablo Lerma.
Image © Pablo Lerma.

The discovery of Homologie was the catalyst for a now-ongoing project, which Lerma brings together under the umbrella title, It Doesn’t Stop At Images – an homage to a passage in David Wojnarowicz’s seminal Close to the Knives. “These cosmologies of images course through two decades of magazines, and it was so impactful to look at the artistic, cultural and everyday references for this community in this particular moment in time,” he reflects. Following this initial compilation of materials from his new home, the Netherlands, Lerma foresees two more chapters in the project, which will untangle the representation of gay men in the artist’s other formative locations: Spain and the US. 

Exhibiting the work for the first time at FOTODOK in Utrecht in a group exhibition titled Pass it On: Private Stories, Public Histories, Lerma presented selections from his trifecta in three multi-dimensional vitrines for viewers to interact with the layers – both physical and metaphorical – in his work. On the wall, he enlarged one image from each thread, connected through the gentle depiction of their subjects’ closed eyes. It’s a peaceful closure to an important new conceptual chapter for the artist. “I wanted to find a way to portray gay men as dreamers, sleeping. It’s another way of showing how different ways of representing gay men have always been there – we just have to find them.”

Pablolerma.com

Pass it On: Private Stories, Public Histories is curated by Daria Tuminas, and is on show at FOTODOK until 28 February.

Image © Pablo Lerma.
Image © Pablo Lerma.
Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.