Gay Pride -- De-Sexed and De-Politicized
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone to challenge the notion that America's gay liberation movement started with the Stonewall riots, which began on June 22, 1969, coincidentally (not to mention fortuitously) the same day Judy Garland died. You'd be equally hard-pressed to find any acknowledgment of this momentous event at "United and Proud: An Exhibition in Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month," now at one of the sixth-floor galleries of the Broward County Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
I'm not suggesting that a pride art show is somehow incomplete without an homage to Judy Garland. But for the most part, "United and Proud," which includes nearly a hundred works by more than 40 artists, is fairly apolitical, as well as decidedly reluctant to address gay sexuality in anything but the most innocuous terms.
The latter is to be expected: The show, after all, is in a public library, and the organizers -- the local arts collective ArtsUnited -- no doubt wanted to avoid the sort of in-your-face art that leads to doors shutting rather than opening. There are plenty of other venues more suitable for art that explores gay sexuality with fewer constraints.
But I don't think it's too much to expect a little more edge to an exhibition marking 34 years of American gay and lesbian history. ArtsUnited Vice President Chris Yoculan, who curated, makes a halfhearted stab at giving the show a unifying thread by inviting the artists to supply commentary sparked by the word "discrimination."
The results are posted alongside the works, almost as an afterthought. A lot of them are fairly generic: "Discrimination: The standards set by ignorance." "Discrimination: Intolerance of others based on difference." Occasionally someone will delve deeper, as in these words from James Goodson: "Discrimination is a polarized word that can be bad if your choices are bad or good if your choices are good."
The problem is that little of the art on display has even the remotest connection to the idea of discrimination. This "theme" seems nothing more than an excuse to lump a lot of otherwise-unrelated works of art together in a group show. Maybe that is the point -- that art by artists who just happen to be gay is so diverse that we might not even figure out that the artists are gay unless we're told up-front.
Well, if that's the point, I'm not buying it. The show seemingly wants to have it both ways -- Look, we're just like everybody else! -- even as the main criterion for inclusion is what makes the artists different from everybody else.
By now, you're probably expecting me to pan the art itself. Wrong! There's plenty of worthwhile art here. A few graceful abstract sculptures by Joel Shapses dot the gallery (Shapses' 421 Gallery trafficks in more-explicit erotica), and there's a freestanding case that holds some of Dennis Dean's tasteful, Herb Ritts-style black-and-white nude photographs.
The exhibition has an abundance of photography, much of it with no discernible link to the show's theme or, for that matter, to the many manifestations of gay life. There are exceptions. Glen Mitchell's Fit Together is a beautifully composed black-and-white image, drenched in homoeroticism, of two hunky men in skimpy white briefs on a towel. Likewise with Z, a color portrait of a muscular bald man in tight denim shorts frolicking in the surf beneath a pier. It's by J.W. Calcaterra, better known locally as Pompano Bill, whose snapshots have appeared in area gay publications for years. Calcaterra's Gay Pride is also here: a provocative shot of half a dozen good-looking guys in military attire, most of them shirtless, reenacting the famous Iwo Jima tableau using the rainbow flag instead of the American flag.
At least these images portray aspects of contemporary gay life. What are we to make of so much of the other photography? Some is passable as decorative art, while some is exceptional. Irwin Weintraub, whose work I've seen elsewhere in group shows, contributes a handful of photos, most of which fall into the latter category. His black-and-white Trees and Clouds is as crisp and stark as an Ansel Adams, and his serene Shinto Priest, a color shot of the title character moving away from us into the mists, is flat-out gorgeous. But what in the world do they have to do with discrimination or gay life?
There are pieces that take on gay culture more emphatically, with varying degrees of success. Steven Sylvester's Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a glossy sculpture of a male torso, decorated with the stars and stripes and military camouflage, that doesn't quite click. Two color photos by Doug Houston effectively tweak gay stereotypes: Gentle Leather features a friendly looking leatherman with a nose ring, and Blue Is for Boys portrays a guy in a tutu.
A pair of mixed-media pieces by Jose E. Arce Jr. don't have much to recommend them in terms of technique, but their subject matter -- gay dance club culture -- makes them worth mentioning. Oh Men features a computer-generated cartoon image of an ultramuscled go-go guy on a bar, superimposed onto a blurry photograph of shirtless men dancing. Similarly, Party Big Guy superimposes a cartoonish young man's head onto a background that includes two shirtless men who seem to be evaluating him.
I feel a twinge of guilt at ignoring most of the work here by lesbian artists, but much of it is either blandly decorative or irrelevant in terms of gay content or treatment. Two untitled black-and-white canvases by Xiomara D. Cotton have a strange grandeur, although I'm not quite sure what they're doing in this show. On the other hand, a watercolor called Three of Spades, by an artist identified simply as Dyan, juxtaposes a pair of fish with a single fish to make a playful comment on relationships. And Mary Ellen Britton's understated color photos take on layers of meaning only when you consider their titles: Behind Closed Doors, Dirty Laundry, and Lingering Reminders of the Third Reich.
The show's strongest pieces, which work both as fine art and as "gay" art, are within a few feet of one another at the far end of the gallery, near the big plate-glass windows. Barry Sparkman's two medium-size canvases, Impasse and Tangent, could hold their own in any exhibition of latter-day abstract expressionism, but they're also swirling evocations of the turbulence expressed in the artist's posted statement: "Growing up gay in the rural South, I did my best to blend in. Because of the intolerance of that culture, I felt that I had no choice but to hide my sexuality. I calculated everything that I said and tried to affect socially acceptable mannerisms. Try as I might, it never worked."
To the left are Matthew Cottrell's cheekily humorous photographs, which work best when considered as one multipart piece. The Bathroom Butt Series is a trio of color closeups of buttocks embellished with a toothbrush, toothpaste tube, and dental floss, while the Kitchen Butt Series below consists of three digitally manipulated black-and-white photos of butts decorated with silverware. And below the two triptychs is the slightly larger Look, Listen, Feel, a glass-mounted reverse-negative print of a butt adorned with a dog tag featuring the red AIDS ribbon.
My choice for best of show would be curator Yoculan's Identity, a large, ambitious mixed-media piece opposite the "butt series." From a distance, it looks like one of those Chuck Close pieces that use tiny daubs of pigment to cumulatively add up to a portrait. In this case, however, the components are 598 small round containers filled with pills of various colors that make up the portrait.
The accompanying text is illuminating: "We take pills illegally to lose our identity. We take pills legally to maintain our identity. We even feed pills to children to control their identity. Discrimination is part of our identity." The unexpressed subtext, of course, is that HIV-positive people also depend upon pills to stay alive. Identity works on several levels simultaneously; the uneven "United and Proud" could use more art like it.
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