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Simplicity Craving


There was a dyke story in one of Max’s porn magazines. It was my favorite, but not because I liked it exactly. Reading it by the light of my flashlight was like examining a photograph of dead relatives.
—Camille Roy

Help us poison position.
—Dawn Lundy Martin

I got a speeding ticket from a surveillance camera on my way to what was being talked about as the biggest and most controversial show featuring artists who represented homosexuality. Half a year later, my father handed me a blurry photo he got in the mail with his car’s license plate and the amount due. I am willing to confess I harbored a strange enthusiasm for “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” I thought it would be an easy target to exercise the nascent argument of this essay—“it’s dangerous to label art queer.” The show was curated by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, two white gay men, and presented an overwhelming majority of gay male artists and subjects. In 2010, “Hide/Seek” was not “new” or historic outside its tenuous government walls and focus on portraiture. It was record-breaking only in terms of how many tax dollars funded it. The show compelled me to ramble through recent histories on my own, not only by way of the curators.

Through interlibrary loan I ordered the catalogue for “Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art,” the New Museum’s now trendy sounding 1982 show. Some artists refused to be a part of this show; they refused to be thematized, or to be outed. Then I read the catalogue for the 1995 Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s exhibition “In a Different Light,” which announced itself as the “first queer art show” that included artists who did not necessarily identify as queer, but rather whose work the curators interpreted as queer. Robert Atkins reflects on how “In a Different Light” “rejected the notion of identity politics in favor of an amorphous notion of queer sensibility.” To include artists and writers who didn’t identify as queer was a decision that appeared to Atkins “apolitical” and “over-aestheticized.”

A lukewarm form of irrelevance characterized the “Hide/Seek” show in its adherence to a flawed canon. Yet this canon still exuded risk within the context of the National Portrait Gallery. Many arts organizations across the country responded in protest to The Smithsonian Institution’s baffling decision to censor David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly; I saw an “emergency screening” at San Francisco Camerawork directly after the work was removed from the show. The super-8 film collages scenes familiar to Mexico City (but not to the tourist) with staged gestures in private tableaus. A Fire in My Belly contrasts how violence is performed for the voyeur of mass entertainment (Lucha Libre wrestlers) against emanations of pain (a hand sewing a mouth shut, blood slowly dripping). Destruction and pleasure slowly brew: an effigy of Jesus Christ appears at times with ants crawling on it, as does a flickering view of a person jerking off. The flashing images accumulate into a crescendo of a map of North America burning. Mexico’s fire spreads to its northern neighbor. A spinning toy eyeball that opens the film, covered in bulging red veins, combusts. Coins fall into a bowl of blood (splash) and a bandaged hand (ow). Wojnarowicz’s visual ingredients mix to tell overlapping stories of how colonialism and capitalism inflict and lick their wounds. Wojnarowicz shot the film between 1986 and 1987; it was left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1992. The film now exists in two versions, one thirteen minutes, the other seven. I sat on the floor of SF Camerawork taking in this work, thinking about the steady but frantic images of violence and witness refracted onto the standing-room-only crowd.

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