Bradbury-Sullivan Center hosts in-person art exhibit

A portrait from the exhibit “#MascFem.”

Joe Dulude II had a thriving career before the pandemic interrupted everything. 

A successful makeup artist, Dulude had contributed to Broadway shows like “Wicked.” He’d even received an Emmy nomination for his work on NBC’s 2018 broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.”

But when Broadway closed down, Dulude suddenly had lots of free time. Not wanting to squander it, he realized, “Well, I have this time to actually work on some art.”

And work he did. Between March and August, Dulude painted 21 portraits of drag kings and drag queens. Using acrylics and pastels, he created a series of colorful, vibrant images.

Throughout, Dulude shared individual images online. But he always hoped they would one day be displayed together in a gallery. Fortunately for art lovers, they have been. 

“#MascFem,” an exhibit of Dulude’s portraits, opened on November 6 at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center’s new pop-up gallery, located at 21 N. 7th Street in the Allentown Arts Walk. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Protecting visitors to the pop-up gallery is paramount, according to Adrian Shanker, executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan Center. “We want to keep our community safe from this dangerous virus, and we believe in the safety protocols that our Secretary of Health has implemented,” he said.

First and foremost, Shanker explained, masks are required and only five visitors at a time are allowed into the gallery. Hand sanitizer and cloth masks are also available for free.

For Shanker, the pop-up gallery offers a reasonably safe way to keep the local LGBTQ community connected. But there’s more to it than that. “Our community is starved for arts and culture right now,” he said.

Finding an appropriate exhibit for the opening was also important. Shanker knew Dulude from his work with theater students at Muhlenberg College. He’d also been following the artist’s recent work online.

According to Shanker, inviting Dulude to exhibit his paintings at the new gallery was an easy decision. “These are dark times that we’re living through,” he said. “And bringing a little bit of vibrant color into our lives is something that I think all of us can benefit from.”

An important aspect of “#MascFem” is just how much the exhibit leaves to the viewer’s imagination. The portraits are hung without titles and there are no explanatory placards. Consequently, viewers can form their own opinion of these striking images. 

Dulude’s portraits share a few common features. First, every subject is displayed against a solid background. This accentuates the vivid colors of the subject’s hair or clothing. 

The paintings also impart a sense of motion. In some cases, that’s conveyed by a craned neck, the direction of a glance, or a figure being positioned slightly off-center.

Most important, all the images blur gender expectations. His drag queens, with their beards and bald heads, are more masculine than one would ordinarily expect. And his drag kings strike masculine poses while simultaneously subverting them.

There’s also something slightly fantastic about the subjects portrayed in these paintings. That’s most apparent in the portraits where Dulude abandons natural skin tones. In one, a subject’s face is bright red; in another, it’s a queasy green, like an alien from a low-budget sci-fi flick.

Handled carelessly, these portraits could have sunk to mere voyeurism. Fortunately, two things prevent that from happening. 

First, “#MascFem” is a deeply personal project for Dulude, a gay man who describes himself as a queer artist. As he explained, he’s been exploring his masculine and feminine sides for some time now, including doing drag.

“When I began to embrace that feminine side of myself through performance, through drag, that’s when I started coming into myself and really being happy and enjoying who I was and not caring about what other people thought,” Dulude said.

The portraits in “#MascFem” are oddly welcoming. That’s largely thanks to their bright, vivid colors. That was a meaningful choice on Dulude’s part. In the past, he explained, his art was dark, and not just because he used lots of black and gray. 

With this series, however, Dulude has moved beyond those earlier preoccupations. As a result, the tone of his recent artwork is playful and happy, a mood he wanted to share with viewers. “I wanted people to look at these paintings and to feel joy,” he said.

That positive tone was apparent to Dulude from the very first painting. While searching for images of queer drag performers online, one photo struck him: a mustached drag queen wearing a turban. 

Inspired, Dulude began painting. After finishing, he recognized that it represented a significant personal development. “This is something,” he recalled thinking. “This is bringing me into a new direction, and I need to keep going with this.” 

The painting depicts a somewhat regal figure, with a long, graceful neck. In addition to the turban, she’s wearing gold hoop earrings and a dark dress with green feathers. Above her painted lips is a bright blue mustache. Her face is turned slightly aside and there’s a knowing look on her face. The image is reminiscent of both “Sunset Blvd.” and “Flaming Creatures.”

Pleased with that painting, Dulude pushed forward. After completing a new portrait, he’d share the work online, tagging the drag kings and drag queens who inspired him. They were, he reports, delighted.

One drag queen even reached out to Dulude. After seeing some photos of the bearded, burly, fabulous drag queen, he told her, “Oh, you’re going to be part of the show!”

In this portrait, the drag queen’s face is shown close-up. Various shades of pinkish-red suffuse her billowing hair, her lush beard, and the flowers crowning her head. The most eye-catching aspect are the two antlers behind her head, which give her a shamanic quality.

This astonishing image will become part of the Bradbury-Sullivan Center’s permanent collection when “#MascFem” closes on January 15. But go see it now, while this queen is still surrounded by her fellow royalty.

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