In March, artist Samantha Nye and curator Michelle Millar Fisher gingerly pushed a heart-shaped bathtub through the Museum of Fine Arts’s exhibition “Monet and Boston: Legacy Illuminated.”
It was the only way to get the tub into Nye’s show, “My Heart’s in a Whirl,” in an adjoining gallery — a glitzy nightclub installation with purple tinsel, mood lighting, and music videos. Neither show had opened yet.
“We weren’t talking — we were just in awe of the experience. But I knew we were communicating like, ‘Can you believe what is happening?’” said Nye. “The clash was incredible.”
Monet epitomizes art museums. In contrast, “My Heart’s in a Whirl” is flashy, campy, and over the top. It throws in the air notions of beauty, class, and who deserves attention.
Nye inserts older women, nonbinary, and trans people into opulent, romantic, and erotic scenes that ordinarily exclude them. Her videos are at the center of “My Heart’s in a Whirl.” Her painting “Attractive People, Doing Attractive Things in Attractive Places–Double Your Pleasure–Double Your Pleasure,” which the MFA recently acquired, will be exhibited in the upcoming MFA exhibition “New Light: Encounters and Connections,” opening July 3.
The artworks star Nye, 40, her mother and grandmother and their friends, and queer elders who answered casting calls. The videos are remakes of films for Scopitones, 1960s-era jukeboxes that presaged MTV, YouTube and TikTok, outfitted with 16-millimeter films synced to pre-recorded songs.
In updated versions of Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl,” Joi Lansing’s “Silencer,” and Julie London’s “Daddy,” senior citizens slink, strut, and flirt. Nye, who is queer, put out a call for lesbian leather daddies over 65 to savor the femme lovelies in “Daddy.” Her mother, in a strapless pink gown with a bodice covered in rhinestones, lip syncs the steamy lead.
“In a museum like the MFA, I think in any so-called encyclopedic collection, it’s still really hard to find representations of nonwhite male sexuality, eroticism, owning one’s body,” said Millar Fisher, the museum’s curator of contemporary decorative arts. “There are places where it’s OK to inhabit your full identity and think about desire in that way. A museum Is not usually one of them.”
Camping it up with her mother and grandmother is not new for Nye. She was raised in Miami, steeped in a South Beach aesthetic. Her grandmother loved the nightlife; the family once feted her with a Mother’s Day drag brunch.
“I grew up a child model,” Nye said. “I wasn’t successful. I grew up just having fun with it. [My mother] would always take me to castings. We’d play pretend, we’d take on these personas.”
Nye painted her mother and grandmother when she was an undergraduate at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where she got a degree in 2010. (“My Heart’s in a Whirl” is part of the SMFA at Tufts University’s 2021 Traveling Fellow exhibition program, presented with the museum.)
Soon enough, she was making videos with them and their friends. She cast them in remakes of their favorite movie seduction scenes. She featured them in paintings of their chosen Playboy spreads.
Nye’s grandmother died before she shot “Calendar Girl,” the first Scopitone remake, in 2014. She had by then deeply connected with her grandmother’s friends, all straight women without husbands, who continued to work with her.
“I would get to see their flirtations, their seductions,” Nye said. “It was like, why is nobody talking about this?”
She gave them a spotlight.
“They really felt like they were embodying these characters, but they were performing for me and each other,” Nye said. “There was a queerness to that.”
Plus, it felt good. “I love that that also happens for them,” Nye said. “I think they feel hot, they feel sexy, they get to play with desire.”
As a queer artist breaking open stereotypes of desirability, Nye is subverting — queering — the dominant culture.
“A lot of people in the art world are queering things, but there’s still this youth obsession,” said Nye. “This is so much cooler.”
Her paintings, like her videos, repopulate an iconic 1960s vision: Slim Aarons’s photographs of the luxurious lives of jetsetters. Nye replaces the young socialites with older women, trans, and nonbinary people. She sources other figures from the Internet, Googling “lesbian granny porn.”
She sees the 1960s as a seedbed for American notions of sexuality.
“What was the sexual consciousness of the ’60s that influenced my grandmother, that influenced my mother?” she asked. “I mean, capital ‘M’ mother — we’re all inheriting these ideas.”
Nye’s mother will turn 70 soon, and her grandmother’s set is passing on.
“One passed away last week. Her granddaughter asked, ‘Do you have any videos or photos of my grandma?’” said Nye. “I said, ‘Yeah. In her biggest light.’”
SAMANTHA NYE: MY HEART’S IN A WHIRL
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 31. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org