The Culture of Queer: A Tribute to J.B. Harter
The Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation
May 2–July 1, 2006
While much of gay identity has been based within the modern image or film depicting either pornographic poses or sexual acts, the very nature of what it has meant to be gay has stayed outside the margins of mainstream society. American painter Thomas Eakins once depicted a group of nude men in “The Swimming Hole” (1884–85), who are portrayed collectively as young Adoni, either swimming or sunning within a serene landscape. Yet Eakins’ subject matter evolved when America was still learning of its European past, which allowed this painting to be contextualized by the classical nude figure as it appeared throughout historic Italian and French art. Beyond art history, however, the nude begs for relevance and most often finds meaning within the personal, private experiences of each individual viewer. The Culture of Queer, an exhibition curated by David Rubin, seeks to open up the relevance of gay identity as it occurs within mimetic, figurative art that has appeared within the New Orleans art community since the 1960s.
From the outset this exhibition pays homage to the photorealist painter, J.B. Harter, who died suddenly in 2002, and highlights the beginning of a visual history that ultimately became central to contemporary gay artists who have lived within New Orleans. Initially from the state of Mississippi, Harter began a professional museum career in the city of New Orleans by 1967 and worked as the Director of the Louisiana State Museum from 1986 to 1991. Although not openly gay during the sexual revolution, Harter’s artistic career developed during his free time, away from work. Beginning with photographs of either himself or other men, Harter would create portraits which comprised a lucid, empathetic gesture, revealing his own relationship with each sitter. For Harter the portrait became a reflection of perception as early as 1964. Two pieces from that time, “Bob Bowers,” depict sketches of a man looking first to his right and then downward; his photographs from the 1970s, however, reveal more intimate relations between gay men. Others portray the artist as a curator, hard-hat worker and homosexual male. And in each case Harter’s detailed rendering of pose, hairstyle, clothing and facial expression reveal his own identification with the subject.
David Rubin bridged Harter’s introspective creative endeavors with a selection of contemporary pieces by nine artists who use the picture plane to search for meaning within gay life. Keith Perelli, for instance, does not use portraiture in the traditional mode as Harter did but rather develops it as a metaphor for the duplicity that pervades gay life. In “Arbor” (2002), for example, the artist’s likeness appears behind a thicket of plums, surrounded by other flat oval shapes. Perelli also includes the portrait of an invented personality—a metaphor of male sexuality–who appears sideways, at a ninety-degree angle from the figure of the artist, suggesting the presence of someone who is either hidden or cast aside. Two additional pieces, titled “Not Here, in America” (2005) and “War Dance” (2005), portray the subject in Civil War clothing but with multiple faces and gestures.
Brad Dupuy’s “Park With a View” (2005) veers away from depicting the solitary individual and instead captures voyeuristic scenes of gay life. In this instance the artist represents a plastic sheet protector hung on a chain-link fence as a lens focusing on an encounter between two men in the distance. Like David Salle, Dupuy inserts additional masculine imagery, such as an electric razor, square tiles and drops of dew, in an effort to pack more meaning into his work. “What Stuff!” (2005) employs the same technique as he investigates Abraham Lincoln’s bisexuality.
Audra Kohout and Jenny Kahn break down the object in their work and suggest that gay identity is a subjective process. Kohout’s framed assemblage titled “Overture” (2003) features two disfigured puppets lying on top of each other in missionary position. A blue hand can be seen at the left manipulating a set of strings connected to the limb joints, forcing them into position. However, Kahn’s “Newspaper Marriage Announcement Photographs 1-6” (2005) magnifies the dot-matrix of a newspaper photograph to such an extent that it obscures the personal details of each face. As a result the portrait becomes a vague record that reveals nothing of personality but rescues sexual orientation from visual stereotype.
While in New Orleans, this show was nearly swept away by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina nearly one month after it opened at the Contemporary Arts Center. This exhibition was given its due by the Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation in New York City, which exhibited all of the work in its two Soho gallery spaces. Together with photographs from the early 1960s and ‘70s that are also part of the LLGAF, this exhibition clearly conveys the growth of a queer aesthetic that originally found its roots in erotica.
Jill Connor teaches at Parson's new school.
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