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In a Different Light

January 11, 1995 - April 9, 1995

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Nan Goldin: David at Grove Street, Boston, 1972, 1972; black-and-white photograph; 18 3/4 x 12 5/8 in.; gift of the artist.

In a Different Light, co-curated by Nayland Blake and Lawrence Rinder, explores the resonance of gay and lesbian experience in twentieth-century American art. The initial inspiration for the exhibition was the dynamism and innovation evident in the work of the contemporary generation of young gay and lesbian artists. Remarkably, these artists, living in a generally hostile social climate—amidst the constant threat of "gay-bashings," proscriptive legislative initiatives, and surrounded by the tragedy of AIDS—not only persist in making art, but do so in a spirit of humor, generosity, and flamboyance. Much of this work, too, has less to do with representing gay and lesbian lives than with conveying gay and lesbian views of the world: it is outward-looking, gregarious, and concerned. Within a social climate of both increasing acceptance of homosexuality and lingering obsession with the policing of gender distinction these young artists present vital messages of rage, survival, hope, pleasure, and compassion. In a Different Light provides an opportunity to see these works of art in a broad, cross-generational context.

In a Different Light was developed by imagining groups of objects and images that, through their juxtaposition, might engage in refreshing and provocative dialog. These online images represent a sampling of the groups. We titled these groups: Void, Self, Drag, Other, Couple, Family, Orgy, World, and Utopia.

Their order in the exhibition suggests a trajectory of experience, moving toward ever greater degrees of sociability. However, the progression of groups in the exhibition is not a chronology, as each group itself contains works from a variety of historical periods. Culture in general, and gay and lesbian culture in particular, reads the past in terms of, and reconfigures it to be meaningful to, the present. In this exhibition we read history both ways, recontextualizing older works in terms of their present resonances and positing contemporary works in terms of their continuity with historical traditions and sensibilities.

The notion of "sensibility" we have employed in this exhibition is somewhat idiosyncratic. The groups are not based on aesthetic sensibility, but rather came together and are identified by social sensibility-- that is, the various conditions of being in the world in relation to other persons (i.e. Self, Couple, Orgy, Utopia). In this manner, the exhibition is structured in a fundamentally sociological, rather than art-historical, manner. Nevertheless, aesthetic sensibilities emerge in interesting ways throughout the exhibition.

What would a lesbian or gay aesthetic sensibility be? For lesbians, the social revolution of the women's movement in the 1970s brought about unprecedented opportunities to present and examine their art in the context of sexuality. However, as Harmony Hammond, curator of the historic 1978 exhibition "A Lesbian Show," recalls, the result was not the discovery of a distinctly lesbian aesthetic sensibility but rather the revelation of a broad variety of shared thematic concerns including, "issues of anger, guilt, hiding, secrecy, coming out, personal violence and political trust, self-empowerment, and the stuggle to make oneself whole." If it is true that, by 1980, no distinctly lesbian aesthetic sensibility had emerged, the phenomenon of "camp" had long before entered the mainstream academic discourse as the token legitimate aesthetic sensibility identified with (typically, though not exclusively, male) homosexuality. In her 1964 essay, "Notes on `Camp,'" Susan Sontag wrote, "The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance . . . Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is `too much.'" From her observation that, "every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it," Sontag goes on to say that, "Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness." Clearly, camp, as Sontag describes it, (i.e. "disengaged, depoliticized or—at least apolitical") would be hard pressed sufficiently to express the list of critical lesbian concerns cited above by Harmony Hammond, concerns which apply equally to gay men. While playfulness remains a strong current within gay and lesbian art, it is generally as an adjunct to, rather than a "solvent" for, a re-constituted morality and progressive political agenda.

In this exhibition, a number of artistic areas emerge as substantially infused with the experience of gay men and lesbians. While perhaps not broad enough as phenomonon to constitute "sensibilities" as such, these are, nevertheless, important areas for further investigation. For example, if we can speak of "gendered" abstraction in the work of Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, or Jackson Pollock, can we speak of an abstraction of homoerotic experience in the work of Richmond Burton, John Cage, or Louise Fishman? One notices here, too, the extraordinary re-invigoration of agit-prop styles and techniques in the work of Gran Fury, Boys and Girls with Arms Akimbo, and Bureau. There are also numerous contemporary progeny of Marcel Duchamp's subversive gender-bending practices that are more conceptual than camp.

If identifiable gay or lesbian aesthetic styles or sensibilities exist, they exist in multiplicity, and in complex intersection with mainstream art practice. They are emanations of complex, fluid sociological constructs, never simply gay or lesbian. Just as the manifestations of sexual desire and behavior are multifarious and mutable, so, too, are the reflections of those desires and behaviors in art. By trying to work from objects and images—instead of exclusively from the sexual orientation of the makers—we arrived at one of our most important operating principles: to include both homosexual and non-homosexual artists, and to leave sexual orientation unspecified in the exhibition.

In a Different Light opens the door to a fascinating new area for exploration. The resonance of gay and lesbian experience in twentieth-century American art has been profound in ways we are just beginning to realize. At the same time, it seems that the work of many of the younger generation of artists is telling us that our definitions of sexual identity are changing in unforeseen ways. Now may be the right time to reflect on our collective history while we still have one foot planted in "gay," "lesbian," and "straight" experience and the other stepping into a new world whose definitions—and pleasures—are, as yet, unknown.

This article, by Lawrence Rinder, is excerpted and condensed from the exhibition catalog, published by City Lights Books.