A Queer Art Canon: Sean Parsons and Hotel LaChapelle

Let’s make a canon! And let’s fill it with queer art, or queer-ish art, or art that has no idea how queer it is. Queer art is often secret art: black-market, whispered-about, read-between-the-lines art. And since secret art can be hard to find, let’s shine a light on a few of our favourite things so all our friends can see them. 

We’ll call it a canon, because it sounds Weighty and Important and Serious, but we also won’t be too serious about it. We won’t make The Canon, just a canon. Each month, we’ll chat with a different queer-about-town and ask them to submit something to the canon. And they’ll tell us what that book or play or movie or TV episode or sculpture or poem or dance piece or opera or photograph or painting or performance art piece or anything else means to them and why they think it deserves a spot in our illustrious canon. 

This month, we talked to Sean Parsons, AKA drag queen extraordinaire Beardoncé, about photographer David LaChapelle’s coffee table book Hotel LaChapelle.

So, tell me about these fabulous photos!

David LaChapelle is this photographer who’s known for these really outrageous, really vivid colour stories; lots of people of colour; trans women. So, when I was a closeted teen, I would get Details Magazine. It was like a men’s magazine in the era of Maxim and FHM and whatever…

Yeah, I remember seeing it on the stands.

blog_parsonsinset1It was kind of a sexy men’s magazine blended with a fashion magazine. And he did a lot of the covers and a lot of the celebrity photos for Details. And that’s where I was introduced to him, because I was buying these magazines, so I became obsessed with these when I was a teenager. This is the first image: Alek Wek, who was one of the first, famous black supermodels. This photo’s called “My House,” and it’s taking something very mundane, but using fuscia, using people of colour and tying them together with the colour on the house. Here’s one of Alan Cumming naked in heels with a violin covering his dick…

I love it! He looks really hot.

It’s a combination of being really high art, really queer, but kind of with a pornographic element to it. So, as a teenager who was already really into pop culture and into celebrity… There’s Alexander McQueen in a dress setting a castle on fire. And a lot of this kinda stuff was for Details. So, he would do the cover and then do an editorial shoot, and the colour stories are always so outrageous. Amanda Lepore snorting lines of diamonds…

So cheeky.

It’s all very nuanced and very smart.

There’s a lot of visual jokes.

Here’s Eminem. This one was on Details’ cover.

blog_parsonsinset2My friend Luke in high school, who was the first person I knew who came out of the closet, had that image up on his wall cause he had a big crush on Eminem. Her was obsessed with that photo.

Cause it’s so hot! When I was a teenager—I had always hated Eminem, but to see him in this very homoerotic… Like, you can tell a gay person did this to Eminem, you know?

He really objectifies bodies, but in unconventional ways. He’s making them into strange and beautiful sculptures. They seem almost plastic.

Yeah, and it’s always high-contrast, completely polished and it’s this heightened version of reality.

It’s so staged that they almost don’t actually look naked.

And if you want me to pick a specific one, there’s one that I’ll show you. There was something about this image as a kid… It’s Amanda Lepore. So, it’s a trans woman, pretty much in blackface, with a watermelon between her legs where her vagina may or may not be at this point, cause this was in… the book was published in 1999, and the photo was 1998. There was just something always about this image that blew my mind. It was always one of the ones that I would show people.

It’s a saucy, beautiful image, but I feel like it’s kind of about all of these things that everyone’s really afraid of. What are women? What are black people? What are trans people? What is women’s sexual agency? She’s meeting the male gaze right on and being like “take a bite!”

It’s very inviting. It’s like an ad, like an old-school ad for watermelon with a black woman being like “I love watermelon!” It’s very inviting, but it’s also strange and challenging, because it’s this trans woman.

So when did you get this book?

I was still in Fort McMurray, so probably seventeen, eighteen… And then I just brought it with me everywhere I moved since then. It’s always been something that has to come with me.

And how often do you return to it?

It’s more like if someone comes over who hasn’t seen it or someone notices it. I always have it out. I have a coffee table book on Oprah, and I have this book, and I have The Big Penis Book, have you seen that one?

I have.

So, that’s my stack of coffee table books.

So, what do you get from it? And how has that changed over time?

When I started looking at it, I was probably not even out, or if so, just. I don’t think I knew why I liked the images so much. And now, I can kind of dissect all the gender play that he does and the exploration of these hyper-feminine characters versus these hyper-masculine characters. And now that I do drag and that’s kind of what I explore and I like playing with, I can look at all these pieces again in a completely different light and be like “oh, these are so politically charged!” And even now, I’m not saying that I understand everything that he’s doing, but I think what’s changed now is my ability to kinda decipher a bit more of the intention behind it; the meaning behind all these wild images.

all photos by David LaChapelle

Johnnie Walker

Johnnie Walker is a writer of many plays, a hoster of many burlesques, and a maker of many jokes. Follow him on twitter @handsomejohnnie

Read all posts by Johnnie Walker

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