Because We Are

Station Museum of Contemporary Art

Wendy Vogel

Arthur Robinson Williams, Ashley, Living Room, from the series My Right Self, 2008; C-print; 22 ½ x 25 inches; courtesy Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston

J. Morrison, Aids: MADE IN U.S.A., 2010; screenprints; dimensions variable; courtesy Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston

I visited the queer identity-themed Because We Are the day after Proposition 8, the California same-sex marriage ban, was overturned by a San Francisco Federal District Court. Newspaper clippings on the Station Museum’s reception desk announced the legislative victory. Just as noticeably, the museum displayed Human Rights Campaign pamphlets and membership brochures in an adjacent reading area, hung the organization’s flag within an installation and included its logo across the exhibition catalogue’s back cover. If the AIDS crisis galvanized queer coalition building through organizations such as ACT UP in the 1980s, the HRC is effectively posited here as the contemporary model of direct-action politics. Indeed, curator Tim Gonzalez frames the work on view within a legacy of contemporary practices that respond to blatant homophobia and the erosion of civil rights. And like much art created during the height of identity politics in the late 1980s and early ’90s that sought to give visibility to marginalized groups in an era of heightened neoliberal policy, the works in this exhibition chart an ambivalence between the political mandate to create positive and concrete representations of queer lives and the queer impulse to destabilize gender roles and heteronormative binaries.

Not surprisingly, the first works the viewer encounters address the AIDS crisis using now-canonical conceptual-art strategies of appropriation, text insertion and information dissemination. David Wojnarowicz’ painting Untitled (One Day This Kid…) (1990) frames a screen-printed photograph of the artist as a pre-adolescent surrounded by a narrative text about the discrimination he would later face as a gay man. Borrowing Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ strategies of takeaway multiples, the blanket-like grid of J. Morrison’s screen-printed American flags bearing the phrase aids: MADE IN U.S.A. (2010) occupies the foyer’s floor space.

Born in 1977, Morrison’s tactics could be considered a throwback. His Brooklyn-based peers Slava Mogutin and Brian Kenny address contemporary sexual subcultures in more formally inventive ways. Kenny’s Target Drawings (2009–10) brilliantly utilize vintage shooting targets as the associative backdrop for a homoerotic fantasy. In Not Desperate Boyz (2009), Kenny queers a photograph of a man in a headlock by suggestively drawing bondage gear on the “victim” and adding cartoons of muscled men performing sex acts. The new image can be read as a consensual embrace. Slava Mogutin’s Stock Boyz series juxtaposes anonymous images of Eastern European gay pornography onto stock-market charts from late 2008 onwards. Initially conceived to symbolize the commodification of sexuality in post-Communist Europe, these drawings take on a new meaning in the financial crisis, especially with playful titles such as Slow Growth and Behind and Ahead Gainers and Losers.

Eric Avery, The Skin of My Mother, 2010; photo engravings on handmade Kozo paper; courtesy Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston

Slava Mogutin, Beyond the Cap , from the series Stock Boyz, 2008; archival inkjet print on newspaper mounted on canvas board; 14 x 11 inches; courtesy Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston

Although the first half of Because We Are primarily includes work that challenges the fetishization of the young, white gay male body, Gonzalez broadens his curatorial scope to include perspectives on little-discussed rights issues in the second half. An evocative, if straightforward, photo and text documentary project by Arthur Robinson Williams covers the lives of transsexual couples, while Patricia Cronin and Zanele Muholi provide critical takes on lesbian identity. Cronin’s Monument to a Marriage (2002), a Neoclassical-inspired marble carving of herself and her partner in bed, is heavy and depressingly literal, but her Erotic Watercolors series (1994–99) provides an edgy perspective on lesbian sexuality from a first-person abstracted viewpoint. Muholi’s photographs of black South African lesbian couples document an underrepresented and brutalized group in challenging ways. Triple III (2005) shows three women from the knees down locked in a spooning embrace, while Aftermath (2004) presents an ambiguous image of a woman clutching her crotch with a visible scar on her leg. Is this a female rape victim, or a transsexual who has had sexual reassignment surgery? Muholi wants us to ask: Does it matter?

Unfortunately, it must be said that not all of the works in the show are as complex in their approach. Conrad Ventur’s video compilation Miss Education Volume I, containing schmaltzy music and film clips by femme fatales ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Tammy Wynette, deserves partial credit for its update on camp (despite the installation’s puzzling addition of the HRC flag). On the other hand, Daniel Goldstein’s installation Medicine Man 2, a figurative sculpture comprised of syringes and empty bottles of prescription HIV medications suspended from the ceiling, fails on close inspection. The image of a “man” becomes reduced to a sea of labels, in turn reducing the subjectivity of AIDS patients to their medical victimhood. Similarly, Eric Avery’s woodcuts, The New Face of AIDS (1997–2010), portray patients on their deathbed surrounded by one of a series of five allegorical frames depicting generalized narratives of child abuse, substance abuse or compulsive sex. Michel Foucault warned against the cooptation of the coming-out narrative by the juridico-medical establishment; here, like Goldstein, Avery poses narratives of victimhood at the individual’s expense.

While many works should be applauded for their nuanced take on queer identity, the exhibition’s greatest misstep comes straight from the curator’s own shutter. Among the works, Gonzalez includes a framed photograph he shot of a monitor at a Washington DC protest bearing the image of speaker U.S. Army Lieutenant Dan Choi. This image of Choi, a celebrated activist who “came out” and was later discharged from the military, functions somewhere between curatorial commentary and artwork. It is this same image of Choi that adorns the catalogue cover, the promotional banner on the museum’s façade and exhibition press materials. Gonzalez’ photograph is problematic given Because We Are’s underlying message. Is the curatorial ethos allied with the radical task of challenging forms of expression or simply a promotional exercise for preexisting
coalitions like HRC? Are concrete goals—to participate openly in the military, to achieve marriage equality—at stake, or a queered reading of the world? While such questions are not new, they deserve rearticulation at this historical juncture. Does “queer” have a face, an iconography? Or are double-entendres, camp and appropriation more subversive strategies in the artists’ critical toolbox? I’d argue that from these ambivalences arise opportunities for creative visual solutions that should be celebrated above static repetitions of archetypes.

Wendy Vogel is the editor of …might be good and a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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