Reynaldo Rivera Brings the Underground Into the Gallery

Reynaldo Rivera Brings the Underground Into the Gallery

We can imagine it’s sometime around two or three in the morning. Music is blaring — cumbia or punk-rock — yet shards of well-lubricated conversation and laughter manage to steal into the sweaty, smoky air. The moment is buzzing with romantic and sexual chemistry, and intimate scenes are unfolding in the room’s corners.

Somewhere in the crowd, Reynaldo Rivera is clicking the shutter of his camera, chatting with friends, and lovingly documenting all this energy and animation.

Over the 1980s and ’90s, Rivera, a young and self-taught photographer, compiled a vibrant and vivid chronicle of the people, places and moods that shaped the Latino and queer underground scene in Los Angeles at that time. The world that Rivera’s photographs picture is a clandestine one, and Rivera a steward of secrets that we are carefully, partially let in on.

Now, 50 of these images are gathered at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, for “Fistful of Love/También la belleza,” billed as the first solo museum exhibition for an artist who — until his inclusion in the 2020 Hammer’s “Made in L.A.” Biennial and the publication of a monograph of his work that same year — has worked beyond the scrutiny of the art world. Rivera’s images are as intoxicating as the world they picture. Yet, a certain skepticism at my own access to it crept into the frame as I was reminded that this work was made under the radar.

Born in Mexicali, Mexico, in 1964, Rivera grew up working as a migrant farmer and a soup canner alongside his father. The two shuttled between cities on both sides of the border, including Stockton, Pasadena and San Diego de la Union in Mexico’s Guanajuato province. It was against this backdrop of instability that he discovered photography as a teenager while rifling through old photo books and magazines at a bookshop in Stockton.

In these early days, he was taken by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model and Brassaï, whose noirish influence is plainly legible in several works on view at PS1. At age 16, he bought his first camera and began photographing those around him: his sisters, friends, and cleaning staff at the hotel where his father worked.

In the 80s, Rivera landed in Echo Park, then a predominantly Latino Los Angeles neighborhood where he was a photographer for LA Weekly. Working there meant access to concerts and fashion shoots, which he would photograph both for the publication and for his own personal pleasure. Though Rivera continues to live and work in Los Angeles today, the images at PS 1 cast a focused and retrospective gaze at a small slice of personal history between 1981 and 1997.

He’s crafted an indispensable archive of a moment that many did not deem worthy of being remembered, with a clear sensitivity to its beauty. Rivera dotes on the same set of local characters — among them his sisters Connie and Martine, his partner, Christopher “Bianco” Arellano, and performer friends who are often identified by their stage names, like “Mrs. Alex” and “Paquita” — deepening the emotional flavor of his images.

Glass vitrines in each gallery display well-chosen selections from Rivera’s amassed ephemera, immersing us in the ideas, tastes and histories from which the photographs emerge, bringing together items like Sonic Youth concert posters and fliers advertising Chicano studies courses. Among the most striking are photographs and paraphernalia from “Chance: Three Days in the Desert,” a wild, wayward convening of artists and thinkers organized by Jean Baudrillard (the French post-structuralist philosopher) and Chris Kraus (the American author and art critic), who hired Rivera to photograph the event — situating him in a milieu of late-90s transnational counter-culturalism.

The camera meanders through queer nightlife, onstage and off, from the campy glamour of drag and music venues like Le Bar and Silverlake Lounge to the feverish social rhythm of house parties. Much of this scene, once an enclave of safety and self-fashioning, has since been washed away by a confluence of AIDS and gentrification.

Among these images, we encounter a few staged portraits of club-goers and performers, including the rock musician Siouxsie Sioux and the performance artist Vaginal Davis. But the best of Rivera’s nightlife images are offhand candids like “Paquita and Reynaldo Rivera, Le Bar” (1997/2021). Here, in the busy, balmy grit of a backstage dressing room, as a drag queen named Paquita applies makeup in the mirror, we glimpse Rivera’s reflection in the corner, face buried behind his camera. He was no interloping fly on the wall, but a trusted part of this surreptitious social sphere.

These private and personal tones deepen in tender domestic scenes from Rivera’s own life — his “blue” series, which is focused on intimacy and sexuality, including “Bianco, Echo Park” and “Bianco, Reynaldo, Echo Park” (both 1992/2023). In the first of these images, Rivera’s partner (now his spouse) is lying in bed, back to the camera, and in the second, the two join in a tangle of limbs and lust. There is an unflinching eros here that hums in a visual minor key, with soft light and melancholic shadows. Queer touch and sensuality assume a sober, quiet tone that prompts the viewer into an almost reverent way of looking — an urgent antidote to the pathologizing of queer desire.

The wall text attached to these and other more explicit images, such as “Steven and Reynaldo, Downtown Los Angeles” (1990/2023), indicates that they were not originally meant for public viewing. The artist and the organizers of the show — Lauren Mackler, a guest curator, and Kari Rittenbach, PS 1 assistant curator — collectively decided to unveil this private realm. In an interview, Rittenbach elaborated that “this body of work is part of a conversation” — one that Rivera “wasn’t wanting to make public at a certain point. But now, our discourse is changing. It was important for us to show that it’s always been part of everyday life.” One must respect these intentions. But as a viewer, it was hard to escape the feeling of being in the gray area between authorization and encroachment.

“Bus Stop, Sonora” (1991/2020), among the most challenging and convincing images in the show, marks a thematic departure. We find an eerie bus station waiting room that is empty except for a television screen and two shadowy figures in the background. Rivera has stepped into a zone of mystifying disquietude: We have departed Los Angeles for Mexico and substituted the elated bustle of the club for an alienated aesthetic that evokes Eugène Atget or Lee Friedlander. In its haunting near-desertion, this image presents a narrative of unnoticed life that made me hungry for more like it: Its tensions and discomforts offer a thrilling ambiguity with which to wrestle.

The kaleidoscopic whirl of Rivera’s pictorial universe springs to life in “Fistful of Love” (2024), a scrappy 102-minute film shot with an old-school hand-held camcorder, which occupies its own gallery. Jumbled snippets of the photographer’s life and friends let us crash the party with its ebullient bachata performances, drag shows, birthday parties and frank conversations about gender and sexuality. Rivera’s voice occasionally wafts in as he teases friends, goading the viewer to wander further into all of this stylishness and seediness, this fun and fraught landscape. Yet I found myself still cautiously at its edge, unable to shake the feeling that this is all too preciously intimate for our eyes. Maybe we just had to be there.

Reynaldo Rivera: Fistful of Love/También la belleza

Through Sept. 9, MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave, Queens; (718) 784-2086;

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