Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward
Smithsonian Books

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which was co-curated by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., was the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. to focus on sexual difference in portraiture. In breaking such ground, the Gallery incurred a bit of controversy, which resulted in the pulling of a video by artist David Wojnarowicz that combined Christian and homoerotic images to critique ideas about AIDS and victimhood.

In his introduction to the handsome volume that documents the exhibit, Katz describes the history of AIDS censorship in American art, which found its bellwether in North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who “repeatedly and aggressively sought to pair homosexuality with AIDS in the context of artistic representation.” Most famously, Helms’s 1988 amendment to a huge AIDS research bill barred the Centers for Disease Control from allocating any of its funding for AIDS education/prevention materials or otherwise “encourag[ing] or condon[ing] homosexual activities or the intravenous use of illegal drugs.”

The bill thus outlawed risk reduction to the two groups most affected by HIV while also conflating AIDS, homosexuality, and drug use in the American consciousness; that this amendment passed by a walloping 94-2 says much about the public’s willingness at that time to quarantine these groups, whether literally or figuratively, as the unseeable “other.”

Ironically, several of the artists Helms most sought to censor, including Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz, achieved higher visibility as a result of these witch-hunts—Mapplethorpe particularly is now regarded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. In his 1988 Self-Portrait, taken the year before he succumbed to AIDS, the artist winkingly poses as Death; the entire photo is cloaked in black, save for Mapplethorpe’s gaunt face staring somberly at the viewer/critic, and his right hand, which grips a skull-topped cane/scepter.

Because the stunning work in Hide/Seek is reproduced chronologically from the nineteenth century to the present, it becomes apparent that following the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the emergence of a politically empowered LGBT population, images of gay people became less coded and more exuberant almost overnight, no longer relegated to the margins of the canvas.

This exuberance and sexual explicitness reached its zenith in the mid-eighties, by which time artists like Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring were finding mainstream success. Sadly, the first wave of AIDS not only brought the literal death of these and countless other artists, it also killed the public’s willingness to see unabashedly joyful and erotic images of gay people.

Whereas this could have meant an unhappy ending to LGBT art (and to this book), it only meant that artists had to be more clever and symbolic in their depictions of the disease, much in the way they had in previous decades been forced to use code in order to depict homosexuality at all.

One of the most ingenious responses to the public’s unwillingness to look squarely at AIDS came from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 installation piece, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), created from a piñata-like spill of colorful, individually wrapped candies weighing 175 pounds—precisely the weight of Gonzalez-Torres’ deceased partner, Ross Laycock, before his body was ravaged by illness.

As Ward observes of Gonzalez-Torres’ installation, “[t]he viewer is invited to take away a candy until gradually the spill diminishes and disappears; it is then replenished, and the cycle of life, death and rebirth continues.” By literally partaking of the work’s brilliant mix of camp, culture, kitsch, and Catholic communion, exhibit audiences, and readers of Hide/Seek, are confronted with complex notions about AIDS, and about life—that it is at once tangible and ephemeral, sweet and sour.
—Brent Calderwood

Brent Calderwood is a San Francisco-based journalist and poet. Log on to his Web site at www.brentcalderwood.com.

August 2011