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Exit Art steps out front with “Homomuseum,” but cultural richness remains muted

The new show “Homomuseum: Heroes and Moments” is the brain-child of Exit Art’s co-founders, Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo. To honor the influences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture, the pair chose 27 artists out of roughly 4,000 who submitted proposals to create a theoretical museum of homo art.

Our culture honors everything––from the lessons of the Holocaust, to sex, to the history of the shoe––with a grand museum, so it is a fair question to ask why we have not yet developed a national homomuseum.

The Quilt of course continues to memorialize the AIDS pandemic but queer culture, though ironically vitalized like never before by an illness that killed so many artists, is about far more than AIDS. Homo influence is huge, and the establishment of a permanent collection documenting the contribution of queer art could be a major educational accomplishment and vehicle for change. In a political climate where the far right has targeted gays as never before, making even some of our closest friends in high places think twice, Exit Art has stepped up to the plate with public and private money to present our art.

Each of the 27 artists was asked to create an homage to a gay hero of their own choosing. The result was a diverse group indeed––Michelange­lo, Alan Turing, Jack Smith, Sal Mineo, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Kristy McNichol, Jean Genet and Quentin Crisp, to name just a few. We could all make our own list and it is always a revelation to consider how many greats there are to choose from. An homage to Abraham Lincoln would startle only because his job would seem to have been protected by the most opaque of glass ceilings.

Because Exit Art’s galley space is so large, many of the pieces seem out of scale. The gallery has a strange feeling of emptiness. A number of the slide and video projections included in this exhibition appear faint, lacking the visual impact they deserve. Unfortunately, among those works most diminished are works by video artist Stephanie Gray, Predrag Pajdic and Rachel Wilberforce and Matthew Ravenstahl, the slides presented by Christopher Clary and the sound art of Marget Long.

I appreciate that one important part of the mission of “Homomuseum” was to highlight emerging artists instead of relying on the usual suspects from the gay artist posse, but I think that a few heavy hitters were needed to anchor this show.

Still, several artists present work that would be noteworthy in any exhibition.

One is a video by Mary Ellen Strom titled “Nude No.5, Eleanor Dubinsky and Melanie Maar,” which recreates an 1866 painting by her hero, Gustave Courbet, “The Sleepers” where two women lay in a sexual embrace. It’s a beautiful image and cuts to the chase by confronting the lesbian sexuality often avoided in the critical discussions of the original painting.

Alvin Baltrop honors the piers of old gay New York with his black-and-white photographic documentation of the diverse and anonymous sexual scene that went on in this dark, decaying space during the ‘70s. These are photos where men fuck on blankets while sunning, as hustlers and homeless men mix freely among the mustached leather clones and long-haired hippie boys of the time. My favorite is a photo of a black man in double knits cruising a white guy just wearing a vest and boots. This photo captures the outlaw edge that gay men still held as a group back then and reminds me of how different New York has become.

James Bidgood’s photos from the 1960s are also stand-outs, so ahead of their times that they look as though they could have been made by David LaChapelle or any of a number of other hip photographers working today. Technicolor and over-produced, the photographs bring back the sense of illusion and fantasy first introduced by Hollywood’s golden age. The abandon of these works can be nicely juxtaposed against Bidgood’s bleaker images, such as one in which a young man in a barren mirrored room contemplates his identity. The comparison makes for a telling pre-Stonewall cultural read.

Aaron Krach presents us with a silver Plexiglass dance floor, a la Carl Andre, that works as a social signifier for gay people. I understand drag queens danced on it at the opening––thank God, some feathers and glitter. But now that the party is over, all we are left with is a sad, empty, scratched-up arena that makes me think of AIDS and wonder where have all the fan dancers gone. Only the floor contains those memories.

One of my favorite pieces is by Rune Olsen, “The Bonobo Apes,” in which two same-sex apes fuck while another looks up the top’s butt. I love the balance between reality and humor, something desperately needed in this show.

Three different artists chose Felix Gonzalez-Torres as their hero––Gabriel Martinez who created a pile of black bird confetti, J. Morrison who presents three roles of paper towels with beds printed on them and Leor Grady who exhibits an airy photograph. Gonzalez-Torres was a great artist but I think it was a curatorial mistake to focus so much attention on him, with so many other influential gay people to honor.

The show’s lack of humor was particularly pronounced in several installations in which artists took themselves a little too seriously––“Faggot Monument to Homosexuals Burned in the Middle Ages,” by Geoffrey Hendricks and Sur Rodney (Sur); Milton Rosa-Ortiz’s “The Sacred Band in Elysium,” a suspended bullet installation dedicated to Alexander the Great; Jonathan Wahl’s “ Sons of Sodom (Justin, Peter, Jeremy, Chad, Ratko, Will, George, Roger, Matt, Jonathan),” which consists of nine salt heads on a pedestal; and Shane Ruth’s sacrificial lamb honoring Jesus Christ.

When I left “ Homomuseum,” I felt that the show had fallen short. Ironically, it felt academic. What happened to the risk, the fire and the glitter? Did we all go to Yale just to become like everyone else?

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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