Art Attack! Hide/Seek Tells Half the Story

Art Attack Month:

0. 1/28/2012 – Art Attack Call for Submissions, by Riese
1. 2/1/2012 – Art Attack Gallery: 100 Queer Woman Artists In Your Face, by The Team
2. 2/3/2012 – Judy Chicago, by Lindsay
3. 2/7/2012 – Gran Fury, by Rachel
4. 2/7/2012 – Diane Arbus, by MJ
5. 2/8/2012 – Laurel Nakadate, by Lemon
6. 2/9/2012 – 10 Websites For Looking At Pictures All Dayby Riese
7. 2/10/2012 – LTTRby Jessica G.
8. 2/13/2012 – Hide/Seek, by Danielle

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When the security guard announced that the Brooklyn Museum was closing in ten minutes and I shuffled out of the Hide/Seek exhibition, I couldn’t help but turn to my girlfriend and ask, “Why so many gay dudes?”

I should back up. This exhibition is important — Hide/Seek explores gender and sexuality as themes in modern American portraiture. Okay, so there’s enough Andy Warhol to spend an hour on, and I know we learned about his soup can IN THIRD GRADE (even if the teacher did forget to mention the gay stuff), but there are lesser known artists, explorations of sexuality’s societal challenges, and a few works that almost moved me to tears. As Roberta Smith concludes in her New York Times review, it is a “significant beginning” as the first major art show to focus on homosexuality as an influence.

Real talk: it doesn’t delve as deep as it could. The show is a broad overview of several decades of art and as David C. Ward, one of the original curators, shared in an interview with ArtInfo Blog, it purposefully shies away from provocation. This shouldn’t surprise us too much considering the works were first displayed by the National Portrait Gallery in our fine nation’s capital. Although the show in DC was funded by private donors, The Smithsonian receives enough federal funding for its facilities that when the right Republicans complained (a certain weepy House Speaker-designate among them), the David Wojnarovicz video A Fire in my Belly (1987) was pulled from the exhibition for an allegedly sacrilegious depiction of an AIDS victim’s suffering, namely a Christ figure on a cross covered in ants. Georgia Representative Jack Kingston called for a review of the NPG’s funding and let us know via Fox News that he really disliked that Annie Leibovitz photo of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, too.

You should obviously stop by to sock it to the man. The show travels to Washington State’s Tacoma Art Museum in March. You might find that some of the pieces really catch you off guard. I probably would’ve overlooked several powerful messages had the works not been amassed with the purpose of exploring the visibility of sexuality.

Take this piece, for example:

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York (1979) (courtesy of www.tsengkwongchi.com)

My reaction was to wonder, “What’s so gay about that?” I managed to suppress any phallus jokes out of reverence for a national tragedy. The blurb on the wall urged me to consider the meaning of the word “spy.” In this photo, a self-portrait, Tseng is dressed in a traditional Mao suit in order to depict himself as an “ambiguous ambassador” from China posing for a snapshot in front of one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. In 1979, could he not have been suspected of spying for Communist China? But gays were also “spies” in that era; it was a slang term that referenced the way they existed quietly in society, playing straight to be part of it when in actuality they were outsiders, observers of an exclusionary, thereby foreign, society. Here Tseng embodies both meanings of the word.

I also want to share with you what ended up being my favorite work of art:

Laura Aguilar, Nature Self-Portrait #4 (1996) (courtesy of oneartworld.com)

It took a minute to put everything together, but I eventually realized that Aguilar was going to bat for underdogs everywhere. She is many of the things American society systematically pushes to the fringes: a woman, Chicana, gay, obese, and dyslexic, to name those factors of which I’m aware. However, in this photograph she poses unabashedly nude in nature and the result is a landscape that includes her as matter-of-factly as it might include a grove of Aspen. Her figure posed by a pool of water is evocative of a mountain range reflected in a lake, which, unlike the life society might expect or prefer Aguilar to lead, is majestic, open, and dignified. This piece is an empowered commentary on American oppression.

There is more lady-work you should catch—portraiture from Annie Leibovitz, Cass Bird, and artists from further in the past like Romaine Brooks, who you’ll find looking just dandy in a self-portrait from the 1920s. Unfortunately I left the show feeling bashed over the head by the story of the gay male, developed chronologically over the last century and a half. It’s possible that in a show as period-based as this one, the absence of a large lady presence can be explained away with historical reasons. For instance, considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have no record of any transmission of HIV ever between female sex partners, it would make sense for female artists to have less on display than their male counterparts in the section of the show labeled “AIDS.” My girlfriend and I had another, more disappointing hunch, though. In a show that sticks mainly to mainstream artists (Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg come to mind), women get the short end of the stick because herstory is STILL telling the tale of our struggle to break into the mainstream and be taken seriously.

As I’m sure you’ve been told already, go see this exhibition. Bring a large bag because there’s free candy (Ross Laycock is now turning over in his grave). However, you may find in the end that your story hasn’t been told yet.

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About the author
: Danielle lives in Brooklyn and has tried to free herself from the internet, so you are either very lucky or very unlucky to have found her here. She spends most of her time attempting to alleviate her road rage by running, writing, and partaking in hot cups of puerh. Most of her work occurs spontaneously and under her breath. However, as she reemerges on the web, you’ll be the first to know where to find her.

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      Hey turtle, I doubt there’s one definitive herstory we can curate. I think the best we can do is gather works of art that tell a wide variety of stories, stories that should be taken just as seriously as the narratives that are already out there.

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    I got to see this a couple weeks ago. And yeah, while it was really great to see all these pieces from the past hundred years or so ago, it was really limited in its scope. But this is a good start for a major museum show. Hopefully this is the start of a trend of major LGBT themed shows.

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    As much as I appreciate powerful art from a gay-male perspective, this stuff always bugs me. Even in news articles and on TV, it’s more often gay males that are the face of the community in the mainstream while gay females are seen through the lense of straight-male fantasy.
    And I thought the Aguilar photo was one of the most beautiful self-portraits I’ve ever seen. She looks so peaceful.

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    If you had seen it in DC it would have been a stronger more coherent presentation. The Brooklyn show had substitutions and was weakened by those which favored a bunch of light weight boys from CA. All the strong women artists I know were disappointed by the selections in the contemporary section. A few of us are looking for venues to correct this problematic. Our brothers always see with blinders on when it comes to women and lesbian feminists in particular. I can name at lesst 25 worthy women artist who aren’t there. As for Gluck-sorry but she can’t hold a candle to Romaine Brooks as an artist. Brooks’ portrait of her is so much more than anything Gluck attempted–see Souhami’s book and the bitchy comments an envious Gluck made about Romaine. My book on Brooks exposes it all and will be out next year.

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    The show is essentially a rethinking of mainstream US art in mostly the 20th century through a queer lens. Given the demographics of US artists who had access to audiences/ dealers/galleries, it’s not surprising that it’s mainly white men. I would have liked to have seen more analysis of that, though — how white gay men managed to take advantage of the strictures of the art world in ways that lesbians and queer people of colour couldn’t.

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