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Cara Lee Wade: Through the Glass Nightly

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


The invention of modern photography would leave our concepts of daily life, historical moments, and times of human intrigue forever altered. Artists were quick to adopt the photographic medium, and haven't looked back since. Today, fine photography comprises a sizable portion of the art market’s total volume, and over the past 25 years, has gained a thriving collector's market and prominence in auctions. Today, contemporary photography is the best way to understand and experience another culture or way of life. Cara Lee Wade uses photography in her large body of work, "Through the Glass Nightly,” to document and celebrate her friends, the performers of the "The Showbar" at Club One Jefferson in Savannah, one of the South's premier gay clubs. Wade's work is at once nostalgic memory and fine art.

Cara Lee Wade received her MFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004 and is currently Assistant Professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at the University of Saint Francis. Wade's artistic practice is varied, exploring ideas of feminity, memory, and history, as well as using certain photographic practices like Mordancage, a photographic process involving acid that can create an image which is the combination of a photographic positive and negative. Throughout all of Wade's work, ambiguity is prevalent and a sense of the artist’s subjective, personal preference guides the individual work's content into myriad directions. The Drag performers in the images of "Through the Glass Nightly" present the perfect combination of these main tenants, and the images themselves glow with each performer's wealth of exaggerated life on stage.

With over 10 years of friendship and documentary work, Wade's "Through the Glass Nightly" is one of the first products of her artistic voice. At the time, Wade was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design and had just started using photography as a primary medium. With her nightly shifts at Club One Jefferson, Wade eventually became friends with a number of the performers to the point where they would let her photograph their pre-show transformations and post show lives. This exploration of such an intricate and sometimes cloistered culture was ripe with the contents to make art with, Wade explains. "Many times throughout the years I have felt a little like Alice in the Looking Glass,” she says. “Things seemed, at first glance, as one would expect…but when you looked a little closer…things were just a little bit different. I consider myself so privileged to have been allowed inside their world."

To appreciate "Through the Glass Nightly," one needs at least a rudimentary understanding of drag. As Destiny Mikels, one of the Club One Jefferson performers says, "Drag is a life built on the art of make believe. Surreal, would be the best way to describe the experience of walking out on stage in front of hundreds of people and have them accept and celebrate your accomplishments and success. Drag is the celebration of gay life. As a gay man I can tell you that God’s greatest creation is the woman. The strength of a woman, combined with her grace and beauty make her the most intriguing and beautiful creation on earth." This explanation of drag likens it closely with contemporary performance art, or more like a cousin to it — similar, but with its own separate vocabulary, set of norms to choreograph from, and rules for performers to break.

Wade's work speaks to both her own artistic vision, and the concept of drag. For instance, "Citizen Zoe," a lush color photograph, taken in mid performance, showcases the elaborate outfit and persona of the performer, in a full profile. In a documentary function, Wade's photograph captures the intricate outfit, including feathers, fringe, sequins and an equally intricate headpiece with hair extensions. Formally, "Citizen Zoe" is a beautiful image, perfectly composed as to take hold of the viewer. Another image, "Nicole Spencer," is a full portrait of a drag performer at the piano, in a seeming domestic or more intimate environment, giving the image, like many others, a strong pull for the viewer to fill in the gaps and provide a back story for the individual. "Layla's Wigs," gives the viewer another version of intimacy, that of the performer applying make up and dressing, "becoming themselves".

One of the most interesting aspects of Wade's work is its relationship to art history. While at first glance, "Through the Glass Nightly" might be comparable to the work of Nan Goldin which highlighted the post-Stonewall gay subculture of 70s/80s New York City, Wade's work is very different. Where Nan Goldin's work was an exhibition of rarely seen subcultures and memorials to lost friends, Wade's work is a celebration of her friends' distinct beauty, and a way to explain a lifestyle which is sometimes misunderstood. Goldin's work is largely a raw portrayal of emotional, physical, and drug abuses, sexuality, and autobiographical moments. "Through the Glass Nightly" is an intimate portrayal of the everyday and onstage lives of her subjects, drawing connections to the viewer, rather than exposing them to something "other." Because of these distinctions, the lack of other comparisons, and the fact that this is only one body of Wade's work (drag not being the sole subject), her artistic practice becomes independent and divergent from many of the trends in contemporary photography.

Cara Wade's large exhibition, "Through the Glass Nightly" is an expertly crafted, compassionately cultivated body of images that acts as a bridge between worlds. By giving the viewer a sneak peak into the world of Drag Cabaret, we can see things are they are, as they aren't, and how others want them to be simultaneously. By doing so, Wade gives her performer friends another platform in which to create a rapport with an audience, entertain, evoke, and to be admired.

Through the Glass Nightly: Photographs by Cara Lee Wade
May 14th-August 22, 2010
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
*On May 22nd, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art will have its opening reception for " 1934: A New Deal for Artists" a collection of pieces drawn from the Smithsonian Collection. This will be the first FWMoA event in which "Through the Glass Nightly" will be on view.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.