Perhaps the only good that will come from Trump's presidential regime is the potent art unveiled in response. And today the first of many provocative LGBTQ protests to come has arrived in NYC from nightlife star Nicky Ottav: a photographic installation, called "Saints of a Different Order," that celebrates all the colorful queers he's met since first moving to New York.
"It isn't easy to be different, to have people look at you your whole life and know something about you isn't like everyone else," Ottav writes of his installation. "They watch you walk different. Talk different. Like things you're 'not supposed' to like. Love someone you 'shouldn't' love. It's hard to walk into a class, a meeting, a subway car, a church service, a club, a family gathering, a restaurant and be the only gay person, the only trans person, the only woman, the only person of color, the only 'freak' in the room."
But these "freaks" are who inspired Ottav, best known for hosting some of the largest LGBTQ-friendly parties in Manhattan. The NYU alumnus spent years shooting some of his favorite "fully saturated" individuals, and appropriating those photos using the visual language of oppressive systems, like religious symbols and aristocratic portraiture. From this practice came a collection of multimedia works that present "saints" who've impacted Ottav's life and helped make him brave.
Through "Saints of a Different Order," Ottav hopes to inspire those who haven't yet discovered themselves, while provoking our nation's conservative system with unapologetically flamboyant, colorful queer art. Someone like Ottav perpetually wears his identity on his sleeve, and that alone is a militant vehicle for protest--when lifestyle is a shameless "form of refusal," as he says.
"Saints of a Different Order" opens today at Tisch Gallery Windows, 721 Broadway, New York, and will run through March 11. Ahead of his opening reception tonight from 6 pm to 8 pm, OUT caught up with Ottov to learn more about his installation debut with an exclusive preview.
OUT: How has your photography education at NYU informed this installation?
Nicky Ottav: I really didn't feel a connection to my university or even necessarily to all my peers on an artistic level. I made great friends in school, but I don't feel like I had any kindred spirits in my program interested in making art of a similar ilk. They were interested largely in documentary photography and beautiful photographs that focus on composition, lighting and technical things, whereas I was always looking to make really shocking and colorful work, and make it without technical prowess.
What sparked the desire to create a solo installation?
I wanted to put my work in the windows of the university because I felt it was time something of wild curb appeal finally be visible from the street, and that work be done [by] and be about outrageous, unapologetic queers. They always put up black-and-white photos or just a single picture--there's never been a large scale installation in the time I studied there, so I felt like it was time to really freak people out and make my mark.
How long has it taken you to create all these works?
I had the idea for this project on New Year's Day, 2016. It was originally meant to be a calendar of queers, but eventually graduated to a mix of painting, photography and sculpture. So it's taken me around a year of photoshoots, research and idea formation for the work to be produced, but I also used work from a few years ago and re-transformed it, so you could say this show was years in the making actually.
Describe your practice--what kind of work will be shown in your installation?
For each of the works, I sat down with the friend or family member I was going to make a portrait of. I described to them my idea to portray their personality, and made sure they were comfortable and felt represented in a way that felt right. We did the photoshoots at my home and at the studio, and I did the makeup and styling for a lot of them, but sometimes my subjects dressed themselves. I print the picture and cut it out to collage with images or painted work by me and then frame it; I bedazzle and paint the frame, and then the work is complete.
So you will be seeing a mix of collage, painting, sculpture, photography and in a way performance, on the basis that everyone at my opening is an artist simply by the way they live their lives and the magic of their style--true stars.
What's the core concept behind "Saints of a Different Order"?
I thought it would be really interesting to show people of historically marginalized demographics using the visual language of oppressive systems: Christian symbols, aristocratic portraiture of the idle rich and coinage, for example. It's there to celebrate people I identify with and make the statement that "we can run the world because we are as important as you." It's a message to everyone that keeps us down.
How did you decide on who to feature?
At the heart of this project was me trying to show a sampling of people in my life who have made it possible to exist and feel brave: My mom, my friends and my heroes. It's about making them look beautiful in the way I always see them and saying, "I love you, thank you, and you are so beautiful."
You've been an active player in New York nightlife. How has this influenced your work?
I met a lot of people that are in this work out at clubs and certainly my styling is influenced by nightlife fashion. But I am ready to leave that world for the time being. I watched its tone change and people change to fit that tone. I want to keep my life positive and thank the queer world with this project, and future projects, instead of doing it by throwing parties.
Why is it important to create queer art now more than ever?
I'll let you in on a secret: My school is considering taking down some of my work on the basis of "offensiveness." Once you see the work, you'll know that's ridiculous. That's them catering to midwestern Trump voters, so they can keep their admissions up and it proves how conservative an institution NYU and most "liberal schools" are.
I'm making this art to say "fuck you" to all these systems of oppression that tell us we are simply not equal. And now more than ever our political system hates every "type" of person in my show and every type of person who will connect with it: Women, queers, people of color, addicts, artists, sex workers--struggling people who are good and valid and can't change where the universe has placed them, but wish things were different. I want to say with this show that we will rise above hate, and you know what, we'll have fun doing it and look fabulous. My best friend told me that personal style is a form of refusal and that's what my art is all about.
All photography by Bryant Moscote