Tainted Love


La MaMa, La Galleria, June 4 – June 28, 2009

Love is not about power. It is not about politics. It holds no stake in reason, activist articulation or abstraction—or at least that is what the literary romantics would have us believe. Love, in fact, is intimately connected to the above, its voice most powerfully manifest in its contribution to communal world-making and social reform.

Gran Fury, “RIOT,” 1988, oil on canvas; 8.5 × 8.5 feet. Installation detail at Tainted Love, La MaMa La Galleria, 2009. Courtesy The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, NY, NY. Photo by Adriana Farmiga.

On the evening of June 28, 1969, a riot broke out at the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn, one of the sole refuges at that time for the gay community in New York City. Largely viewed as the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement, these demonstrations would become a touchstone for the gay faction in America, giving birth to a number of organizations that would, at first, advocate for gay rights and later agitate against the AIDS epidemic. Forty years later, Tainted Love, curated by Steven Lam and Virginia Solomon, features works by a number of these organizations and collectives—among them General Idea, Gran Fury and fierce pussy—as well as individual artists intimately connected to the AIDS movement in some form. These artists, responding to the personal and communal devastation wrought by the epidemic, as well as the notion of love as a political animal, invoke the aesthetics of language, text, video, photography, and even the traditional platform of painting as activist signifiers.

As a whole, the show encompasses a range of emotions from rage to acceptance, sarcasm to sincerity, historical fact to imagined future. History, however, proves integral to the formation of the exhibition, which was essentially borne out of the dialogue between two projects: General Idea’s Imagevirus series (1989-91), a poster campaign that substituted LOVE in Robert Indiana’s iconic logo with AIDS, which was both a social commentary on the viral distribution of the disease and an indictment of its corporate neglect, and Gran Fury’s consequently enraged response—the impassioned 10’ x 10’ painting, RIOT (1988).

But while the painterly omnipotence of Gran Fury’s piece looms over the exhibition space in gestural hues of crimson, taupe and jet black, I am jolted by Luis Camnitzer’s Last Words (2008), arguably among the most emotionally charged images in the exhibition. Obtained from the public website for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the final words of executed death row inmates are, here, transcribed into a series of six life-size prints. Isolating phrases like, “Mommy I will be home when I get there. Forgive me. I love you all. I just want you to know that,” Camnitzer utilizes streaming quotations to emphasize the variegated politics implied in the word “love,” while provoking diverse responses of forgiveness, compassion, and culpability.

Also arresting in their textual eloquence are the wheat-pasted posters by the feminist art collective, fierce pussy. Their most recent project, titled Gutter, features pages of lesbian pulp novels that have been photocopied and enlarged, the text then partially obliterated to isolate specific passages that alter the original narrative. Installed in an alley outside the gallery, the group remains true to its public activist platform while offering poignant insights into the constitution of identity and desire. In stark contrast to Jenny Holzer’s recently displayed series of redacted government documents from the Iraq war, these measured constructions reveal the gap between imposed narratives and the freedom obtained through the creation of personal fictions. Along similar lines, Catherine Lord’s photographic reproductions of dedications from seminal feminist texts (here featuring Shulamith Firestone’s dedication to Simone de Beauvoir in her 1970 masterpiece, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution) have a commanding, if not minimalist beauty about them. Tenderly delineated in photographic precision, what the somber cursives of black text on ivory paper reveal is two-fold: first, the private espousal requisite of any successful creative work, and second, the literary threesome that constitutes all manners of readership—that undeniable (love?) triangle formed between author/devoter, reader, and devotee.

But seriousness does not hold complete sway over the works in Tainted Love. Charles Lum’s video series documents the multifarious aspects of queer and HIV-afflicted culture, encompassing everything from gay male S&M conferences to a Bill Clinton presidential address overlaid with AIDS references, while Ivan Monforte’s social sculpture features t-shirts that read, “I can’t ever imagine wanting to sleep with a white man.” These works’ complex relationship to the art world and hetero vs. homosexual populations add a dose of irony and performative edge to the otherwise static works of José Luis Cortés’s Times Square series and Matt Lipps’ racially charged photographs.

Finally, two light boxes feature photographs by the Los Angeles artist, Wu Ingrid Tsang, of the Westlake area of L.A. at dusk. Against a sunset sky are the cohabitating neon signs of the Silver Platter and Imprenta, both safe havens and artistic centers for L.A.’s transgendered community since the ‘60s. As Imprenta’s incomparable call-to-arms— “The fist is still up here!”—reflects off the abandoned street corner in electrically radiant shadows, I am reminded of my own city’s colorful past. What has become of New York’s former outsider spaces? Do they even exist anymore? Are they still necessary? While such locale-centric questions may not be answered by this exhibition, one thing is clear: this is a show of many worlds, poli-temporal in style and content, but uniformly devoted to a singular voice—that of the outsider’s longing to break through—to infiltrate and subvert accepted modes of cultural revolution, to be recognized, to make aware and most importantly, to be heard. On the fortieth anniversary of the riots that launched the LGBT world to action, Tainted Love proves, through a politics of passion, that we are that much closer to the realization of these urgently essential goals.

Contributor

Kara L. Rooney

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