Given the mission of the Haight Street Art Center to promote the “advancement of poster art and artists,“ it’s perhaps fitting that HSAC’s latest exhibition, “Queer Visions,” now on view through August 15, opens with a display of posters. The sheets in question are by an artist named Todd Trexler, who, in the early 1970s, created posters for the Midnight Movies and Nocturnal Dream Shows at the Palace Theater in North Beach, the place where the Cockettes were born.
Coincidentally to HSAC’s rock-poster roots, those shows were the brainchild of rock impresario Bill Graham’s accountant, Milton Miron, who went by the name of Sebastian. As Graham did with rock bands, curating lineups that gave audiences a diverse evening of music, Sebastian did the same with films, warming up his late-night crowds with an Abbott and Costello short to get them in the mood for headliners Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Nor did the similarities end there: At a time when Graham was turning to artists such as Randy Tuten and David Singer to create posters for the concerts he was producing at the Fillmore West, Sebastian relied on Todd Trexler to create the artwork for the monthly calendars and special-event posters he needed to advertise his wee-hours programming at the Palace.
Trexler’s early illustrations for the Palace betrayed the influence of the waning hippie era, with lots of doodled fauna and flora, often repeated as motifs. Quickly, though, Trexler’s work matured, as he began to appropriate images from what appear to be fashion advertisements, as well as compositions that were sometimes lifted wholesale, as in his 1971 poster promising the aforementioned pairing of Brando and Costello and whose yellow and hand-drawn decorated border bear an uncanny resemblance to the cover of National Geographic.
Posters, though, are only the first impression at “Queer Visions,” which soon takes the viewer through the archives of a bar called the Stud, as well as the bathroom of The Lexington Club, both of which were popular watering holes for the LGBTQ+ community that, alas, have not survived the price of San Francisco real estate (in the case of the Lex) or the economic impact of the pandemic (the Stud). While Lauren Tabak’s wonderful photographs of Lex patrons looking as happy or as badass as one can in the graffitied stall of a toilet have an immediate impact, you will want to take your time to read the hundreds of buttons and other pieces of ephemera that were rescued from the Stud after its doors were closed.
Other artists and bodies of work in this ambitious and engaging exhibition include a group of dreamlike paintings by Amir Khadar, selections from Lauren Tabak’s Gayface photographs, a screen-print portrait of Harvey Milk by John Mavroudis, a number of imagined pulp-fiction covers in linocut by Katie Gilmartin, and linocuts by artists such as Joan Chen, Amari Robinson, Corey Brown, and Striff, all of whom participated in the Queer Ancestors Project. In one small piece from the project by Brianne Moore, the artist pays tribute to both Gladys Bentley, who had a hit cross-dressing, song-and-dance act in the 1930s and ’40s, and Mona’s 440 Club in San Francisco, which was its era’s version of the Lex and where Bentley performed in the 1940s. This print and others in the Queer Ancestors Project remind us that in many important ways, friends and even long-gone role models can be every bit as important to one’s sense of self as family. The first, after all, is an increasingly rare expression of free will, while the second is a mere act of fate.
“Queer Visions” continues through August 15. For more information, visit haightstreet.org.