Installation view of an exhibition at the art institute chicago. The wall reads: Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995
Installation shot of Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995, 2021. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A Show at the Art Institute of Chicago Examines Ways Subcultures Were Recorded in Print

The exhibition Subscribe: Artists & Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995, displays more than 130 magazines and photographs that continue to challenge definitions of culture and belonging.

In Summer 1992, Chicago-based Thing magazine featured an interview between star voguer Willi Ninja and the publication’s co-founder Robert Ford. Discussing the popular reception of Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning (1990)—which chronicled a slice of the New York City nightclub culture called “ballroom” —Ninja remarked, “It’s like one section, not the whole.” That observation encapsulates the limitations of documenting any subculture: A precise, narrow gaze can omit an expansive periphery.

An exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Subscribe: Artists & Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995, resurfaces a late-twentieth-century transatlantic history of subculture as seen and circulated by subscription magazines produced in the United States and Great Britain. Decidedly not representing “the whole” of underground printed records, the show examines who was deemed in, out, and was ignored entirely. Grappling with the many factions—attentive to their flourishes and flaws—Subscribe destabilizes a straightforward history of the queer and racially diverse avant-garde that emerged in the gloss and grit of alternative publications.

Thing 4, Spring 1991. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago
Installation of an exhibition with two photographs on a white wall
Installation shot of Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995, 2021. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Interested in the magazine as a form of social space, Rags and i-D centered the street in their pages as a locus for experimentation in their respective features “On the Street” and “Straight Up.” Drawn from different walks of life, spliced street photography of pedestrians alongside horizontal spreads established a kind of print runway where the sartorially eccentric and mundane were modeled side-by-side. This assortment of styles—from punks to preppies to mods—while not unusual for the average urban sidewalk, comes into sharper focus when leveled on a blank white page.  

Despite the fashion-forward consciousness of many outlets, clothing was often ancillary to the attitudes and identities they signaled. A central viewing room screening Nan Goldin’s magnum opus The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979-2001) heightens the visitor’s awareness around typologies associated subculture. In it, Goldin’s musical slideshow groups image sequences by subject matter: women with birds, women on the toilet, women crying, and so on. Clustered by visual similarities, these image-sets do not account for the tastes, desires, and experiences informing the actions of Goldin’s subjects. Here, repetition illustrates how types may give way to stifling uniformity.

Installation of an exhibition with two rows of magazines on a wall.
Installation shot of Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995, 2021. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Aforementioned Thing magazine embodied a style that had no style. It’s motto—“She knows who she is”—described a self-assured attitude independent of trends, stereotypes, or social pressures. Running from 1989 to 1993, Thing’s graphic identity, size, and format transformed dramatically over a short period and demonstrated a willingness to adapt on one’s own terms. Moreover, unlike other publications which merely documented or editorialized diverse groups, Thing provided an active platform and infrastructure for and about queer people of color.

While foregrounding inclusivity and representation, the curators, Michal Raz-Russo and Solveig Nelson, do well to note the instances where magazines failed to meet their ambitions. A particularly strong section presents artists Hilton Als and Darryl Turner’s reworking of a rejected pitch by Diane Arbus for a photographic essay on women of color. Their resulting 1993 feature “My Pinup” in Vibe magazine, repositions actresses of color as leading ladies in charge of their narratives. Subscribe performs a similar repositioning. Highlighting the overlooked, the censored, and the rejected, the exhibition recovers the gaps alongside the successes.

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