Monday, March 5, 2012

Gender (Fender) Bender

HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, The Brooklyn Museum.

OK, I know the Brooklyn Museum is a bastion of fashionably controversial, culturally conspicuous consumerism, but all the narcissistic strutting and posing on display (including the viewing audience, there was quite a fabulous crowd in attendance) at Hide and Seek distracted me from an intriguing premise; the transition of homosexual artistic identity from chaste Victorian to the  Calvin Klein tidy whitey & chains crowd.
And therein lies the dilemma of an exhibit themed on the liberation of gender identity. Landscape art, abstract art, and even pop art, all made art for arts sake. But I tend to get suspicious when ulterior motives like gender empowerment enter into the equation. Things always seem to get polemic and stratified, losing sight of artistic craft and process.   
However unlike selections of feminist art from the same period, some of the more contrived contemporary work in H&S is plagued not so much by political rhetoric, as a kind of preening slave-to-fashion obsequiousness.  
One particularly heavy-handed use of metaphor was Lyle Ashton Harris’s life sized self-portrait French kissing his brother while holding a menacing looking pistol to his sibling’s chest. C’mon, I get it already, firearm as sexual innuendo, powerlessness vs penetration, offend the religious right, etc. Thanks so much for cramming it all down my throat. (just kidding)
Haven’t we seen enough over-sized, super glossy C-Prints of shockingly sensational homo-erotica in Chelsea already?
Whats most revealing about this exhibit is how completely and radically homosexuality has transformed its expression in visual art from the repressed, but exquisitely refined libido of Grant Wood’s preppy looking “Arnold Comes of Age” to a morbid yet compelling drama of Canadian AA Bronson’s death bed portrait of his partner.
David Wojnarowicz’s (WANA-row-vitch) paintings aren’t seen to full effect in this exhibit, but his video “Fire In My Belly” which put H&S on the map when it was removed from the National Portrait Gallery exhibit in Wash DC has gained this exhibit more notoriety than it deserves.
The video itself could only be considered offensive to those overly sensitive and intolerant mullahs and saints populating the halls of congress. In fact, Fire In My Belly is an effective piece of visual poetry, and relates to Wojnarowicz’s strong skills as a painter.
Mapplethorpe’s semi crucified self-portrait cheerfully greets the viewer. His exquisitely demented porno gleefully transcends the medium of S&M, gaily proceeding to wickedly witty compositions rooted in personality and grace.           
There are enlightening gems here; Grant Wood’s portrait of his mother  “Women with Plants” contains a wispy, almost windblown brushiness, contrasted by her craggy visage.
Florine Stetthiemer’s ghostly and solemn portrait of Duchamp belies her flamboyantly theatrical fantasy stage scenes.
Lee Miller’s dreamlike shot of Joseph Cornell superimposed with toy sailboat, lends a Freudian chiaroscuro to this serene scene.
But some things are better when left behind the closet doors, and Hide & Seek could have stood to hide a little bit more. That the sublime and substantial work in this show derives mostly from libidos disguised and camouflaged, rather than the uninhibited acting out of glaringly explicit decadence run amok, seems to indicate that gender for genders sake became a means to an end here.
Ultimately then, and ironically enough, art that’s all about sexual orientation tends to imitate life, and not very convincingly at that.


Brotherhood, Crossroads, Etcetera, 1994, a triptych by Lyle Ashton Harris (created with his brother Thomas Allen Harris)

AA Bronson (Canadian, b. 1946). Felix, June 5, 1994, 1994 (printed 1999). Lacquer on vinyl, 84 x 168 in. (213.4 x 426.7 cm). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Purchased 2001. © AA Bronson, courtesy Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin

Grant Wood, "Arnold Comes Of Age", 1930

Grant Wood, "Women with Plants", 1929

Florine Stettheimer (American, 1871–1944). Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, circa 1925. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 24 1/2 in. (61.6 x 62.2 cm). Gift from the Estate of Ettie and Florine Stettheimer, Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. Photography by David Stansbury

Lee Miller, Joseph Cornell, New York,

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