FRANK MOORE Toxic Beauty
GREY ART GALLERY & TRACEY/BARRY GALLERY AT FALES LIBRARY, NYU
SEPTEMBER 6 – DECEMBER 8, 2012
This double exhibition is the first and most comprehensive review of the work of Frank Moore (1953 – 2002), an elusive artist called, among myriad other things, a visual essayist. Toxic Beauty was curated by an academic duo: Susan Harris, an independent scholar, and Lynn Gumpert, the director of the Grey Art Gallery.
The show’s title comes from an essay Moore wrote, while wracked by AIDS in the last year of his life, and posted at the entrance to the Tracey/Barry Gallery at New York University’s Fales Library: “As beautiful as our modern Arcadia may appear to be, it is a beauty that is alloyed with all the complexities and toxicities of modern life. ”
Moore is known for large-scale hyperrealist paintings surrounded by inventive custom-made frames. Some may call him a Social Surrealist, while others will label his work as kitschy-surreal or Magic Realist—or perhaps he is simply a cartoon activist with an acute sense of social and environmental issues. Ultimately Moore invented his own language of symbols and developed a set of narratives that can only be compared to those of Hieronymus Bosch, as Moore suggests in his painting “Debutantes” (1992), onto which he silkscreened printed images of medieval torture.
Born in New York City’s Stuyvesant Town, Moore was raised on Long Island but became interested in the natural environment during childhood summers in the Adirondacks. He went on to study psychology and art at Yale, and informed by such a background, Moore began creating allegorical paintings that serve as windows onto an alternate, imagined universe. At the Grey Gallery’s entrance two self-portraits stand guard, their imagery sliced in a Cubist manner, one vertically (“Eastern Basket,” 1986) and the other horizontally (“Mehboy,” 1986). Beyond these sentinels the viewer is confronted with unpleasant horror in the form of apocalyptic visions, chemical pollution, disembodied hands and prosthetic glass eyes, lethal labyrinths, an overabundance of pills, bugs, DDT spray, and decay at every turn.
Moore was a brilliant miniaturist who used oils and silkscreened images, lifted directly from other sources, to tell his personal history. One recurring theme takes the form of painted butterflies, sometimes pinned with real pins, which stand for rebirth and regeneration. In an interview with Robert Atkins for Artery, he described his work:
I decided to represent everything in my life at that moment; every aspect of the image would directly correlate with something that was actually happening to me. Robert [R. Fulps, his lover], who had passed away the year before, was at the center of the picture having a portacath implanted. There were so many parts to that painting…they were all true…Pictures began to feel like novels.
Moore admired Paul Cadmus, whose influence on the younger painter is evident in works like “Bubble Bath” (1990), a canvas replete with homoerotic elements and Buddhist symbols, the latter a result of Moore’s extended study with John Giorno, who is depicted in the painting meditating. Another major painting on view features a bed of pills, upon which lies “Gulliver Awake” (1994 – 1995), a gay man in an S and M outfit roped by a multitude of Lilliputians, some pointing crosses at him, some prodding, photographing, or restraining him. A quote from the 8th-century Arabic poet Abu Nuwas appears next to this Gulliver figure, noting that love can wash away ills and, more philosophically, that “desire overcomes death.”
In other paintings, found objects abound. In “Wildlife Management Area” (1990), a light switch and a metal road sign reading “State Reforestation Area” are placed on a painted fallen tree trunk at the foot of a deer already equipped with a red wall mount around its neck. The painting is framed with wood and antlers and hung between two reading lamps. Other witty custom frames are constructed from old books, barbed wire, maps, copper pipes, metal faucet knobs, and plastic medicine containers and capsules—all encased in acrylic.
In an exhibition catalogue from 1996, Moore confessed:
Like an ill wind, AIDS fills my sails, blowing me to the outer rim of my universe. As I go scudding along I feel my body changing—my breath and bowels the texture of my skin and flesh. Passing landmarks I no longer recognize, I watch as familiar faces become invisible, unintelligible, and realize that my needs and desire are mutating, falling away. My work is the log of this voyage.
Helping to give context to his trip is a wide display of ephemera from Moore’s life, including letters to and from Gianni Versace, who was an avid collector of Moore’s art and commissioned special paintings for his house in Miami.
Frank Moore left behind more questions than answers. By way of a brilliant parade of DNA manipulations, human engineering, and genomes, he pictorially described the reality of his purgatory and his own dream visions of hell. While it is up to historians to decipher the many layers of symbolism and science in Moore’s work, this retrospective serves as strong medicine against the amnesia that threatens the many fallen artists of the AIDS pandemic.
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