Lesbian & Gay Whatzis
Village Voice, June 20, 1995

It's Lesbian and Gay Pride Month. Or is it Gay and Lesbian History Month? You wouldn't know it by looking around the art world. As usual, there's plenty of work in local galleries by gay men and a smidge by lesbians. Some of it is overtly homo. But precious little is advertised as queer-made; only one press release touting Lesbian & Gay Whatzis has crossed my desk. Is this a hopeful sign that the art world's gone post-ghetto? Women's History Month, after all is not exactly de riguer in Soho. Gender parity surely lurks just over the horizon, as the Guerrilla Girls periodically remind us.

Let's face it, June is the worst month of the season to show art. Every year the summer-heralding group shows and works on paper arrive a tad earlier. Artwise, we'd be better off if those Stonewall girls had rebelled a month sooner (but at least this year we don't have to endure another mismanaged Stonewall 25-style arts festival): May's Gay & Lesbian Whatzis would have included solo shows--many of them major, some at museums--by Matthew Benedict, Ross Bleckner, Paul Cadmus, Patricia Cronin, Steven Evans, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lee Gordon, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, McDermott & McGough, Claude Simard, Andy Warhol, and Joe Ziolkowski. For an even more impressive roster, factor in the just-closed New York Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, where videos by artists Robert Blanchon, Shu Lea Cheang, Marlon Riggs, and Jocelyn Taylor, among others, were screened.

You can take it for granted that the contemporary film- and video-makers in the film fest are happy to identify themselves as queer professionals; it's gotten them onto the lesbian/gay festival circuit. The situation's different in the art world. Today's sophisticated homo artist doesn't necessarily want to be pegged as such, just as Georgia O'Keeffe detested being considered a woman artist. Identity-related adjectives attached to the noun artist always demean. An artist friend (I suppose it's okay the other way around) recently articulated the current posture of choice among out queer men: "I'd be in a show called 'Faggotry,' but not one called 'Faggots.' " (A lesbian artist friend later responded: "Hell, there are so few dyke shows I'd be in any of them.") How do we chart the boundaries of identity? Looking at this male friend's self-portrait, it seems obvious to me that he's gay. But that doesn't necessarily make his art identity-related.

As with feminism and liberalism, identity-related art has been demonized by conservatives; it's become synonymous with agitprop. (If the 1993 Whitney Biennial could singlehandedly discredit idetnity-oriented art, why hasn't the current Biennial discredited painting?) By this problematic--or any--criterion, John Paradiso's in-your-face photo-based works are the virtual embodiment of identity politics. Paradiso's subject is sex in the age of AIDS. I braced for trouble when I entered the gallery through a door framed by the commercial yellow tape that blares "CAUTION, CAUTION, CAUTION" and appears wrapped around the artist's bod in several self-portraits. Paradiso attaches equally obvious sentiments to assemblages employing clocks and porn imagery (at Artopia, 24 West 57th Street, though June 17).

By contrast, Robert Blanchon's small and satisfying solo show (at White Columns, 154 Christopher Street, though June 30) is all nuance and telling gesture. His untitled photos portray the bandanna-like hankies that still protrude from some gay men's pockets to signal specific sexual tastes. Blanchon's black-and-white prints have been hand-colored to resemble the real, color-coded things: yellow signifies urine, navy blue stands for anal intercourse, and so on, as the nearby wall label explains. The pictures resonate because the color has been meticulously applied to the entire image, including the pushpins used to splay the hanky against the wall for photographing. Inattentive viewers may miss this artifice and its meaning: these hanky signifiers are in drag, where they've become wily metaphors for the mutability of appearance and sexual interest itself.

Queers are such prodigious art makers because we've spent so much time looking for signs and reading between the lines. The survival-oriented queer obsession with layered meanings is an artistic advantage at this moment when neo-Conceptual complexity is hot. There are no fixed values in art: subtlety is in but obviousness rarely is. Does it come as any surprise that there are so few queer Neo-Expressionists?

Ironically, Rinaldo Hopf's black-and-white poster-series is too subtle for its own public-art good. The German artist's compelling photo images of a man with a shaved head sometimes paired with images of schools of swimming sperm can't compete with the visual cacophony of its streets-of-Soho location. But Hopf's wonderfully decorative sperm "wallpaper"--his term, not mine--would fit right into The Moderns, one of two current, must-see, group shows. (The other is Phallic Symbols, dealer Hal Bromm's surprisingly fresh cornucopia of dick by artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Lynda Benglis, Nancy Spero, as well as many of the usual suspects-at 24 Hours for Life Gallery, 318 West 22nd Street, through July 7.)

Curated by Tony Payne, The Moderns (at Feature, 76 Greene Street, through July 28) is a quasi-installation of 59 works by artists "searching to articulate their desire." You may have noticed that desire--as buzzword--often has little to do with sex anymore: one of this show's standout works is Jim Isermann's exuberant flower mobile, which presides over the space like a benign Aquarian deity. But don't climb these gallery stairs looking for theory; there isn't even a curator's statement on the wall. There are, however, intriguing works by little known artists such as Robert Flack, Lovett & Codagnone, and Jeff Burton. (A solo show of Burton's photos of homosex captured in fugitive reflection is up at Casey M. Kaplan, 580 Broadway, through June 17.)

The Moderns also offers work by artists we see too infrequently, particularly Californians like Keith Mayerson and Judie Bamber. If you didn't make it to Berkeley for In a Different Light, this year's premier queer show, The Moderns brings you a taste of that exhibition's vivacious installation style and emphasis on so-called queer sensibility. Partly a generational reaction against identity-politics, this commercially sanctioned approach favors attitude over the artist's sexual orientation. (Work by ostensibly nongay Mike Kelley, for example, is key to it.) At Feature, clever jokes, bougeois baiting, and delicious outrage share gallery space with oblique ironies, dated dandyism, and perverse stupidities. Subversive feminist icons may be central to this aesthetic, but lesbian artists rarely are.

The most gratifying show of this Whatzis moment is Leone & Macdonald's (at Fawbush, 76 Grand Street, through June 30). Their work is predicated on resisting simple identities--like "lesbian"--in favor of complexity and dualism. Since the opacity of language is often their point of departure, it's more than apt that this show opens and closes with a readymade commercial sign: a rustling illuminated box reading "Ladies Entrance" on one side and offering four, fat cartoony butts on the other.

Last year Leone & Macdonald transformed all their clothes into handmade paper bearing an androgynous figure of a watermark for Double Foolscap, their disquieting installation at the Whitney's Philip Morris branch. For this show, they've forsaken their labor-intensive signature style for a number of smaller, discrete pieces. Dualism, their most frequent leitmotif, is embodied in a pair of champagne goblets joined at the rim and more ominously in Handmade Straight Jacket: two large knit garments with fused arms. There's no room for hands here--and perhaps none for straightness, either. Leone & Macdonald tend to operate where the meaning of language and image diverge. Their allusive piece, Such as We, will make some of us nod knowingly. But it's also a slyly inclusive gesture aimed at every gallery-goer. Why not give into its charms?

© 2003