Very Queer Indeed
Village Voice, January 31, 1995, p. 69
In A Different Light; University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; University of California at Berkeley; through April 9.
BERKELEY-When a British court branded Oscar Wilde a pervert, it also gave birth to the modern homosexual. Homosexual acts were transformed into homosexual identity. At Wilde's trial, the prosecution cited The Picture of Dorian Gray. I like to imagine a mincing barrister in a powdered wig quoting Wilde's novella: "But I know that as I worked at it every flake and film of color seemed to me to reveal my secret. I grew afraid that others would know of my idolatry. I felt, Dorian, that I had put too much of myself into it..." Wilde's real crime, of course, was to be out--in both his life and work. For this transgressive queer artist, the personal and the political were synonymous.
The London court pilloried Wilde precisely a century ago. This symbolic event--and Wilde's generative influence--apparently escaped the organizers of In A Different Light, an impressive yet problematice show about queer art at Berkeley's University Art Museum. (Cocurators Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake don't even mention Wilde in their catalogue essays.) More than 200 contemporary and historical objects make this exhibition the biggest overtly queer show mounted by a major museum in this country. In A Different Light at once offers compelling and beautifully installed works, oddly subjective readings of 20th-century art and gay history, and a simplistic assault on identity politics. It's a show that should travel to New York.
The exhibition is best regarded as a curatorial project-cum-artwork in the more-is-more style of Group Material. (This collective showed its AIDS Timeline at the University Art Museum in 1990.) Like Group Material, Blake and Rinder combine artworks with popular cultural artifacts, contextualize contemporary art with a dollop of historical art, and hang the objects salon-style. But that's where the resemblance ends. If Group Material were to mount a queer show, it would likely proceed from the social to the aesthetic, by tackling an issue such as homophobia.
In A Different Light is, instead, largely about queer sensibility. It intends to explore "the resonance of gay and lesbian experience in twentieth century American art, focusing primarily on works made during the past thirty years." Non-gay art as well as lesbian and gay artists' work is included; nobody's sexual interests are discussed. Much of the art, the curators aptly observe, "has little to do with representing gay and lesbian views of the world."
The exhibition itself is easier to read than these curatorial pronouncements. It is divided into nine sections that "move toward ever greater degrees of sociability": "Void," "Self," "Drag," "Other," "Couple," "Family," "Orgy," "World," and "Utopia." "Void," for instance, juxtaposes 18 works that range from John Cage's score for silence (4 minutes 33 seconds) and an album cover for Richard Hell and the Voidoids to a vagina-flower drawing by Judy Chicago and an aerial photo of Washington D.C., by Zoe Leonard. The "Void" category evokes vagina, anus, death and nothingness. This curatorial free association works--sometimes brilliantly--because the level of old-fashioned connoisseurship is so high. (The last Whitney Biennial failed for this reason, not ideological ones.) Eye candy is the exhilarating order of the day: the most bittersweet of Collier Schorr's plasterized baby-dresses-with-unsettling-texts-inside hangs just a few feet away from an unusually washy and ethereal canvas by Ross Bleckner.
Happily, the thematic curatorial m.o. doesn't pigeonhole the often allusive works, but it doesn't allow them to resonate much either. The two most effective thematic sections -"Drag" and "Other"-refer more pointedly to gay and lesbian rather then universal experience. "Drag" addresses, in part, the juicy issue of "appropriation as mask." One of the show's best passages consists of Robert Morris's famous biker-in-chains poster, Sherrie Levine's appropriation of a Walker Evans portrait of a bearded subject in glamorously abstracting negative, Amy Adler's photo of her own drawing after Levine's appropriation of Evans's portrait of his nude son, and Judie Bamber's photorealistic, graphite drawing of a pony bit that resembles some gynecological instrument out of a David Cronenberg flick.
"Other" showcases some of the most moving and historically rich works in the show. On a single wall Robert Indiana's gargantuan homage to Marsden Hartley's German officer innamorato hangs alongside Hartley's image of a phallic landscape in Mexico. Next to it, Millie Wilson's five-foot-high, all right, phallic-wig wittily flanks Donald Moffett's photo light-box of a reclining male nude. Emblazoned with the words "you, you, you," Moffett's male odalisque jacks off, providing one of the few literal erections or vaginas in the show. In In A Different Light, homosex is out; indirectness and irony, metaphor and perverse gesture, the dandyish and the cocquetish are in. Mike Kelley is represented, but not Patricia Cronin, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Robert Greene, Leone & McDonald, Frank Moore, or Julia Scher.
Of course, too much effective queer art has been produced over the past five years to be encompassed by a single exhibition, especially if that exhibition defines queerness in a way that skirts the issue of sexual persuasion. In A Different Light confusingly bills itself as the "work of gay, lesbian, and 'queer' artists." Blake asserts that Duchamp's practice "more than any other artist opened a space for queers to formulate points of resistance to the monolithic structure of 'culture'." In fact, Duchamp's gender play and twisted language operate squarely within the deconstructive, antiessentialist tradition of the flaneur and dandy that Wilde and fellow "decadents" like Aubrey Beardsley paraded on an international stage.
Blake's search for queer ancestors might have benefited from more research. Was there really no room in a catalogue largely devoted to (reprinted) fiction and essays by writers like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker for an essay about lesbian and gay art history? Surely such gay father figures as F. Holland Day and Baron von Gloeden, Jean Cocteau and Francis Bacon, Minor White and Jess warrant a catalogue nod in passing. And what about George Platt Lynes and the othe creators of the Mapplethorpean iconography that is queer art in the eyes of most Americans?
The women of the Stonewall era come off decidedly better than the men. (Stonewall plays so small a role in In A Different Light that the curators fail even to note that artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt participated in the riots, which inspired the golden rats that are on view.) Feminist imagery garners more curatorial respect than overtly lesbian or gay imagery, which Blake terms "essentialist" and "retrograde." So the gendered but not particularly lesbian imagery of Harmony Hammond and Judy Chicago is seen alongside the gendered but not particularly heterosexual process and subject matter of artists like Eva Hesse and Ree Morton. Although information about the artists' lives and sexuality has been concealed, at least their work is visible.
By not exhibiting the overtly gay photo conceptualism produced in the '70s by male artists such as Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, and San Franciscan Hal Fischer, the record is falsified: these are some of the artists who created the psychological space necessary for the postboomer generation of artists operate freely. It's ironic that lesbian and feminist art historians are righting the historical record about feminist and process art, while Blake and Rinder sometimes seem to be erasing our gay art history.
In A Different Light explicitly rejects identity politics in favor of a return to a pre-Wildean era of homosexual acts rather than identities, of polymorphous perversity (and, I guess, punishment). Blake admiringly writes that "much of what queer artists are doing these days is questioning the value of identity politics," and Rinder comments in print that "this exhibition has been developed through poetics rather than polemics." Perhaps the irony escapes them that this show's nearly total lack of appeal to corporate or foundation funders has everything to do with polemics and nothing to do with poetics. Has any exhibition at a public institution ever been funded by so extensive a series of auctions and galas? One of the show's quasi-openings is a $250-per-ticket fundraiser on January 26--it's called "Fabulous."