THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Are We All Growing Queerer
and Queerer?

 

Stonewall is fifty years young, as good an excuse as any for the institutionalization of Queer Art (capital Q! capital A!). The fervor has rippled out from New York’s epicenter even to our Second City. 659 Wrightwood’s massive summer show, "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt, and New Queer Art," curated by Jonathan Katz, includes nearly 500 works by over 40 artists in an ambitious attempt to survey queer art’s contours amidst shifting sociopolitical contexts. His conclusion? “In the main, we all are growing queerer and queerer.”

Are we?

There’s no question that, on the dawn of the golden anniversary of gay liberation’s most famous (but by no means only) flashpoint, LGBTQ visibility in the mainstream is peaking. Corporations are coming out with their rainbow pride campaigns, the Metropolitan Museum’s gone camp, RuPaul’s now a household name, same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty states… faggotry is more or less sanctioned, normalized.

 

Marlon Riggs (American, 1957–1994), Anthem, 1991. Single channel video, 9 minutes. Photo courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

 

It’s easy to forget that “queer” was a loaded term, a reclaimed slur. Given how carelessly the word can be thrown around in the art world, I find myself skeptical of how and when “queer” is leveraged, protective of its anti-normative political roots.

I take after Ariel Goldberg’s line of questioning in The Estrangement Principle: “When wall texts, press releases, and artist statements are littered with the word ‘queer,’ I start to grow suspicious of what the word is trying to say, as if temporarily fooled into the word functioning as a measuring tool. The word ‘queer’ easily loses its gunpowder when used effusively. In what ways can language persist as ‘radical’ when the language is being used in a predictable routine?” Something’s lost, something’s missing in this naming game. I’d prefer to prescribe to José Munoz’s prophecy that “we are not yet queer.”

Seeing how queer has become somewhat emptied, I fear a similar oversaturation of “trans”—especially when it’s appropriated by people who do not themselves identify as trans (here, I’m invoking trans as a capacious umbrella term, constellating gender-queer, non-binary, transgender, intersex, Two-Spirit, and various other non-cis identities).

Reading Katz’s curatorial framing of the exhibit, I was cautious from the jump. Citing “metamorphosis” as thematic and organizational strategy, Katz cordons the exhibit into five sections, each of which is titled by a “trans”-prefixed verb: Transgress, Transfigure, Transpose, Transform, and Transcend. This is not to describe an exhibition of trans artists—though there are trans voices present here—but a representational choice of how to survey a half-century of LGBTQ art.

Considering the history of trans-erasure in LGBTQ organizing, centering transness is, well, an about face. But trans politics here seems to entail conceptual play—a metonymic vehicle to narrate a history which has othered and excluded us. So, while it’s nice to see trans voices at the table, something rings false about this trans representation as a “facelift” for About Face. A facelift operation that looks new but fails to decenter and in fact reifies familiar and facile metanarratives of “acceptance” and “overcoming.”

But I want to talk about the art. At its best, "About Face" is a joyful intergenerational contact sport. Forgotten artists and lesser-known, emerging Chicago artists rub shoulders with established icons. At its worst, it is a dizzying, infuriatingly overwhelming map of what it calls “New Queer Art.”

It is easy to get lost at “About Face.” Three sprawling floors and no clear visual exhibition guide had me all turned around. The messy, maximalist layout didn’t help either. There were some baffling curatorial choices: burying the show’s sole Keith Haring in the corner of the top floor, and a general lack of seating options throughout the exhibition, even near the video art.

Every corner of the space was utilized, to the last inch. Many of the artists have not just one or two representative works but unspooling portfolios in mini-exhibitions—I counted, for instance, twenty-five Peter Hujar photographs (including a portrait of lover David Wojnarowicz). This depth of coverage is at times a great introduction to some of the lesser-known artists’ larger bodies of work. Most of the artists, however, had insufficient wall space for viewers to fully appreciate their projects. I would have preferred to see more selectivity in what pieces were shown, or a paring back on the number of artists shown.

The show could also have benefitted from more variety of mediums. The exhibit leans heavily on the two-dimensional and, in particular, photography overruns the exhibit. Some seemed to be included more for historical purposes, such as photos by Harvey Milk. I was more compelled by the photographs that experimented beyond documentarian modes. To wit: the poetic 19th century-style cyanotype portraits of John Dugdale (completed with the assistance of friends and family after he lost his sight to HIV-related complications); the brightly colored, pattern-happy, surreal queer family portraits of Leonard Suryajaya; and the chemically decayed and distorted photographic experiments of Gail Thacker.

 

Gail Thacker (American, born 1959), Untitled, 2009. Chromogenic print as framed: 24 × 20 in. Courtesy the artist and Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York. Photo courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

 

I’ll single out a few more highlights. Greer Lankton’s compellingly eerie dolls made an impression. Picture if the Muppets were designed by Egon Schiele, long and skeletally thin, heavily made up, and conjoined by the limb. A member of Warhol’s Factory and a collaborator with Jim Henson, Lankton captures the spirit of the ‘80s East Village, with work celebrating drag queens, anorexics, speed-punks, club kids, and self-proclaimed freaks.

I was also engrossed by Jacolby Satterwhite’s Blessed Avenue, an other-worldly Afro-Futurist 3D animation/video featuring vogueing and BDSM. Its jaw dropping, wall-to-wall world-making was almost immersive, like an intergalactic, fetish-themed update of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I wish the video had received its own room. Instead, it clashed aesthetically with the multimedia installation it shared space with.

Anthem, a scandalously under-shown video poem by Marlon Riggs (better known for Tongues Untied) was another highlight. “Pervert the language... conjugate my future”: with its close-ups, remixes, repetitive loops, and poetry reading, Anthem is a masterclass in new queer cinema, notable for its intersectional juxtaposition of Pan-Africa and ACT-UP organizing—coalescing with an overlay of the pink triangle and the stripes of the Pan-African flag. But its display on a small video screen, in a busy gallery setting, failed to give it proper justice.

 

Leonard Suryajaya (Indonesian, born 1988), Deafening Silence, 2016. Archival inkjet print, 40 × 50 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

 

Curatorial qualms aside, the art is by and large engaging and compelling, if full of blind spots. Do come and see “About Face” (if you’re short on funds, take advantage of Wrightwood 659’s Monday free tickets scheme). Give yourself sufficient time to soak it in, even if you only focus on a few artists’ work. You probably won’t walk away with a changed perception of Stonewall, Revolt, or New Queer Art. But you may walk away inspired by the art and stories of a new face.

 

Noa/h Fields is a nonbinary poet and teaching artist living in Chicago. Their chapbook WITH is out from Ghost City Press, and they are writing a book on the poetics of queer nightlife.

Peter Hujar (American, 1934–1987), David Wojnarowicz; Manhattan-Night (II), 1985. Pigmented ink print. Image size: 14 3/4 × 14 3/4 in. © The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC; Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, NY, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

John Dugdale (American, born 1960), Parlor Figure, Stone Ridge, NY, 1994. Cyanotype, 20 × 16 in.
Nature and Spirit Gallery. Photo courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

Greer Lankton (American, 1958–1996), Timmy and Tommy, c. 1980. Papier-mâché, fabric, wire, and glass eyes.
22 1/2 × 13 3/4 × 9 in. Collection of
JoJo Baby. Photo courtesy of Wrightwood 659.

 

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