In The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Michel Foucault examines how discourse around sexuality, particularly the notion of repression, functions to regulate, control, and re-inscribe dominate power relationships. In his analysis of the question of repression, Foucault observes how the impulse to understand society as repressive functions as a simple route to contesting that society: "If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression." In the thirty years since he wrote The History of Sexuality, Foucault’s philosophy has informed contemporary thinking on everything from politics to art. It is unfortunate then, but perhaps not surprising, that precisely the kind of simplistic analysis that Foucault critiques is at the heart of My People Were Fair and Had Cum in Their Hair (But Now They’re Content to Spray Stars From Your Boughs).
The show is not an illogical extension of the neo-sixties psychedelia that has become ubiquitous in the New York art world of late. In a riot of neon colors and exposed skin, My People Were Fair… presents work by thirty-nine artists with sex on their minds. Taking his title from a 1968 record by Marc Bolan, the press release quotes curator Bob Nickas’s description of his premise: "a lot of work by younger artists has brought back ideas revolving around hedonism, liberation, and revolution— sexual energy as a key to the kingdom and entering into a more fluid state between the mind and the body." The works on view make explicit the historical lineage of sex in art over the past thirty-five years: it’s almost impossible to distinguish the "seminal" works of the seventies and eighties— the same moment in which Foucault was writing, a moment of incredible energy in the politicization of sexuality— from today’s derivatives, which carry none of the power of that moment. Walter Pfeiffer’s 2001 untitled photograph of a lewd hand gesture performed against the background of a smooth muscled chest looks remarkably like Larry Clark’s 1987 "Boy in Car." Perhaps it is too easy to conflate black-and-white photographs of a male gesture of come on, but the resuscitation of styles by the younger artists is like visual art’s equivalent of The Strokes: kind of fun for five minutes, until you realize its not going anywhere, just endlessly duplicating the source of "inspiration" without seeming to consider the difference between historical moments, merely slipping them neatly together.
So who cares? What’s wrong with indulging a guilty pleasure like Wolfgang Tillmans, The Strokes, or porn? At the risk of ruining the fun, it’s difficult to stomach a show that positions itself as a "protest show for these long, dark days of the Bush conspiracy," and yet presents the most literal, unimaginative, even dull sampling of sex in contemporary art. From Christian Holstad’s figures of solid color assuming the position to Jeff Davis’s color pencil drawings of vaguely apostolic men in compromising situations, the works on view present queer sex exactly how a Bush-style conservative might imagine it: full of clichés. And perhaps this would be challenging if members of the administration were the audience. But as the press release admits, "a volley fired from West Chelsea will fall far short of any coordinates in D.C." So then if the aim is to "bring joy into the gallery" and I certainly believe in the erotic possibilities of art, My People Were Fair… still falls short. The flat ironic posture of Jules de Balincourt’s frightening factory of sexual liberation rendered in the thin acid colors of spray paint in "Human Resource Center" (2003) triggers the gag reflex more than quickens the pulse. Charles Atlas’s video "Venus in Furs" is a joyful raunchy bright spot in the exhibition. But with masked dancers decked out in purple sequined tights striking vaguely S&M poses floating against a paisley background, Altas’s celebration of the fluidity of sexuality through performance might be just the best example of the hackneyed and oversimplified use of Judith Butler’s early nineties theory of the construction of gender and sexuality that runs through the show.
The combination of a Butlerian notion of the instability of (gender and sexual) identity with the notion of a historical lineage of sex art make Nickas’s selection of an all male cast all the more incongruous. To claim a lineage of art about fucking from "Larry Clark to Ryan McGinley through Wolfgang Tillmans and Terry Richardson" without Nan Goldin is a gross omission. To offer the motif of the penis in an art of resistance without Lynda Benglis’s infamous pose with a dildo from ArtForum is also an unfortunate oversight, a lost opportunity to radically question roles and bodies and lines of influence with Benglis’s humor and pleasure and joy and hope in her very political statement. And for an exhibition that claims to be interested in resistance to the current social and political climate of fear and repression, the works on view present a surprisingly unified view of stylized sex, as if resisting the current hegemony with a rainbow of dicks might challenge something. There is a lack of intimacy amid all the posturing. The aggressive interest in the individual pleasure of the artist, the viewer, the subject, obliterates the possibility of a shared pleasure in the experience of connecting, physically and/or mentally, with another person, which it seems to me would be a more radical statement in our culture of individuality defined by consumption and obsessed with the violent defense of "freedom".
The elusive pleasure and frustration of understanding the self (physical and emotional) through the sexual are laid bare in Michael Meads’s color photographs of a young man fucking a pumpkin. Meads’s images suggest the unrealized possibility of Nickas’s concept: they are genuinely surprising, obscene, and touching. As the young man explores the limits of his body and the experience of the pumpkin (in a lovely nod to the current season), the potential emerges out of the spectacle.