Friends With Benefits captures colorful sentiments

Most of you probably remember the Polaroid camera: the little box with a lens on top that, when you clicked the button, spat out a little white card that hip-hop duo Outkast liked to shake a little bit before an image magically appeared. It was a popular, easy-to-use device that would eventually be phased out by the development of digital photography and mostly forgotten by the public. But artist Jeremy Kost is one person whose Polaroid camera isn’t sitting in a mountain of trash alongside your dad’s Sony Walkman and VHS copies of Beauty and the Beast.

Over the past few years, Kost has made a name for himself with his Polaroid camera, snapping images of everything from New York nightlife to celebrities and fashion models. For his first solo museum exhibit titled Friends With Benefits, which is on display at The Andy Warhol Museum, Kost turned his little box with a lens on top to a group of Pittsburgh drag performers.

Almost exclusively displayed through Polaroid photograph collages, the exhibit is truly something else. The use of Polaroid images makes each photo feel distinctly human. Kost’s lens captures joy and sorrow, confidence and insecurity, and the undercurrent of anger in the eyes and faces of those he photographs.

Kost’s photos raise questions on the nature of gender, beauty, and identity, and explore how mainstream America treats those who are different. The piece “Mirror, Mirror,” which depicts two drag queens in full makeup in front of a stone wall topped with barbed wire, illustrates the division in America regarding these ideas and the “wall” that is put up between the opposing viewpoints. A video in the exhibit depicts two performers going through their pre-show routine, applying the layers of mascara and wigs required for them to become their other selves. Or are they transforming from someone else into someone they really are?

Among these pieces of art, one gets a sense of the fluidity of sexuality and beauty and the looseness of these terms. Kost sees a beauty in these people who must turn to each other because no one else wants them. Underneath the painted faces and corsets, one can see that drag queens are just people with their own ideas about beauty and gender — people who believe that they are free to form their own identity.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, titled “Friends With Benefits (Communing With Andy),” is a large collage that encompasses nearly an entire wall of the room and depicts a number of the drag performers collected around the grave of Andy Warhol. Kost — who is frequently compared to Warhol and counts the pop art innovator as a major influence — may be making a statement in the spirit of his predecessor: Life comes in many colorful forms, as illustrated by the colorful drag queens against a backdrop of gray headstones and dying grass. Kost seems to say that we should celebrate this diversity rather than forcing everyone into drab, gray uniformity.

Kost’s camera captures these outsiders, who at first look almost twisted and macabre, with great humanity and understanding. This affection prompts viewers to remember that, underneath it all, the subjects of all of Kost’s photographs are just people who want to be whoever they want to be.