featured gallery for February 2005

It's A Rough World, How's Your Armor?

When I first made this selection and came up with the title for it I was not very clear on what it actually meant, and why these particular works were so compelling to me. That was quite a while ago, and in the intervening time what seemed like a silly apprehension on my part has come to seem more like a well-founded foreboding: because here we are again.

For the past months I have found myself forcibly reminded of the emotional climate of the mid eighties and I remembered something that I said to a friend after the 1993 inauguration: "The most shocking thing is that I no longer feel like someone is hitting me all the time." That is what the 80s felt like and that is what it feels like now: the constant need to flinch from a steady rain of blows aimed at us by those in power (many of the same people who were in power in 1984). The techniques of shock and awe were never intended for populations in other parts of the globe. They sum up in two neat words the preferred state of this nation's populace. We have leaders who wish our capitulation and our compliance, and they are prepared to terrorize us until they get it.

So the works I've selected do two things: They evoke the emotional realities of living under this onslaught, and they evoke one possible method of confronting the conformity that the attacks are meant to produce -- through travesty, costume, dramatization, slapstick and, oddly, entertainment.

Why are Americans so obsessed with make over shows these days? Because all of these shows hinge on the notion that as long as we look right we can be safe. We know that as a culture and as a nation we look bad and we think that we can fix it by personally looking good. Per usual, we hope that product will save our souls. The standards of dress, comportment and consumption promulgated in such shows are as strict as any in the supposedly backward fundamentalist regimes we oppose (even if the methods of enforcement are nowhere near as brutal). The recent emergence in the media of gay men as the handmaidens to such conformity is dispiriting to say the least. Yolanda and Albert Winn show moments at which that was not the case, where clothing remains the marker of difference. John Eric Broaddus and Tseng Kwong Chi give us images of the artist as enigmatic visitor and catalyst, reframing the world around them through their costume and action. Martin Wong and Mark Carter's paintings show entertainers who were able to use public personas to reconfigure the stereotypical responses of American society to Asians and Blacks, respectively. Eric Rhein, James Reich, Raynes Birkbeck and Michael Mitchell create worlds where the charges of sex, power and violence are mingled with humor and the thrill of grace. Luna Luis Ortiz, J. Robert Reed and David Wojnarowicz blend private ritual and costume with hints of public enactment to evoke an interior landscape under siege. Jimmy DeSana, Frederick Weston and Karl Michalak have produced bluntly confrontational images that catch us up short. James Simmonds' "Spirit Basket" is an object that exists almost to exorcise Barton Lidice Benes' bottle of "Sylvester Stallone's Urine," by countering our ludicrous obsession with celebrity with an act of genuine veneration.

To me Paul Thek's drawing remains the prime injunction to us all. At a time where we find ourselves increasingly bullied, alternately vilified and patronized, there are few other choices open to us.