‘Be Seen’: Portraits reclaiming the gay experience at Wadsworth Atheneum — Susan Dunne

Hartford Courant, 06.27.2019

The 1969 Stonewall riots emboldened LGBTQ people nationwide to fight for their rights. As an extension of that freedom, queer and nonbinary artists started coming out of the shadows. No longer would their faces be hidden in the world of art. No longer would their stories be told by others. They would depict themselves and their lives as they saw fit, regardless of how the rest of the world saw them.

An exhibit of portrait photography at Wadsworth Atheneum is a celebration of this freedom. Some LGBTQ photographers captured realistic depictions of themselves and their friends living their lives. Others used their artworks to tell stories. Still others used their work to comment on gay history, traditional gender expectations or the history of art, skewing it to reflect a new perspective.

“Queer bodies haven’t necessarily been seen in the art-history canon. This is an opportunity to see these people featured,” says Emily Handlin, the museum’s curatorial fellow in contemporary art, who co-curated the exhibit with contemporary art curator Patricia Hickson. “It’s as much about gender as it is about identity, about how far gay rights have come and haven’t come.”

The exhibit was largely drawn from the museum’s collection. Hickson says preparing for the show gave her the opportunity to diversify the photography collection and acquire more works by nonwhite, nonmale and nonbinary artists.

Among the new acquisitions were several works by South African Zanele Muholi, who focuses her lens on members of that country’s queer community. Another new acquisition is “Pig Pen” by Catherine Opie. Her gender nonspecific model, a frequent model for Opie, sits against a vivid red background.

Another new acquisition is Mickalene Thomas’ dazzling “Raquel with Les Trois Femmes.” Thomas recreates Édouard Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” — a painting in which one nude woman and one scantily clad woman have a picnic with two fully dressed men — but empowers the women. All are fully, colorfully dressed and coiffed. All are black.

Two spectacular pieces by Latinx artist Martine Gutierrez show her in over-the-top, wildly colored elements that reflect her cultural history, especially that of two-gendered Mayan deities. “Conquistadors used that as a reason to say that those gods were blasphemous to convert people to Christianity,” Handlin says.

Ike Ude’s “Sartorial Anarchy” is another eye-catching exploration of history. He uses different items of men’s clothes from various places and eras to show the arbitrariness of definitions of masculinity. But he has fun with it. As Ude says, “with such an inexhaustible, timeless array of men’s clothes at one’s disposal, who needs drag?”

No exhibit of gay portraiture would be complete without Robert Mapplethorpe, and he is represented by four pieces, including a portrait of his African American lover, Jack Walls, in a military uniform.

As if in rebuke to Mapplethorpe, the exhibit also includes a self-portrait by Paul Mpagi Sepuya. The photo shows the nude African American artist sitting on a book of photographs by George Dureau. Dureau, like Mapplethorpe, was a white photographer who frequently used black models.

“He’s taking back the black body,” Hickson says. “Mapplethorpe can be problematic in the way he objectified black people. Even in the portrait of Jack Walls, Mapplethorpe was in the position of power.”

The 1991 self-portrait by Yasumasa Morimura doesn’t reclaim art history but instead borrows it to tell a different story, of a non-Western queer man rather than a European woman. Morimura recreated Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1866 “Monna Vanna,” a portrait of a lushly dressed blonde, and put himself in it. His frizzy blonde hair cascades over his shoulders and dress with enormous leg-of-mutton sleeves.

Andy Warhol is represented in work both by and of him. Five black and white photographs by Christopher Makos show Warhol in men’s clothes but wearing women’s wigs. A series of 10 screenprints by Warhol is wittily called “Ladies and Gentlemen,” as each image depicts people who are both. Warhol recruited drag queens from a bar called the Gilded Grape and used them as models.

One of Warhol’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” is Marsha P. Johnson, the most famous participant in the Stonewall riots. The exhibit is accompanied by a 15-minute film, “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” starring Mya Taylor (“Tangerine”) and directed by Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel. The film hews more to fantasy than reality, telling a story about Johnson that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Still, it honors the spirit of the LGBT icon and fuels a sense of outrage at the police overreach that sparked the gay insurrection.

Other artists are David Wojnarowicz, Mark Morrisroe, Nan Goldin, Sage Sohier, Gail Thacker, Patti Smith, Peter Hujar, Conrad Ventur, Chris Verene, Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Jack Pierson, John O’Reilly, Tad Beckand Hartford native Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

‘Out on View’

Until Sept. 15, the same day the Stonewall photography exhibit closes, another exhibit will lure visitors interested in LGBT history. People will have to look around a bit for it, though.

Among the traditional white wall labels describing the artworks are some lavender wall labels. These mark artworks that are part of “Out on View,” a reinterpretation of artworks to tell stories of the LGBT roots of those chosen artworks and the gender-nonconforming lives of their creators.

“We want to show that [gay content] isn’t just a contemporary thing. Stories like Saint Sebastian and Callisto have engaged in queer content since antiquity,” Hickson says. “All artworks have so many layers to their stories. We wanted to bring this story to the forefront. It’s also a chance to reflect on the museum, what stories we chose to tell and not to tell.”

A few examples are:

  • A 1859 marble statue, “Zenobia in Chains” by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. The ancient Syrian queen who waged war against Rome reflects the American artist’s own defiance of gender roles. Seeking creative freedom, she moved to Rome, where she wore men’s clothes and slept with women.
  • Two 1917 Charles Demuth watercolors, “Eight O’Clock” (Evening) and “Eight O’Clock” (Morning) depict three men in various stages of undress, who clearly had spent the night.
  • “Down East Young Blades,” a 1940 oil on panel by Marsden Hartley, depicts three men in tight clothing, eyeing each other.
  • Paul Cadmus’ “Architect” shows a man at an office desk, as a naked man looks at him through the window.

Each lavender label has instructions to activate an audio tour with a cellphone. The audio tour’s narrator, gender and sexuality historian Andrew Lear, will appear at the Atheneum twice this summer to do the Out on View tour live.