Samantha Nye, Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema - SILENCER (Heart-Shaped Dance), 2016. HD Video. Courtesy of the artist. © Samantha Nye 2021. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
On ViewMFA Boston
June 12 – October 31, 2021
Those of us familiar with the curious activity called the studio visit know well the excitement of possibility, the potential of sensory pleasure, and the thought of embarking on what might become an ongoing conversation with an artist we admire. Naturally, none of this precludes the awkward silences, monotonous interactions, and moments of anxiety or boredom that can accompany new encounters. They’re all worth it, however, for those occasional studio visits that simply put our hearts in a whirl. In March 2019, I traveled to the Yonkers studio of Samantha Nye, a lesbian artist whose work I had been following for over a year. Slowly sipping my coffee (I like to take my time with things that taste good) on the train ride over, I could hardly contain my excitement to finally meet her in person. Mainly familiar with Nye’s painting project “Attractive People Doing Attractive Things in Attractive Places (2018–present), which draws from Slim Aarons’s photographs but replaces his conventionally privileged characters with lesbian elders, I was already impressed with her commitment to visualizing trans-inclusive lesbian spaces of playful pleasure. While there’s not enough space to recount the details here, it suffices to say this studio visit was the first of many engaging interactions to come.
Marking a pivotal time in her career, Nye’s first solo exhibition My Heart’s in a Whirl is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This immersive video installation is the third, and most elaborate, iteration of Nye’s ongoing “Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema” series (2018–present). Since 2014, Nye’s video practice has been tackling the art of Scopitone, a mid-century curiosity that reached the United States by way of France. Essentially a jukebox with a video-monitor positioned on top, the machines were made to play 16mm Scopitone films, considered precursors to today’s music videos. These odd artifacts could be commonly found in diners, bars, and nightclubs in the 1960s. Predominantly white, and exclusively heterosexual on the surface, the short clips were executed in a distinctly camp fashion that to a contemporary viewer radiates queerness. Not surprisingly, Scopitone films occupy third place on Susan Sontag’s list of the Camp canon in her iconic essay “Notes on Camp,” which is where Nye first encountered them.
Samantha Nye, Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema - SILENCER (Gold Bed), 2016. HD Video. Courtesy of the artist. © Samantha Nye 2021. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Intrigued by the tension between heteronormative narratives and a queer aesthetic, Nye had the idea to remake Scopitone classics and claim their subversive potential. As the 1960s originals offer a time-capsule into the period that saw both the sexual awakening of her mother and the sexual prime of her grandmother, Nye casts both familial and nonfamilial matriarchs as the stars of the remakes, although Nye’s mother and the artist herself usually occupy the main roles. When exhibiting the three Scopitone remakes she has completed thus far (Calendar Girl, 2014; Silencer, 2016; Daddy, 2018), Nye insists that the viewing room must be covered in pink tinsel, a cheap material with rich potential to transform a space, evoking a DIY camp aesthetic familiar to those who frequent queer bars and clubs. The artist first presented “Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema” as her MFA graduation project at Columbia in 2018, and it is currently included in a group show titled Chapter 4OUR, on view at the HEM in the Netherlands. With the high caliber institutional support of the MFA Boston, however, the installation has been taken to a new level.
My Heart’s in a Whirl is located in a smaller rectangular gallery on the second floor of the museum. Upon entering, the viewer is immediately immersed in a darkened room with tinsel-covered walls reflecting a lush pink shimmer. On the left, a large screen plays the three Scopitone remakes, while catchy music—adapted from the soundtracks of the original films by queer musicians including JD Samson, Justin Vivian Bond, and Emily Wells—fills the space.
On the screen, various older women joyously embody Miss January through Miss December in Calendar Girl (2014), as they parade around in dazzling outfits while Nye replaces original star Neil Sedaka, showing off her masterful dance choreography. Silencer (2016), on the other hand, centers on Nye and her mother stepping into the plot of a 1966 spy film, from which the original Scopitone drew the song it visualizes. Switching off between playing the femme fatale and those she seduces, Nye and her mother function both as each other’s doubles and lovers, engaging in erotically charged encounters that are playful and taboo. In the most recent remake, Daddy , Nye’s mother appears as the main protagonist, seeking to find herself a daddy by letting five different butch-daddies demonstrate their skills in a power play on her daughter, Nye, who gets to sample a cornucopia of sex toys.
Two walls adjacent to the main screen hide four smaller monitors, which showcase hands fingering and fiddling sex toys—a peep show within a peep show. In the back of the room, a two-dimensional mock-up of a Scopitone plays the three original films that Nye has remade (Calendar Girl, 1960; The Silencer, 1965; Daddy, 1966), offering the viewer a helpful point of comparison. Finally, a heart-shaped bathtub from the 1980s is positioned at the center of the installation, turned to face the main screen. Inviting the viewer to recline, it offers a playful viewing alternative to the usual museum bench. Nye has recalled to me that, since it wouldn’t fit through the gallery entrance, the tub had to be rolled through the neighboring Monet exhibition—a striking art historical clash I wish I had witnessed!
Samantha Nye, Visual Pleasure/Jukebox Cinema - DADDY (Verse 4), 2018. HD Video. Courtesy of the artist. © Samantha Nye 2021. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Making myself comfortable on a lip-shaped sofa in the back of the room, I watch certain visitors rush out nervously at the first sight of a dildo, teenagers take selfies giggling, while others lean on the tub to focus on the videos and read the wall text attentively. Nye’s subversion through appropriation falls into a larger queer feminist lineage that includes Deborah Bright, Mary Beth Edelson, and Deborah Kass—all of whom exposed spaces of lack by inserting themselves into it.
The brilliance of Nye’s project has many layers. Highlighting aging bodies, the artist offers a clever critique of the obsessive heteronormative equation of youth and beauty. Presenting female and non-binary elders as erotic beings equally driven by desire as any horny teenager, Nye reveals a deep misogyny and homophobia at the root of ageism—all vices that have particularly affected the lesbian community, whose sexuality has historically suffered from sanitization. Traveling back in time, the artist demonstrates the role of performance in the search for sexual pleasure by queering mid-century media that should have been queer to begin with.