Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Hide/Seek, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

I should preface this by saying that a close friend of mine, Ted Kerr, had just studied with artist AA Bronson, who since December 16 has put out an ongoing request to have his work, "Felix, June 5, 1994" removed from the exhibition, Hide/Seek: Desire and Difference in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.  I first heard about the censorship through Ted, and I may not have gone to this exhibition otherwise, or paid much attention to the dialogue around the show, as unfortunately, censorship in art has become a white noise in media. 

Untitled still from the film "Silence = Death" (1990)
History repeats itself through yet another questionable censorship from the moral right, and being curious to see how David Wojnarowciz's now prolific "A Fire In My Belly" would have fit in and/or stood out from an exhibition on desire and difference in 20th century America, Ted, his boyfriend Zach, and I went to Washington D.C. to see Hide/Seek.

A few days have passed since I viewed the exhibition, and while my feelings and thoughts of confusion, anger, disappointment, and sadness have fluctuated quite vastly, I return to this first point of Wojnarowciz's work within the context of the exhibition, and I remain perplexed as to how "A Fire In My Belly" was included in this show in the first place.

For anyone who has seen the video, "A Fire In My Belly" is a tormented visceral visual hell that screams from a human core about love and loss. The work was created shortly after the death of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowciz's mentor and lover, who died from AIDS-related complications in an era where entire communities of men were decimated from AIDS while the government and media refused to address the disease. To describe the work as poignant would be too simple, as the collage video complicated feelings of anger and lost with desire and spirit that touches beyond any strands of affect. The work is also not a portrait of any one person or any one thing, and in a twisted outcome, the work only makes sense on the outside of Hide/Seek.

The show as a whole has its moments of strength, and curators David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz do an impresario job in tying the works together through the unsaid theme of queer desire. The show calls itself an exploration on the fluidity of sexuality, and how art reflects society's changing attitudes towards desire and romantic attachments. Not once do the words "gay" or "queer" appear, and so it is difficult to fault the show for something they never mentioned. That said, it is quite arguable that the show begins by way of self-censorship, staying proverbially in the exhibition closet, and choosing to present a normal, safe, and regulated perspective on celebrity gays and queers in and around the art world.

One only needs to look at the inclusion of which Robert Mapplethorpe works were selected and the answer is clear: this show is celebrating star status first and foremost.  The artists included are important figures to the art world, and to the cultural milieu of American literature, but the show is quite reductive in how these lives intersect and spawned some of the most prolific works of the 20th century. The repetitive inclusion of New York School Poet Frank O'Hara was palpably heart warming, and often about longing, but his poems were rarely, if ever, about sexual desire. Obvious exclusions included William Burroughs who wrote more about sex and drugs and orifices then anyone, and who as a figure in the world Katz and Ward explore, is far more central than O'Hara as someone who links many of the ex-pats and carries forward themes of sex and death.

There are also glaring issues with the skewered perspective on the show towards a gay male gaze from a past era, who marginalizes female desire into masculine poses and literally corners individuals like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein into portraits that simplify the complexities of narrative and language through an imposed lens of sexual difference. Walking through the show, the portraits came off more as a tabloid dishing on "who's gay and who's not", including some speculative guessing on Georgia O'Keefe and a conservative glossing over of cultural critic Susan Sontag's longtime relationship with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who took endless photographs of her lover, by displaying a Sontag portrait by Peter Hujar next to a less than desirable fashion portrait of lesbian-icon Ellen DeGeneres by Leibovitz.

David Wojnarowicz, Portrait by Peter Hujar, 1981

The greatest surprise in the exhibition is the prominence of David Wojnarowicz who somehow still looms large in the exhibition. Excluded is his video, but Wojnarowicz still appears three times in the show through two works as well as Hujar's portrait subject. Within Hide/Seek, Wojnarowicz is clearly reinforced as somebody important to gay identity and art during the AIDS crisis, and yet, he can be censored within the same exhibition.

The great tragedy of Hide/Seek is that the show has reduced and categorized a spectrum of individuals with limitless hearts and minds into the polite rigidity of "sexual difference". Over and over again, works within the show howled with such pangs of alienation and loneliness that went unaddressed under the rubric of unrequited desire.


Anthony said...

O Hara's work frequently features sex, and his reactions to both Johns and Warhol, and his connections to the queer members of the ny school suggest that he might have been as impt as burroughs. see Lesuer's book to start with.

Amy Fung said...

I read that book when it first came out and I recall it being more sentimental than myth making. I love frank o'hara, I love his unbridled romanticism and his love and desire for all things and people. his writing is loose and bursting with desire, but his desire is often masked where as burroughs revels in sexual desire explicitly. I am not a fan of burroughs, but that is besides the point, the point is that for a show that supposedly gives a face to sexual difference in the last century of america, to include o'hara three different times while excluding figures like burroughs, kathy acker, sapphire, is playing it safe. and by including/excluding, you know that all is up is a portrait of the person, not their own literary works, so basically you just see o'hara over and over again reinforcing only a fraction of a history.

Anthony said...

In his poem Homosexuality, and in Mothers of America, using two examples he talks fairly explicitly about having a lot of sexy times in publish washrooms.

I think that O'Hara's criticism tends to view him as a the romantic against the beats explicitness, and he might not have said cocksucker, but there is nothing subtle at all about his sexual presentation.

I mean I have only seen the catalog, and had a huge problem with it's over awareness of new york white men and of the lack of real fucking, and so you are right...

but i want to give o hara his due.

Congrats on Scotland, btw