Trout Gallery Unveils New Student Curated Exhibition, Queering the Muse

“Hotel, Virginia,” Lissa Rivera

“Hotel, Virginia,” Lissa Rivera

As part of their senior seminar, six Art History majors, Ellery Coleman ’22, Emma Latham ’22, Bethany Petrunak ’22, Peter Philips ’22, Frances Taylor ’22, and Ellie Werner ’22, curated a new Trout Gallery exhibition called “Queering the Muse,” centered around the photography of Lissa Rivera. Rivera’s photography centers around her genderqueer partner, B. J. Lillis, who Rivera captures in costumes and poses meant to challenge traditional art’s focus on the tropes of the gender binary.

This exhibition started out with the Art department’s student purchases of pieces, where prior Art History majors would travel to New York City to acquire pieces of art to base an exhibit around. Associate Professor of Art History Elizabeth Lee, the advisor for this exhibition, said that previous students who were not involved in the curation of this exhibit went around and took photos of pieces that interested them. “Immediately, students seized on the photographs of Lissa Rivera” and “the common denominator in everyone’s phone was the Rivera photographs.” Two of Rivera’s photographs were added to the Trout Gallery’s collection after the New York trip.

After this trip in 2019, the Trout Gallery had two pieces by Rivera in their archives, which led to most of Rivera’s other works being loaned to the Gallery after they organized a Zoom discussion with Lillis and Rivera that caught the attention of Dickinson students and faculty. Once the students started class this past fall, they went to work, interpreting the 29 pieces with connections to art history, film, and popular media. 

Taylor, one of the student curators for the exhibit, stated that “we researched the works, we read up and down about Lissa and B. J., probably upwards of a hundred articles… and we studied queer theory, trans history, the whole nine yards.” The students then created a catalog composed of their essays about the pieces in the gallery. Finally, the layout and design of the gallery had to be designed, which was unveiled on Feb 11.

The exhibition was the first where both the artist, Rivera, and the muse, Lillis, attended the opening of a Trout Gallery event. Taylor stated that “this project began as an experimentation for Lissa’s partner to be able to envision himself in a variety of gender expressions,” and it transformed into an analysis of what beauty truly is and how it works with gender and queer bodies, thus making art more inclusive. Lillis explained that “often in photography… and art history, the muse or model is a woman identifying person and… systematically, those people are underestimated and under appreciated for what they bring to the table,” which Lillis hopes people will begin to think differently about in these works.

Lillis explained how the pieces have been displayed across the country and the world, ranging from Nepal to Sweden, with reviews on the internet coming from all over as well. In terms of the exhibition itself, Lillis stated that “we’re incredibly flattered and impressed at the work the student curators have done, and they’ve done such a good job.” He went on to say “it’s been incredible for us to engage with the school and program.”Queering the Muse: Identity and Desire in the Photography of Lissa Rivera will be on display at the Trout Gallery until April 16, when all of the pieces except for the two owned by the Gallery will be returned to ClampArt in New York.