(Originally published by the San Francisco Sentinel, 1991)
Flip: (1) to turn over to the other side, (2) to lose one’s mind, composure, or self-control – often used with “out,” (3) to become extremely enthusiastic, to go wild, (4) a short quick football pass, (5) lacking proper respect or seriousness, (6) sass, (7) a certain hairstyle.
Flip is an apt description of the “Situation” show currently at New Langton Arts, since it marks a reversal of what you might generally expect in an exhibition that deals with subculture.
These aren’t your typical pictures of lesbianism and gayness. Issues around arts quota visibility are being supplanted by other political and aesthetic concerns. Now it’s about the untamable differences between our individual and collective voices. As a result, this show is much less descriptive or pictorial than it is “textural,” personally evaluative. It’s more about discourse and artifacts than documentary or style. All that, and a rampant undercurrent of camp conceptualism.
In fact, three of the strongest pieces, out of the work of 37 artists, involve conceptual texts, abstract representations, and aestheticized diagrams. Appropriately and, perhaps coincidentally, they need to be described because they are particularly hard to read in newspaper reproductions and deserve an on-site, or “situated” viewing:
Cary Leibowitz/Candy Ass’s piece, “Gay Bar List…” is six curlicue handwritten, yellow-lined pages unceremoniously taped to the wall. This work’s high specificity, in content and in the use of completely debased materials, tells reams. Each uncensored column, including Bangkok, Dublin, D.C., Houston, S.F., etc., unfurls to implicate the artist’s and viewer’s experiential editorial as it is read. The ghetto-map recognition value itself becomes precisely observable when the sexist, Hollywoodian-drag named real sites are stacked alphabetically like boyfriend travel log love notes, to us from someone like a character out of a Genet story. The efficiency of aesthetic means is superlative.
John Lindell’s “Little Dipper” is a constellation of dark coded marks painted flat on the wall – of orifices, body cavities, and genitalia. Only by connecting the different kinds of dots can we outline a mental image of charged erotic gymnastics. This piece cleverly illustrates how identity, desire, and imagination are socially constructed by sheer abstract forces. Reminiscent of a child’s wonder, deciphering the translation instruments at the sideline of the image area leads to the projection of dimensionality of mythological heavenly bodies before our gaze.
Millie Wilson’s “Turnip/Potato” is from a larger body of work, Museum of Lesbian Dreams, which also deals with the social construction of identity. This work epitomizes Situations’ challenge to notions which dictate that personality and gender are essential, biological givens. Wilson, who uses the treatment of lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s psychiatric texts as a point of departure, engraves these texts in brass, casts the symbolic vegetable replacements in bronze, and then encases the pseudo-historical representations within a Plexiglas box on an exhibition pedestal. The effect of exploring desire through the museum (as a container of official narratives) creates a humorous, ironic, ambiguous map which charts places well beyond what is visible.
All the pieces in the show work together to establish an often comic topographic “lay-of-the-land” narrative-as-terrain, upon which its imagery is cast. The stories tell the pictures – via highly specific content, language and form. Catherine Opie’s handsomely mustached drag kings, include images of herself and her kingdom, which balance along these lines.
In Nayland Blake’s curatorial statement, he points out that, “the artists in the show all share a common willingness to disrupt and examine established codes of representation. They don’t assume any sort of truly gay way of making work. Instead, they use a position of gayness to skew standard ways of making and reading.”
Building upon her recently completed All But the Obvious: A Program of Lesbian Art at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), co-curator Pam Gregg further defines Situation as “an intersection of multiple lesbian and gay cultural identities and histories… One of the many linkages that forms the texts and subtexts of this exhibition is the attention that lesbians are giving to gay male culture in the realm of sexuality and how lesbians are repositioning gay male codes and making them their own. This show is pointedly a combination of work by [both] lesbians and gays.”
Gregg and Blake have assembled an important, timely and playfully serious show. It depicts some of the under and infrastructures of our subculture in fresh ways – by attending to an awareness of our own plurality – while maintaining a provisional, responsive attitude to each other’s differences. It flips out.