HIDE/SEEK difference and desire in American portraiture
October 30, 2010 through February 13, 2011
When entering Hide/Seek I had no expectations of the exhibition that was before me besides the press recently that the “Fire in my Belly” video work by David Wojnarowicz was taken out of the exhibition. That is something we will cover later in this review. Approaching the show you are greeted by the ever more iconosized Mr. Andy Warhol, Camouflage Self Portrait (Red). To the left is a rather typical subtle Smithsonian text explaining that the shows main intent is “to tell the story of a powerful artistic and cultural legacy that has been hidden in plain sight for more than a century.”
Now I really had to meet my resistance and just take the show for what it was at this moment. I could already feel the bias of the news feeds and local chatter this exhibition had received, stirring in my head and wanting to critic before seeing it all for what it was. Then my eyes turned to what was clearly a collection of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) based subject matter and a room full of interested viewers. “Wonderful” I thought”, art making a social impact on hundreds of unassuming viewers!
Myself included, I had no clue that this was such a heavily constructed collection of artists ranging from Nan Goldin to Jasper Johns with content so very important in the current American political climate. Looking back I did question the soft entrance text discussing “image, portraits and identity” more so than “gay, political, LGBTQ or graphic” but after all this is the Smithsonian and we are in the very conservative town of D.C (or at least the funding for this town is from a conservative standpoint). I felt like the text played it safe and having a Andy Warhol in the entrance window is a very important move by the curators here that will come up again and again in this exhibition.
As I turned right from the entrance there was a rather striking work by Jack Pierson entitled Self Portraits, which were different men in underwear slightly aroused and staring back at the view intently, but they were actually other men and not Pierson.
Next to this piece in the corner was a personal favorite of mine, Robert Gobers Paper Stacks, 1992. This piece was a subtle work of newspaper stacks that the top page had been reprinted with headlines such as “Family Values and the KKK”. I really enjoy works like this that ask the viewer to come in closer for a more fine tuned look. “Here, the well-worn gay strategy of camouflage returns for political end” read the title card.
AIDS play a very prevalent part of the discussion. In the center of the room here on the right was displayed a simple plate by Jerome Caja, Charles Devouring Himself. In the center of the plate was a image of a man eating another man, very bloodied up which was actually composed of Jerome's’ friend Charles’s ashes, whom died from AIDS, mixed with nail polish. Quite an interesting turn of medium on a very traditional platform. After Charles couldn’t handle the severe pain and suffering of late stage AIDS he committed suicide and his friend Caja memorialized him forever in this plate. Though the piece gave off a rather strong undertone of disapproval, it was a medium choice of strong conviction and was rather interesting. Next to this work on the large side wall was a work called Felix, June 5, 1994. This was a print by AA Bronson of his friend wasted away dead in bed after a few hours passed. In the late stages of his death, Bronson said his friend wanted nothing more than his television, visits from friends and his cigarettes. Though the figure was rather hard to stare back at, the delivery was the image in a pixilated staticy RGB tone like that of a bad television with a stark white remote next to his dead hand was a strong message of what we hold dear in our end days. As I turned form this somber experience, I was met by a personal favorite artist Félix González-Torres whose work I’ve never been able to partake in but today I snatched up one of his candies and stood back to watch the work at play. People didn’t know how to handle it and even with a huge, rather tacky, sign next to the work “Please Note, Eating candy from this exhibition may present a choking hazard”, a “brave” few picked from the pile. Torres work was considered rather a protest based on the fact that the installations key component was a viewer destruction of the work. As I watched and listened to the faint sound of a wrapper crunching here and there, a smile came upon my face for the first time this exhibition. Then in the middle of the back of the room was a display of photographs one of which really stopped me in my tracks, Misty and Jimmy Panlette in a Taxi by Nan Goldin. The stare from the blue wigged man on the left is undeniable and sad with a sense of “why the fuck are you looking at me like that! What is it now!” Then I had this heterosexual guilt come over me and shame me into looking away. This piece kept me looking back with a true understanding to how we are all, every single different type of human being on this planet, really not that different from one another. At this point in the show, I was rather ashamed of the country I live in for not stepping to the plate fully on equal rights for all, even a guy who wants to wear a blue wig and dress in drag, what does it matter, we’ve all felt that way in the back of our own “cab” at some point. Here is when I noticed how really silent the room has been this whole time. When looking around I saw a great mixture of all races, sexes and sexual preferences. Some hanging out on the viewing benches, some battling with the direct content of the show and some just peddling through like good tourists.
Some other works of distinction were: Wynn Chamberlain, Poets (clothed) Poets (naked). Andy Worhol, Troy Diptych. Andrew Wyeth, The Cleaning. Elsworth Kelly, David Herbert. Thomas Eakins, Salute. Grant Wood, Arnold Comes of Age. Jasper Johns, Souvenir. Paul Cadmus, What I Believe.
The reason I mentioned these works is they really proved to me that while the Smithsonian played it safe in textual presentation, the curator did work a nice flowing layout, but its the art in the end always has the power. This show, along with my critics of it being heavily slanted towards men and mostly gay only issues, its mostly all blatant figurative work, the rather offensive wall text attempts to “protect” the weary public, and taking out of the David Wojnarowicz piece, was the strongest exhibition I’ve seen in DC all year (2010)! The reason being that the art really had impact and all together in one room speaking, no yelling, it really made me think and question my own convictions. I was rather impressed with Hide/Seek and I really didn’t expect to be. “Just another exhibition of gay slanted work that doesn’t apply to me” I thought, I was wrong. This exhibition as a whole can serve and hopefully will to how art can really make a difference in our world. Maybe its just because were in DC, or the Obama Administration just repealed “Dont Ask Dont Tell”, but either way something determined was happening in that room and it won’t be denied for much longer. I’m excited that within my life time, America is going to get it right sooner or later, but its with art like this that sooner is on the forefront.
I recently saw the David Wojnarowicz “Fire In My Belly” work at the ICA in Boston this month. I had to go to Boston, not in my own damn capital, where they hung witches to see a movie about a mans struggle with the pains and sufferings of AIDS. I was so excited that an alliance of museums got together in protest to put on showing what was banned in D.C. that I was rather jaded by the movie itself. Its not really that good and really sloppy, though maybe intended that way, that the hype behind it was kind of a let down. It was what it stood for that was so resilient. So what there was blood, guts, gay innuendos and a man jerking himself off. There was far heavier material left in the Hide/Seek exhibition from what I saw. “Fire In My Belly” was just a scapegoat, a scapegoat for the far Christian right in this country to try and impose their will on a lost agenda for something that never existed in the first place here. This country is a great and wonderful melting pot for all the creativity in the world to come meet and think freely. Some ants crawling on a damn cross, with or without a figure that half the worlds population doesn’t even acknowledge as their own, wasn’t the issue for them. The “Gays” were the issue. The fact that this exhibition dealt quite openly and honestly with the mirror we’ve turned away from for far to long here in this country. That for it to be a truly free and a truly great nation it was meant to be, everyone, that means everyone must be treated equal! I was proud when I left the exhibition to think to myself that I stand for this equality that is under attack and that being an artist can really mean something and can promote change in a country screaming for justice. Now how to handle that in a more honest mature way then the Smithsonian did with its bureaucratic side-handed approach is something that the art world can really teach. This is what artist like Wojnarowicz and the amazing collection of artist’s in Hide/Seek stood for. All of us, in our art, should all be this fortunate and at the least strive everyday to do each other equity by upholding the ethics of true equality.