Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through February 13, 2011

This is my second post on this exhibit - I felt compelled to rant about the removal of a video that some found offensive a couple of months ago. Now I've been to see the show, and can comment on the show as a show, rather than as a political football.

When I went, it was quite crowded, much more than other exhibits I've seen at the National Portrait Gallery. I was surprised at how many people were there on a random weekday, so be prepared for lots of folks.

I thought the show divided into two parts; the first half covered the era when homosexuality had to be hidden from public view. There were many portraits that contained clues to the subjects' sexual orientation, but nothing was too overt. There was a John Singer Sargent painting of a male nude - very different than his society ladies in white dresses! I learned that homosexuality was coined as a term in 1870, and it was only then that the conduct began to be considered deviant or criminal.

In 1920s Paris, the most fashionable literary circles were composed of expatriate lesbians, and there were several of their portraits in the show. There was also a portrait of Grant Wood (I don't think I knew he was gay - no sign of it in American Gothic, unless it would be the bleak portrayal of a heterosexual couple...). A Georgia O'Keefe was also on display, which did nothing for me. Apparently, she denied that her flower paintings were allegories of the female form. My reaction to that is, "Who do you think you're kidding?"

The portraits in the show are both straightforward portraits and more abstract paintings, so there's something for every taste. I saw a couple of things that were familiar - a photograph of Allen Ginsberg taken by William S. Burroughs that was in the National Gallery's show on Beatnik art, for example. There was also a photograph of David Wojnarowicz, taken by Peter Hujar, the loss of whom Wojnarowicz depicted in the removed video.

I really liked Deborah Bright's Dream Girls sequence - she puts pastel pictures of herself into Hollywood movie stills. In an image from Adam's Rib, she sits in the car with Tracy and Hepburn. There's a funny photograph of Ellen DeGeneres by Annie Leibovitz that manages to be comic and thought provoking at the same time.

The second part of the show deals with the devastation in the gay community caused by AIDS. This is somber, and one leaves the show feeling sad, that just at the point when gay people were starting to come out of the closet and live their lives openly, so many of them were lost to a horrible disease.

The piece that sticks with me the most is Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). I was inclined to be quite skeptical at first. It's just a pile of candy on the floor, but Felix Gonzalez-Torres has created something wonderful and moving. It is, in fact, a pile of candy on the floor. When the piece is installed, the candy weighs about 175 pounds, the same as his lover weighed when he was healthy. Visitors are invited to take a piece of candy with them, and as people take the candy, the pile dwindles, until there is nothing left, just as his lover wasted away to nothing from AIDS.

Finally, the last piece is Felix June 5, 1994 by AA Bronson. I'm glad I got to see this piece, as the artist has asked that it be removed form the show. It's a portrait of the artist's lover, who died of AIDS, immediately after his death. It's especially sad to see how wasted this young man was, as we now have treatments that mean AIDS is not a certain death sentence.

Verdict: Do not miss this show. It's large, so you'll need to move quickly, or go twice to see everything. It's moving because of the subject matter and interesting because of the art itself.

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