Art on Stone Walls
Village Voice, June 13, 1989
Spend a day at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center and you'll get an earful: the raucous politicking at ACT UP meetings, the tasty harmonizing of the Salsa Soul Sisters' rehearsals, the murmur of medical consultation being offered by the Community Health Project, and the presumably angry invective of the Mad Dykes Support Group--to name just a few of the 150 nonprofit groups that use this resource. Until last week, the warren of classrooms and assembly halls in which they meet vividly recalled the Center's former life as the Food and Maritime Trades High School, a drab and dingy red-brick pile-of-a-building built in 1841. But The Center Show has changed all that. Virtually every room, stairwell, and closet has been transformed by this ambitious exhibition into a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion that sparked gay liberation.
For the 51 artists and collectives involved, what the center sounds and looks like is crucial. They were invited by coorganizers Rick Barnett and Barbara Sahlman to create site-specific artworks, potentially permanent murals or sculptural installations designed for places within the center and its garden. Here "site" means far more than just physical place. It also embraces the social context of the center, the political basis of the show, and the diverse audiences likely to view the exhibition.
Conditions at the center couldn't have been more unlike those of professional art world: gay artists got the opportunity to come out in their work; nongay artists (about a quarter of the total, according to Barnett) got to work within a gay environment; and gay artists accustomed to exhibiting in pristine galleries had to adjust to the funky, cluttered spaces. Above all, professionals who ordinarily operate in the exclusionary culture of the cutthroat art world found themselves in the inclusionary culture of a community center. This exhibition could have been subtitled "When Worlds Collide."
Art naturally looks different in these circumstances and this sort of space. That's why similar megashows such as P.S. 1's Rooms of 1976, which occupied a former schoolhouse in Long Island City, and Colab's 1980 Times Square Show, in a former massage parlor, made history. The Center Show not only physically sidesteps the art world, it makes common cause with another culture on its own turf.
What kind of art will you find at the center? A stroll around the first-floor assembly hall heralds the diversity that's showcased throughout the building. This gargantuan room supported by a forest of cast-iron columns is both the largest space altered by artists and the first the viewers are likely to encounter.
In it are six artists' and two art collectives' wallworks: Leon Golub's torture victim seems to survey Nancy Spero's ritualistic procession of robed woman and female nudes. Gran Fury's Riot, a play in Robert Indiana's Love icon and General Idea's updated AIDS version of it, seems a distant cousin to the Guerilla Girls' poster indictments of art-world sexism and racism hanging nearby. Graffitist Daze's blue mask of woman and a smoking gun points at Barbara Sandler's painting of Nijinsky and a wolf-headed nude flanking Cocteau's image of a hand strumming a lyre from Blood of a Poet. Jane Dickson's brushy monochrome figures face off on the room's glass-walled stairwells, Scott Tucker's collage of male imagery spanning four centuries culminates in a contemporary jack-off. (Kenny Scharf will install a work in the coming weeks.)
Most of the show's thematic concerns and formal characteristics are visible in this representative sample. Sandler's dramatic homage to Cocteau and Nijinsky recalls an early modern moment in gay cultural history that helps bridge the century separating Walt Whitman from Stonewall. (Ilse Gordon and Rhonda Zwillinger invoke the pantheon of gay and lesbian cultural history from Michelangelo to Kate Millet, while Group Material's bathroom cum '70s disco evokes an already historic pop-cultural era.) Historical consciousness-raising remains an effective minority strategy for reclaiming a nearly invisible past.
Nancy Spero's pictorial body language points to the female form as site of cultural conflict. Images of the physical body recur throughout the center, but Spero, surprisingly, offers some of the show's few representations of woman, and along with Judy Glantzman's, virtually its only images of the female nude. (Generally sexualized, male nudes populate the works of Arch Connelly, Arnold Fern, Luis Frangella, Glantzman, Keith Haring, Douglas Keeve, David Lachapelle, Stephen Lack, Rick Prol, and Gary Speziale.)
The scarcity of images of woman is not a matter of insufficient affirmative action on the part of the organizers; 21 of the 51 artists and group participants are woman. How can the feminist critique of art's objectification of the female body be reconciled with the empowering value of seeing one's self represented? And what about the value of actually doing the representing?
The experience of making and viewing art in this space is brought home by an encounter with Golub's painting across a crowded roomful of light fixtures and ceiling fans. Up close, the intrusive molding that cuts a horizontal swath across the subject's neck comes into focus. Golub neatly turned the limitations of the crudely finished physical setting to his advantage. The raw site seems to function as a metaphor for the real-world contingencies that weigh on artists, while otherworldly white gallery spaces promote the illusion that art exists apart from society at large.
Gran Fury's appropriation of an appropriated painting requires a bit of insider information: knowledge of General Idea's AIDS painting based on Robert Indiana's ubiquitous LOVE image familiar from the postage stamp. This witty one-liner is also one of the few evocations of AIDS in the show. (Marcus Leatherdale's chamber of photographic memento mori is another.) Some may find it a problem that our community's preoccupation with AIDS is not at the heart of The Center Show. Robert Storr places the epidemic everywhere at the periphery of our vision and consciousness by peppering the center with dozens of inconspicuous paintings of pink triangles--the Nazi symbol for gays appropriated by gay liberation and now identified with the AIDS-activist injunction that "Silence = Death."
If you never left the assembly hall you'd miss the sculptural installations, some of the most intriguing works in the show. Many of the installation artists have laid claims to tiny alcoves, restroom, or landings along the center's five staircases. In these enclosed sites, they've created wraparound artworks that convert unused space into mood- and mind-altering dreamscapes.
Doreen Gallo's eye-popping tile and found-object mosaics transform a vestibule into a neo-Byzantine homage to Grandma Prisby's Bottle Village. A theatricalized boudoir, or crypt, is evoked by Colette's seductively draped landing. Rhonda Zwillinger's elaborately decorated ensemble of chairs, mirrors, and heroines in name or portrait refashions a ladies' room into a lounge of feminist history.
Not all the installations are so decorative. (The embellish-the-earth approach is a frequent, and frequently successful, approach to installation making.) Marcia Salo's structuralist inquiry into the position of the female film viewer presents photographs of the artist with images of Vertigo stars James Stewart and Kim Novak projected onto her face. Visitors confront a text that asks, in part, "When you watch the film Vertigo, are you Scottie wanting Madeline, or are you Madeline wanting Scottie to want you? Or both?" Arch Connelly covered an entire third-floor chamber with gay-male porno imagery. Unlike Salo's work, his mini-lusthaus incites, rather than interrogates, desire. But that depends on who you--the audience member--are.
For the 3000 persons who use the center weekly, The Center Show is public art. Like many public works, a few have already proved controversial, especially Keith Haring's exuberant restroom wallwork in praise of polymorphous perversity. One anonymous middle-aged man irately said, "There's no safe sex there, it's just pornography...Why should we alienate funders over this?"
Public art has alerted us to the hypersensitivity of nonart-world audiences of any kind. For some people--especially seniors and stuff members--the center is a virtual second home. Kevin Dziadual, a jewelry designer and maintenance worker at the center, has become an informal docent and center art maven. I heard him conducting numerous impromptu tours and discussions of the artworks during the week before the show opened. "This comfortable old shoe [of a building] has become a high heel," he observed. "And most people simply don't like to be disturbed...But what they need to consider is whether things should be allowed to happen more freely here than on the outside."
By the time you've traipsed through the center's well-worn halls and stairwells, the cumulative effect of so much art is exhilarating: it makes you want more. The size and diversity of the show is the consequence Barnett and Sahlman's open-ended invitation to artists to "address any concerns...in keeping with the spirit of the center" and the informal networking that such projects invariably entail. Many artists, including Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Mike Bidlo, and Tim Rollings, were invited to participate, but declined. Others heard about the show from artist-friends and submitted unrequested proposals. The looseness of the process might be regarded as an emblem of the center's inclusiveness.
Exclusions occurred, too. After Mark Kostabi's astonishingly homophobic remarks in
June's Vanity Fair, he was bounced from the show (good riddance). Of genuine concern is the absence of black and brown faces on the walls, save for Grace Graupe Pillard's multiethnic portrait cutouts, which triple the population of the center's administrative offices. Only the Guerilla Girls' agitprop posters actually evoke the malignant realities of racism.
Some will criticize the exhibition for not being more politically pointed. In fact, these--and many other-up-front representations of gay sexuality and lesbian history--are decidedly political. Others will reasonably observe that only half the artists involved truly distinguish themselves, but try to recall the last group show you saw that offered two or three dozen evocative works.
When a savvy video artist from San Francisco (of all places!) recently asked me what Stonewall was, I knew that I wanted to see this show deal more directly with its historical raison d'etre. Only two artists--Mimi Smith and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt--invoke the birth of gay liberation in their works. Smith's Twenty years ago features a handless clock and articles from local papers about the night the drag queens fought back on Christopher Street. Lanigan-Schmidt's work offers a complex paradigm of socially and emotionally engaged artmaking.
Titled Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats, his two-part installation occupies a small room near the first-floor assembly hall and a rooftop of a west-wing staircase landing. (Maps are available, I am happy to report.) The first-floor site brings us a cagelike construction, golden rats, plenty of the artist's signature tinsel and glitz, and a batch of ecumenical quotations ranging from "Why is this night different from other nights?" to Oscar Wilde's "A cynic is a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." The second floor-space is inhabited by adorable golden rats. An autobiographical text gives additional meaning to both sites.
Lanigan-Schmidt participated in the events at the Stonewall Inn. His text describes forsaking a job on a ditch-digging crew to head for the Big City to live as a "street rat" in "cheap hotels, broken-down apartments, abandoned buildings or on the streets." Stonewall was a place for dancing, where you needed an empty beer can to convince the waiter you'd bought a drink. For Lanigan-Schmidt it was also "the art' that gave form to the feelings of our heart beats...of finally being HOME." When the police invaded the crowded bar "it was not only a raid, but a bust. Mother Stonewall was being violated."
Lanigan-Schmidt chronicles those events with affection, but without sentiment. His examination of historical causation and meaning is wonderfully apt. He coolly notes the working-class origins of the participants--"this wasn't a 1960s student riot"--and observes that "nobody thought of it as history, herstory, my-story, your-story or our story. We were being denied a place to dance together...Our Mother Stonewall was giving birth to a new era and we were the midwives. That night the 'Street Rats' shone like the brightest gold...the mystery of history happened again in the least likely of places."
Lanigan-Schmidt's work brilliantly marries the personal and the political and gives meaning to the Latin entreaty "Sursum Corda!" he's inscribed on the wall. It means "lift up your hearts." His deeply felt work helps get it up.