Thursday, December 5, 2013
By DANIEL KANY
"Two Loves: Sex, Art and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name" at Kymara Gallery in Biddeford is not for everyone.
“Gay Pride March, New York City,” 1971 (two years after the Stonewall Riot), by Charles Gatewood.
Charles Gatewood’s 1972 portrait of William S. Burroughs.
WHAT: "Two Loves: Sex, Art, and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name" -- Selections from the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
WHERE: Kymara Gallery, North Dam Mill, 2 Main St., Building 17, Suite 220, Biddeford
WHEN: Through Dec. 31
INFO: 286-7399; kymara.com
It's a show, after all, of gay and lesbian art that has unblinkingly explicit roots in boudoir imagery.
With the forthcoming vote about legalizing same-sex marriage in Maine, this is a very timely subject. However, it could be frustrating to some supporters of LGBTs that this show is likely to be discomfiting to a straight but otherwise sympathetic audience.
Whether you want to visit the show or not, it's absolutely worth thinking about. While some of the work ran contrary to my sensibilities, I enjoyed seeing it in the gallery.
The show was culled from the collections of New York's Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
The strongest element, by far, is a group of Andy Warhol's "Sex Parts" -- a set of screen prints from the late 1970s hung on a wall covered with tinfoil to echo Warhol's famous studio, The Factory.
These prints confront issues of gay pornography so directly that they achieve a strangely elegant clarity. The images are handled in Warhol's signature style (visible drawing embellishments and loosely placed print elements), so it's obvious we're looking at art about cultural representations.
Warhol is arguably the most influential postwar American artist, and this group of gritty images (male genitalia in action shot with a grainy, journalistic coolness) strikes me as the most insightful of any of his Pop Art works about the proliferation of images. By implying professional porn, Warhol delivers entire notions about market, communities and hidden -- but surfacing -- subcultures.
Warhol answers the show's driving question: "Why the boudoir imagery?" Because gays couldn't be themselves in public; they were gay in private. Therefore, gay culture was forced to have a significant sense of identity tied to its private manifestations.
In fact, that's the norm in our culture. Early Christians, for example, had a secret way of identifying each other -- one would scrape a semicircle on the ground and a fellow Christian would mirror that shape, thereby completing the "vesica piscis" fish shape we now see on cars and business signs to reveal their owners' faith.
The effect of graphically explicit gay art, however, is actively revolutionary. It posits not just faith but desire and action. It is proof that something exists deep in the minds of people rather than something that could be taken away by inquisition or prohibition.
It can be dizzyingly disconcerting to a straight viewer when he realizes that erotica-style gay art (which is different than erotica) has a revolutionary message specifically for him. It's an effect that might be unique amongst identity-oriented political art.
"Two Loves" features several noteworthy paintings. Deni Ponty's impressively quiet "Study for the Edge of the West" depicts a guy with a subtle eye for another. Forrest Williams' "Two Men on a Porch" shows two average (but startlingly well-painted) shirtless men standing on an apartment porch; they could be any two guys, anywhere.
Victor Gadino's hyperrealist painting "Dionysis" is notable as much for the tragic subplot (suicide?) as the odd image's central classical nude with cymbals -- a figure type echoed in an academic drawing after a Roman/Hellenistic satyr from the Louvre's marble group, "Invitation to the Dance."
Some of the strongest images include a straight-forward cartoon by Keith Haring and the impressive 1935 etching "Horseplay" by Paul Cadmus, one of America's greatest draftsmen.
One particularly amazing piece is a Persian-miniature illustration (on a folio covered with unfortunately-not-translated Arabic text) depicting male genitals as a bird holding a snake in its talons.
I particularly like Charles Gatewood's photographs. His portraits of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg poignantly remind us of the extent to which gays and lesbians are thoroughly part of the American cultural fabric already.
One photo of a post-Stonewall demonstration shows a woman carrying a sign (intriguingly topped with the phrase "GAY ME" -- Maine?) that reads "We are your sisters/daughters/friends/teachers/mothers/neighbors." It's a surprisingly ironical message -- a revolutionary call for normal privacy.
However, many of the show's most striking pieces are dominated by erotic effect, which makes it difficult to get enough distance to parse their humor, irony or campy hyperbole.
While this is an extremely timely and provocative show featuring many strong works, something about it ultimately doesn't work. I don't know if it's the Leslie-Lohman collection or the curatorial effort, but if 20 to 30 works and extraneous objects were edited from the room, "Two Loves" could be much more compelling.
Do keep in mind this exhibition is not for everyone. After all, you can't un-see a picture.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:
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“Allen Ginsberg Reads Poetry in Tompkins Square Park, New York City,” 1966, also by Gatewood.
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“Study for the Edge of the West,” 1992 oil on canvas by Deni Ponty.