Sunday, November 20, 2011

Seeing. Not hiding.

HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture--which sparked homophobic backlash and a lamentable act of self-censorship when it opened at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery last fall--has come to the Brooklyn Museum for a run through February 12, 2012.

Cass Bird
 I Look Just Like My Daddy, 2004
© Cass Bird

A survey of around one hundred works ranging from the late 19th Century to the contemporary era, the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition marked the first acknowledgement by a major museum of the significance of gender and sexual identity in the shaping of American portraiture. Co-curated by NPG historian David C. Ward and Jonathan D. Katz, director of the public program in visual studies at SUNY Buffalo, HIDE/SEEK's historic achievement was temporarily obscured by uproar over the inclusion of an unfinished video project by the late gay artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. That video, A Fire in My Belly, is a furious cry for a world of ignored, unrelieved suffering. Its montage of images includes ants streaming over the body of Jesus on a plastic crucifix. That drew the wrath of the self-anointed Catholic League and a slew of right-wing politicians and pundits. The gallery quickly caved, withdrawing the video from the exhibition--a move stirring controversy of a different sort.

[For a good rundown of all of this, see the New York TimesHolland Carter here and WNYC's Carolina A. Miranda here.]

The Brooklyn Museum's subsequent action (taken in collaboration with the Tacoma Art Museum, which will host HIDE/SEEK from March 17 through June 10, 2012) greatly extends the reach of this show. So, thank you, homophobes, for making it possible for so many more people to see A Fire in My Belly--now back where it belongs--and the rest of this important art!

AA Bronson
Felix, June 5, 1994, 1994 (printed 1999)
©AA Bronson, courtesy Esther Schipper Gallery, Berlin

I can't show you the Berenice Abbott photo of writer Djuna Barnes--I've represented Abbott, below, by her intriguing portrait of journalist Janet Flanner who called herself Genêt--but I can tell you that the Barnes portrait and the AA Bronson work above are my two favorite pieces in HIDE/SEEK.

I love the the Barnes portrait for its nearly 3D radiance that places the woman in question in the room with us today. Abbott poses Barnes within layers and tones of sumptuous theatrical camouflage--the snugly-embracing dark overcoat, the rich tweed jacket, crisp white shirt, strands of pearls, a gleaming wrap of fabric dipping low over almond-shaped eyes with a commanding audacity to them, a frankness that escapes all embellishment or disguise. 

Bronson's Felix, June 5, 1994, is the polar opposite, the deathbed portrait of his friend and colleague from the Canadian art collective General Idea. Felix Partz died of AIDS on the date in that title. Bronson wrote:
I made this photograph of Felix a few hours after his death. He is arranged to receive visitors, and his favorite objects are gathered about him: his television remote control, his tape-recorder, and his cigarettes. Felix suffered from extreme wasting, and at the time of his death his eyes could not be closed: there was not enough flesh left on the bone.
With Felix, June 5, 1994, Bronson also documents an elaborate surface that, nevertheless, cannot distract us from the eyes of his subject. Like Djuna Barnes, Felix Partz emerges out of his busy context to look right at us and will be looking at us that way forever.

Berenice Abbott
Janet Flanner, 1927
© Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics, New York

HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

now through February 12, 2012

Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway

For exhibition and public program information, click here.
For general visitor information, including travel directions, click here.

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