A question kept asking myself as I toured “Classes in Optical Art”, Joe Mama-Nitzberg’s exhibition at the Grant Wahlquist Gallery: will this work be relevant in 100 years, even in the world? part of the queer art canon?
In the absence of a crystal ball, I have no answer. But it is not necessary to draw a meaning and an appreciation of the exhibition (until October 16). Yet, there is something about the specificity of these works that makes research vibrate in my brain.
Before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 – widely recognized as the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement – queer art was a largely codified affair. Critics have noted Robert Rauschenberg’s use of the image of Judy Garland in his 1955 work “Bantam” as a veiled reference to his sexuality. In Jonathan D. Katz’s essay “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction,” the author postulates that the themes of “bifurcation, inversion, surface and depth” in Martin’s 1963 “Night Sea” “manifest as a queer self-realization form. “
In the 1980s, HIV / AIDS became a lightning rod for queer art, turning it into a genre of straightforward sexuality and militant outrage. Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, and David Wojnarowicz, among others, pioneered the new franchise, sparking considerable controversy along the way.
Although Mama-Nitzberg’s works were made this year, their visual language occupies a liminal space between Stonewall and AIDS. They’re preoccupied with a certain gay cultural identity that some might find outdated today: a reverence for flamboyant song divas like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. The voyeuristic fascination – perhaps even identification – with the alcoholic and overwhelming self-destruction that accompanied fame and wealth in the disco era, particularly personified by tragic singers and celebrities like Edie Sedgwick and Brenda Frazier.
Other building blocks of that identity included the insistent and upbeat scream of pop colors and fashions of the era, a concern for the scintillating life of the theater, and, of course, the narcissistic cult of the male body and anonymous sex.
Elements of all of this are present to one degree or another in the works of Mama-Nitzberg. Yet the artist borrows various devices, notably from John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger, to comment on the ephemeral nature of this identity – both its validity in the trajectory of history (in particular gay history) and in the accuracy of our recollection of this identity as springing up. of a more innocent and idyllic time.
Two self-portraits directly question this last illusion. “Emotional / Personal / Historical (Self-portrait from the mid-1970s)” is a double image. Similar to Kruger’s work, one half is the positive and the other the negative of the image, evoking the idea of bifurcation that Katz attributes to Agnes Martin’s work – partially outside, partially still enclosed. Separated from each other are the words of Svetlana Boym from her book “The Future of Longing”: “In the emotional topography of memory, personal and historical events tend to be amalgamated. “
In another double image, “Total Recall (Self Portrait Late 60s)”, Mama-Nitzberg holds a sign with the warning “Only a false memory can be fully recalled!” Another more subtle work, “Untitled (Quote)” – also a double image, as if by chance, of someone I know – hangs this portrait of a naked young man in the prime of life in quotation marks, as if to underline the transience of youth and beauty.
The quotation marks also evoke the essay “Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It is not a lamp, it is a “lamp”; it is not a woman, but a “woman”. And, further, his affirmation according to which “The camp is the difference between the thing as signifying something – anything – and the thing as pure artifice”. What is the motto of this cultural identity at this point, he seems to ask, and what is the point of our continued investment in it?
Arguably, Baldessari’s most famous works used the colorful polka-dot stickers ubiquitous in garage and label sales. He said these common objects “leveled the playing field”. Mama-Nitzberg, like Baldessari, employs them in this same department, making the famous inseparable from the anonymous, and raising questions about why we value one over the other.
In “They had had”, the dots appear on the faces of two men represented in a mirror. They are dressed only in underwear and appear to be in some sort of dressing room, holding ambiguous items that could be miniature hairdryers or something more sexually suggestive. The work evokes both a backstage scene and, also, the anonymous sex taking place in public baths in 1970s New York.
The mix of excitement and transgression of the bathhouse environment is captured in another series of dots at the bottom that articulates a quote: “They had joys just as they had fears. The use of the past tense also seems to herald the AIDS crisis to which this promiscuity has opened the doors and, also, to suggest that we are witnessing a bygone phenomenon.
It should be noted that several of these works – “They Had Had” and “Untitled (Quote)” included – use appropriate images from After Dark, a magazine focused on the ’70s performing arts that Daniel Harris, author of “The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture,” described as “a daring mass market experiment in the realm of gay erotica.” His editorial focus on theater and beautiful male bodies personified this very specific gay cultural identity , effectively attracting, at its peak, 300,000 readers “composed almost exclusively of homosexuals”, according to Harris.
Mama-Nitzberg uses these images, in part, as a reminder of the many men who have worked as waiters or bartenders while pursuing glamorous careers in theater, some never surpassed C-list status, others have lost due to AIDS.
By deploying words or symbols in the colored dots, the device also transcends Baldessari’s intention to equalize the rich and famous, offering other considerations for the viewer to take into account. Garland and Streisand sport dots on their faces in “Queer Theory,” Judy frames a cross, and Barbra is a Jewish star. Is it intended to evoke the historical marginalization of other groups? A ban of both religions on homosexuality? It’s unclear.
The bright pop colors, hand-painted graphics and frames also give an impression of the times. Yet their sunshine also serves to contrast the darker realities of the time. “Might Delete Later” is the darkest work in the series and, again like Kruger, uses images and words. “Might” features a bedside image of socialite Brenda Frazier, who has battled bulimia, anorexia and drug addiction, and has racked up more than 30 suicide attempts.
“Delete” appears in a photo of a recently deceased Marcel Proust, a literary figure irreconcilable with his homosexuality. He recalls Wojnarowicz’s photos of his lover, artist Peter Hujar, moments after his death from AIDS. And “Later” is superimposed on a photo of Félix González Torres from the crumpled sheets of his empty bed. Part of a set of billboard installations he made before also dying of AIDS, his sense of a missing earthly presence provides the coda for “Classes.”
The artwork seems to emanate from the same question that pestered me throughout the show. In addition to poignantly evoking the insubstantiality and impermanence of any form of identity, one also wonders to whom this art will be addressed in the future.
Do young homosexuals care about Judy, Barbra and Liza? Or are they too in love with Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus to remember? Will the trajectory of broader historical events like transgender acceptance and non-binary sexuality cast aside this era, and the art about it, as obsolete? Will our awareness of other pernicious and continuing oppressions – of blacks, Asian Americans – relegate this art to another example of something that primarily affected privileged white males?
The show raises all of these questions, and all of them are worth pondering over what they say about more fundamental truths of reality and existence – of what ultimately matters.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]