featured gallery for June 2011

For Peter Hujar

I went through the Visual AIDS archives less than a week after the Smithsonian's foolish decision to remove an edited version of David Wojnarowicz's 1987 video, "A Fire In My Belly," from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of gay portraiture, Hide/Seek. This, of course, was before the ensuing weeks of protests and video screenings, and in advance of AA Bronson's heroic decision to request that his work also be pulled.

Hell hath no fury like a mob of pissed off queens, and the sting of the decision was intensely fresh at the time. People -- queer and non-queer alike -- were furious, due in large part to the ignorance of a few higher-ups at the Smithsonian, a handful of Republican congressman, and a lone, pot-stirring conservative who makes up the entirety of The Catholic League. I remember feeling quite certain that I was going to put together a Wojnarowicz web gallery, and the fire in my own belly about such an insulting move by a museum only seemed to fuel that decision. That, however, seemed far too easy.

By its nature, Wojnarowicz's work is truly experiential, and a Web gallery with jpegs of his paintings and text pieces wouldn't do them any justice (not that his work had been treated with any at the National Portrait Gallery). What seemed the most offensive about the fiasco was that the removal of the video suggested not only that it was socially acceptable to censor queer work -- or any work for that matter -- but rather that gays had no right to speak about real suffering, that there were parts of queer identity that were unfit for public experience and discourse.

With that idea in mind, this selection of works for Visual AIDS, featuring work by Chuck Nanney and the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is completely devoid of any imagery that could easily be identified as queer. Representation itself is almost entirely absent, and any implied emotion or sexuality is siphoned either through discreet codes of abstraction or calculated accumulations of objects and color.

Nanney's intimately-scaled works -- regardless of their physical restraint and lack of immediate representation -- clamor with highly suggestive titles, and imply a great deal about suffering with very little physical matter. Conversely, the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres are often masses of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual parts. His sculpture, "Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991, appears as a solitary, sad sack structure with no boy in sight, with all the joyful implications (and evidence) of frivolity and virility nowhere to be seen. Bubbling over with conceptual understanding, his elegant stacks of matter evoke a near-tangible sense of absence, and may well be towering monuments to invisible queer spirits.

For all the controversy that the removal of "A Fire in My Belly" created, amid the calls for Smithsonian administrators to step down and endless questions of institutionalized censorship and creative freedom, no one seemed to be paying any attention to whom the video was made for. An accomplished artist in his own right, and the long-time partner of David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar died of AIDS in 1987. The nature of their relationship -- a seminal distinction in the understanding of both the work and GLBT identity itself -- seemed to be thrown by the wayside. I had to reach out to a Boston museum, not long after they began exhibiting the video in protest of its removal in D.C., because their wall text claimed Hujar was simply the artist's "close friend." Almost more hurtful than censorship is an innocent lack of knowledge. Context, of course, is everything.

Therefore I felt it was deeply appropriate that the only directly representative image of human likeness in my selections be a photo of Hujar, on his deathbed, taken by Wojnarowicz himself. Like the video, the image of Hujar is unrestrained in its severity and unwavering sincerity, and is just as disturbing, if not more so. This selection of work is dedicated to his memory and to those gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered artists who have been forgotten, either by death or by the undiscriminating hand of intolerance.

I had the surprising misfortune of learning about Chuck Nanney's HIV status while discovering his work in the Visual AIDS archives for this project. I especially want to thank him for his incredible friendship in the last few years. I would also like to thank the incredible staff at Visual AIDS. I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to select work by these two men; one of whom I consider a friend, and both of whom I consider to be critical to the discussion of work made by contemporary artists diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.