Hide and Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 18:03
I hope that one side-effect of this show is that we start thinking through portraiture,” said David C. Ward during a lecture on “Hide & Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the show he co-curates with Jonathan David Katz. The controversial show came to the Tacoma Art Museum March 17, and will be there, at its only Northwest stop, until June 10.
The show, named for the “Where’s Waldo”-like painting by Russian artist Pavel Tchelitchew, focuses on how artists portrayed sexual differences in portraiture throughout modern art history. This focus on portraiture is not only due to the curator’s desire to get the world thinking, but also because, after fifteen years of trying, the first museum to finally host the show was the Smithsonian’s National Portraiture Gallery.
Even so, the Gallery removed David Wojnarowicz’s controversial video piece “A Fire in My Belly” claiming that its portrayal of a bloody crucifix covered in ants was an attack on the Catholic Church. The video is, however, a part of the Tacoma Art Museum show, along with many other fascinating pieces.
Much of the show’s art is about identity, and pushing the boundaries of homosexual representation in art during a time when sex in art was taboo. Throughout the early nineteen hundreds many gay artists hid their sexuality in their art through symbolism and metaphors. As time passed, and the Lavender Scare ended, gay artists were able to be more open, until the nineties when the AIDs epidemic began to devastate their community.
Many of the pieces show the effects of pain and death these artists faced; some because their lovers were HIV positive, and some because they themselves were.
One main attraction was the large pile of candy on the floor before a huge painting of a gaunt man lying in a bed covered with colorful sheets and pillows. The candy is a work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1991; though it is officially “untitled” the work held deep meaning for the artist and his audience. The hundreds of colorful cellophane wrapped candies add up to 175 pounds, the weight of Torres’s deceased partner Ross Laycock before the AIDs virus caused his body to deteriorate.
The bottom of the accompanying plaque tells viewers “following the artists intent, please feel free to take the candy.” The artist hoped that through this symbolic communion his audience could also partake in the sweetness of his relationship with Laycock. He also hoped the diminishing candies would symbolize the slow destruction of the gay community due to AIDs and society’s determination to ignore it. As the mound disappears and is replenished it also represents the cycle of life and death.
If you do get a chance to visit the show keep one thing in mind as you view the art. One key to interpreting these portraits is remembering that portraiture is about how the artists viewed themselves. Glenn Ligon, an African American, created his “runaway slave” self portraits to show how little power, marginalized groups have over identifying themselves. Part of the show is giving voice to how artists such as Andy Warhol, Bernice Abbott, Cass Bird, and Romaine Brooks wanted the world to see them.