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Redefining what art means to be gay

The rainbow banner that hangs above the entrance to the gallery is the tip-off. Unmistakable as a gay symbol and imbued with the ability to attract and repulse gays simultaneously, this beacon of liberation or conformism, depending on your point-of-view, announces “The Name of This Show is Not Gay Art Now,” a sprawling salon style summer show, curated by artist Jack Pierson, which includes more than seventy works by as many artists—whose queerness depends on interpretation. The question, “what is gay art?” is the same as “what is art?” It sounds like a provocation and a polemic, like Pierson declaring in the press release that gay art is passé, but the question and its answer are ones that the public is used to. As Duchamp solved the what-is-art riddle in with his infamous urinal, Pierson pulls a similar subversive trick here.

There is work by acknowledged gay artists such as McDermott & McGough, Andy Warhol, Marsden Hartley, Stephen Tashjian, and John Waters, and work by others whose gay quotient is still largely unresolved, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. To make the game of interpretation more challenging Pierson chose straight artists such as Matthew Barney—whose inclusion Pierson acknowledges is due partly because he’s hot—and women artists such as Elizabeth Peyton, Nan Goldin, and Collier Schorr, who have the only glaringly homoerotic work in the show. Formally there are brain-teasing nuggets as well. David Hockney’s “Vichy Water and Howard’s End, Carennac,” a colorless, semi-transparent still life of a table setting, luridly rendered in ink on paper, is ostensibly gay because the artist is; however, his works that get more gay play are paintings of beautiful men glimpsed from behind. Ron Pruitt’s abstracted “Cocaine,” a spider web of glittery enamel paint is perhaps a metaphorical portrait of gay men shattered by drug-fueled hedonism. However, the queer secret of Cy Twombly’s “Untitled (Captiva)” with its characteristic naïve loops is hidden. Worse than being confounded by the show’s logic, I was shamed by the number of artists I didn’t know and whose works are immediately seducing, such as M. Scott Ewalt’s Aubrey Beardsley inspired bacchanalia “Marc and Antony,” Walter Cassidy’s haunting chiaroscuro still life, “I’ve Been Thinking About You Baby,” and Andrea Fraser’s “Um Monumonto Ás Fantasias Descartadas,” a large mound of discarded Brazilian carnival costumes.

While the selection of artists sounds messy, the show’s tone and spirit cohere to Pierson’s own aesthetic and comprise his major themes such as desire, loneliness, and melancholia. The “now” in the show’s title could be less a sly jab at the art world’s current preoccupation with young MFA graduates than a reference to Pierson’s examination of cultural nostalgia. In this way “Gay Art Now” feels like an exhibition that should have been mounted decades ago, perhaps in the 1980s in the East Village, when terms like gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever were less fixed and when everyone seemed queer, the music was bizarre and surprising, and where the art was local not global.

The dots do connect and the puzzle can be solved, and, just like a Suduko brainteaser, the process takes some effort, although I must admit it helped me that Pierson was on hand to help explain the show’s veiled narrative of collaboration and relationships. For example, Pruitt’s aforementioned work knocks boots with his boyfriend Jonathan Horowitz’ “Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor (AIDS Activists);” Don Bachardy’s portrait of artist Kembra Pfahler plays off her own work, “Dance;” Lyle Ashton Harris’ Polaroid print of the artist Antony similarly nods to his ink of paper drawing.

The show’s many strengths do not revolve around an accounting of which contemporary gay artists are the cream, nor do they resolve the contradictory motives behind including gay, straight, contemporary, forgotten or dead artists—or in the purposeful omission of homoerotic content by gay male artists. It’s enough that Pierson has the imaginative vision to produce a summer show that is whimsical, fun, enlightening, challenging, and intensely personal. I shudder to think that in the hands of a less inspired curator the show might have been another uninspired, historical homage to the male nude.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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