ART REVIEW: There is a Light that Never Goes Out: David Lebe's "Long Light"

David Lebe, Barry in Rocker, 1979, gelatin silver print (Courtesy the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
If you go onto the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s website and look at their exhibition offerings, you might notice that a great many of their recent shows are made up of works in the museum’s permanent collection. Frank Gehry’s architectural expansion of the museum is in full swing, meaning that there are fewer blockbuster shows like 2015’s International Pop (which was organized by the Walker Art Center and traveled to Dallas) and 2017’s American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent (which included numerous works from other major collections). One of the unexpected benefits of keeping the museum open while it’s undergoing this renovation (and therefore isn’t borrowing heavily from other institutions) is that they can really delve into their holdings and present lesser-known artists of incredible talent to their audiences. Case in point: the current exhibition Long Light: Photographs by David Lebe, in which most of the photographs are from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

Indeed, I had never heard of David Lebe, and Filthy Dreams editor Emily, who studies and writes about queer art, admitted that she was not very familiar with him. Since visitors also may not be totally familiar with David Lebe, Long Light’s straightforward, chronological-slash-thematic layout is extremely welcome. Beginning with his arrival in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, the show covers his early experimental works with pinhole camera, his period of hand-coloring his photographs beginning in 1973, and the frankly breathtaking photograms and “light drawings” he started creating in 1976. The show shifts focus beginning in the 1980s, moving away from bodies of work defined by medium and towards a more subject-oriented focus, based on his experiences in the gay community, the trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the sensuality and sexuality of male bodies, culminating in series of photographs about the current life he shares with his longtime partner. My sole caveat with regards to really enjoying and appreciating this show, however, is the relative inscrutability of the often-unconventional techniques Lebe used in creating his works, and the show’s assumption of audience familiarity with various photographic methods.
David Lebe, Scribble #8, 1987 (negative); 1987 (print), Gelatin silver print, hand-colored (Courtesy the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
It’s the earlier, medium-defined groupings of works that come across as the more mysterious and harder to understand in the mechanical sense, a problem that could easily have been remedied by including actual examples of the tools in the show. Lebe’s experimental early pinhole camera photographs almost resemble strips of film, or collections of stills, because they combine multiple compositions into the same single image. The closest analogue that comes to mind is the “panorama” photo effect on your iPhone, which works in an extremely horizontal mode and continues to capture as you move it to the side, meaning that the same person can appear multiple times in the final image, depending on how they are moving. At least, that was my uninformed takeaway from this cluster; the wall text describes the basic process of how pinhole cameras work, but it’s hard to envision precisely what the devices themselves look like, or how exactly they worked. It may seem to be more in the realm of a science museum to include either an example of a pinhole camera or at least a diagram of the process, but it would have been extremely helpful in this case. (Selling a pinhole camera in the gift shop doesn’t count).
David Lebe, Susan on Shelf, 1974 (negative); 1975 (print), Hand-colored gelatin silver prints on Plexiglas mount; attached to painted wood shelf (Courtesy the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Later pinhole photos Lebe painted with watercolors, titled Unphotographs, purposefully evoke the look of vintage advertisements with their flat, dreamlike colors and unearthly, slightly kitschy vibe. Their intrigue is derived from their subversion of one of the hallmarks of photography itself: namely, by purposefully using broad swaths of limited colors to fill in black-and-white figures, Lebe is playing with—and partially negating—the ability of photography to render dimensionality. Several of these works center on Susan Welchman, a fellow photographer and one of Lebe’s favorite models, and the highlight of their collaborative process is Susan, Blue Dress in which Susan is viewed at a low angle amidst a half-realized horizontal composition of green leaves and gray gravel, as if she is Alice, falling down the rabbit hole. Susan on Shelf moves even further toward kitsch; Lebe has cut out multiple images of Susan in various poses and arranged them along a wooden shelf nailed to the wall against a sheet of plexiglas. You can almost imagine the wordy, paternalistic text of a 1950s advertisement in bold font floating around all of the various versions of Susan in the same dress and sandals.
David Lebe, Seth, 1985 (negative); 1986 (print), Gelatin silver print, hand-colored (Courtesy the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Wink: Self, Memorial Hall, Philadelphia, a 1974 self-portrait using this same technique, functions as a coming-out statement, according to the wall text: Lebe depicts himself with a bronze statue of two muscular nude men engaging in Greek wrestling, winking at us to make it clear that it’s no accident. The 1985-6 work Seth incorporates this same hand-coloring technique into a more traditionally-produced photograph, posing the nude figure like Poussin’s Narcissus against a flat, floral ground and a pale blue sky, the colors almost veering towards lush Pre-Raphaelite hues.

The real highlights of Long Light are the photograms and light drawings, which rightfully take up the most space in the show. Again, the process seems as fascinating as the works themselves, but is hard to understand solely from the written description in the wall text. The photograms are created with light-sensitive paper, and are more easily understood; many of the works using this medium are of botanical arrangements, titled Garden Series, and you can readily picture the artist laying out these plants on the light-sensitive paper, placing them under light, and simply coming back to them when he likes what he sees. The results are moody and dramatic, the darker images like Garden Series #1 almost reminiscent of the Victorian macabre.
 David Lebe, Garden Series #1, From the Garden Series, 1979, Gelatin silver print, hand-colored photogram (Courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The light drawings seem more complex, and certainly look it. Lebe’s images here depict figures in almost pitch-black darkness outlined and delineated by pure light, looking alternately jittery with crackling electric energy, like Tracey Emin’s or Bruce Nauman’s neon sculptures, or resembling constellations of connected stars. Barry in Rocker (1979) depicts Barry Kohn, a friend and lover of Lebe’s as well as an activist, seated in a dark interior beside a table with a vase of flowers. Kohn died of AIDS in 1987, and here he looks ghostly and ethereal, his body disappearing into the deep velvety shadows but for that energetic line of light defining his form and making him glow. Scribble, another series of light drawings, combines still-life compositions with hand-colored details, using freehand sketching to transform the coils of light from building blocks into embellishing touches. These light drawings, especially the ones with human subjects, are dynamic and downright magical; the reaction they prompt is “how the heck did he do that?”

Lebe was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988; the bulk of the rest of Long Light deals with the ravages of the disease within Lebe’s community, as well as defiant and intimate responses to living with both legal and medical marginalization. A small group of erotic images Lebe took of adult film actor Scott O’Hara, according to the wall text, is a deliberate act of enjoyment in male bodies in the face of suffering, while the Food for Thought series poses the diet Lebe and his partner Jack Potter (also living with AIDS) undertook to stay healthy. Simple bowls of beans and squash look mystical here, framed below a floating pair of hands, like talismanic ritual objects tasked with extending Lebe’s and Jack’s lives. Hands, a truly haunting and memorable image taken in 1989, leans even further into gothic Victorian imagery, depicting a vase of flowers on a table surrounded by spectral disembodied gloved hands. The flexed fingers mirror the petals of what resemble Birds of Paradise flowers, and several of the hands are attached to stem-like arms, furthering the blurring between plant and human, between what is living and what is dead. The set of photographs of the 1987 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, DC 87, displays less technical wizardry than Hands and Food For Thought, but reverses emotional course, trading introverted reflection for boisterous, proud queer activism.
 David Lebe, Hands, 1989 (negative); 1991 (print), Gelatin silver print, hand-colored (Courtesy the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The last sets of photographs are more intimate, more directly personal, and often smaller-scale. Morning Ritual, taken in 1994, depicts in minute detail various segments and sections of Jack’s body as he cleans himself, lavishing gentle attention and care as part of the titular ritual. Jack’s Garden, created in 1996-7, comprises the smallest, most delicate images, displaying the plants Jack cultivated around their home in soft black-and-white. Here as in Hands and Garden Series #1, the floral imagery, as beautiful as it is fragile, is linked to both life and death, as Jack began growing the garden around the time that he nearly died, leading both him and Lebe to begin medical treatment. Just as he and Lebe relied—and continue to rely—upon one another, Jack cares for flowers and other plants, creating new life that relies upon his existence to survive. Shadow Life, the most recent series of work on display, shows Lebe delving into the digital, fully adopting color photography as he manipulates shadow just as deftly as he manipulated light in the 1980s.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s strategy of mining their own collections for exhibition material has often borne unexpected fruit. The shows I’ve thus far seen that didn’t involve much (or any) borrowing, such as Face to Face: Portraits of Artists and Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal varied greatly in their quality and thoughtfulness, but they allowed the museum to present its works in new and unexpected ways that they might not have done otherwise had they been able to keep exhibition more prestigious blockbuster traveling shows. Even when Frank Gehry’s expansion of the museum is complete and the borrowing can begin once more, I sincerely hope that the Philadelphia Museum of Art will not forget the power of thinking a little smaller, and of shining a “long light” (necessary pun intended) on artists and ideas that have remained in the shadows for too long.