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Must Be This Old To Ride: Reconciling Queer Desire and Age

November 1, 2022

Written by Hilary Hagen

“My grandmother always laughed and joked that we were making lesbian porn,” Samantha Nye says while quarantining in her Philadelphia home. Nye’s work celebrates queer bodies, specifically those aging and no longer fitting the youthful paradigm of pleasure and desire. “I am interested in showing queer women as sexual, but most interested in the conversation around how aging depletes people of their desirability or autonomy… Making clear that people of all ages, women of all ages, queer women of all ages can still participate in desire.”

This is to say Nye is granting the opportunity to both be desired and have desire; an active role in one's own pleasure and sexuality.

Nye was born in South Florida and only started to paint seriously when she was around 25 years. This was followed by a BFA from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (2010) and later an MFA in painting from Columbia University (2018). Nye currently resides in Philadelphia where she teaches and continues to paint vigilantly.

Nye first graced my radar during her solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2021. My Heart’s in a Whirl was a contemporary rendition of the scopitone’s of the 1950s and ’60s; think the grandparent of a Tik Tok or MTV music video. Only this time it doesn’t feature a nondescript white man surrounded by youthful women, instead, Nye focuses on queer elders, herself, and even her own mother and grandmother.

In both My Heart’s In A Whirl and Attractive People Doing Attractive Things in Attractive Places, her first solo exhibition in New York City, she reconstructs and reinvents the aesthetics of scopitone films, Slim Aaron’s photography, vintage playboy, and vintage porn. There is a kind of historicity in this series that reduces, reuses, and recycles cultural references and aesthetics of the past. This quality of her work serves to further the intergenerational kinship and dialogue that the material aesthetics and composition of her work maintain.

I asked her about this kind of matrilineage, which her work frequently references, to which she responds “I liked that imagery of their bodies reflected on my body… this becoming.” Nye’s elders (her grandmother and mother), who together raised her in South Florida, are prevalent subjects across her work. Her mother, although sometimes reluctant to participate in something so unconventional and risque, supports Nye and has always been thrilled by her daughter's passion and ultimate success. As did her grandmother who “was integral to the work for a really long time, well before I was making good work.”

This not only provides a visual mediation on the aging body when presented linearly, from grandmother to mother to daughter but also grants Nye a bit of catharsis and the ability to honor someone so fundamental to her development as both an artist and an individual: “It’s amazing, she is still a part of the work and still brings that energy and openness.”

Ageism is certainly a prevailing subject in her work: when was the last time you saw a model under the age of thirty-five? Middle-aged women also buy clothes, don't they? Can’t they be desired? “I noticed that people are constantly saying ‘these old people’ derogatorily and although each person means something a bit different I think it discredits that seventy-seven-year-old who fought like hell for all of the rights that we take for granted… But it’s a common thing to say and we forget how much ageism is a part of our life and is one of those things that is not addressed.”

There is sometimes a lack of concern for the experience of the elderly and their status as individuals, especially as sexual beings with wants and needs which often elicits discomfort from their younger counterparts. This dynamic is a bit unique in the queer community.

In recent decades there has been an unprecedented level of appropriation (for better or worse) of queer culture into hetero and mainstream culture and society and subsequently, this narrative that being queer is contemporary or trendy.

Nye’s work contests that narrative and affirms the existence of these individuals and their existence in both the past and present. “While for example, the term *nonbinary is relatively new, the people themselves most certainly are not. The experiences of nonbinary, trans, and queer people aren’t new.” Despite established conventions, Nye doesn’t want you to avert your eyes when viewing these older bodies. These queer bodies are something to celebrate and by celebrating them in the present she is asserting their experience in the past and granting them a voice in the future.

*In fact her exhibition My Heart’s In A Whirl was the first time the term “nonbinary” had been explicitly detailed in the MFA.

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