A question kept arising as I made the rounds of “Classes in Optical Art,” Joe Mama-Nitzberg’s show at Grant Wahlquist Gallery: Will this work be relevant in 100 years, even within the canon of queer art?
Absent a crystal ball, I don’t have an answer. But one is not necessary in order to glean meaning from, and appreciation for, the exhibition (through Oct. 16). Still, there is something about these works’ specificity that keeps the inquiry rattling around in my brain.
Prior to the Stonewall riots of 1969 – generally acknowledged as the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement – queer art was a largely coded affair. Critics have pointed to Robert Rauschenberg’s use of Judy Garland’s image in his 1955 work “Bantam” as a veiled reference to his sexuality. In Jonathan D. Katz’s essay “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction,” the author posits that themes of “bifurcation, inversion, surface and depth” in Martin’s “Night Sea” of 1963 “manifest as a form of queer self-realization.”
In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS became a lightning rod for queer art, transforming it into a genre of in-your-face sexuality and activist outrage. Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, among others, pioneered the new frankness, igniting considerable controversy along the way.
Though Mama-Nitzberg’s works were made this year, their visual language occupies a liminal space between Stonewall and AIDS. They concern themselves with a certain gay cultural identity some might find dated today: a reverence for torch song divas like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. The voyeuristic fascination – perhaps even identification – with the boozy, pill-popping self-destructiveness that accompanied fame and wealth in the disco days, particularly as personified by tragic songstresses and by celebutantes like Edie Sedgwick and Brenda Frazier.
Other component parts of that identity included the insistently upbeat garishness of Pop colors and fashions of the era, a preoccupation with the glittery life of the theater and, of course, the narcissistic worship of the male body and anonymous sex.
Elements of all these are present in Mama-Nitzberg’s works to some degree or another. Yet the artist borrows various devices, most notably from John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger, to comment on the ephemerality of that identity – both its validity in the trajectory of history (specifically gay history) and in the accuracy of our recollection of that identity as springing from a more innocent, idyllic time.
Two self-portraits challenge the latter illusion directly. “Emotional/Personal/Historical (Self-Portrait Mid 70s)” is a double image. Similar to Kruger’s work, one half is the positive and the other the negative of the image, summoning the idea of bifurcation Katz attributes to Agnes Martin’s work – partially out, partially still closeted. Split between them are the words of Svetlana Boym from her book “The Future of Nostalgia:” “In the emotional topography of memory, personal and historical events tend to be conflated.”
In another double image, “Total Recall (Self-Portrait Late 60s),” Mama-Nitzberg holds a sign bearing the admonition “Only false memory can be totally recalled!” Another more subtle work, “Untitled (Quotation)” – also a double image, coincidentally, of someone I happen to know – suspends this portrait of a young man in his naked prime within quotation marks, as if to point up the fleeting nature of youth and beauty.
The quotation marks also evoke Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp”: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, it’s a ‘lamp’; it’s not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ ” And, further, her assertion that “Camp is the difference between the thing as meaning something – anything – and the thing as pure artifice.” What is the currency of that cultural identity at this point, it seems to ask, and what is our continued investment in it about?
Arguably, Baldessari’s most famous works employed the colorful dot stickers ubiquitous at garage and tag sales. He has said that these common objects “leveled the playing field.” Mama-Nitzberg, like Baldessari, employs them in this same service, rendering the famous inseparable from the anonymous, and raising questions about why we value one over the other.
In “They had had,” the dots appear on the faces of two men represented in mirror-image. They are dressed only in underwear and appear to be in a dressing room of sorts, holding ambiguous objects that could be miniature hair dryers or something more suggestively sexual. The work at once calls to mind a backstage scene and, also, the anonymous sex taking place in the bathhouses of 1970s New York.
The mixture of excitement and transgression of the bathhouse milieu is captured in another set of dots along the bottom that articulate a quote: “They had had joys just as they had had fears.” The use of the past perfect tense also seems to forebode the AIDS crisis to which this promiscuity opened the doors and, also, to suggest we are witnessing a bygone phenomenon.
It should be noted that several of these works – “They had had” and “Untitled (Quotation)” included – use images appropriated from After Dark, a performing arts-centric magazine of the ’70s that Daniel Harris, author of “The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture,” described as “an audacious mass-market experiment in gay eroticism.” Its editorial emphasis on theater and beautiful male bodies personified that very specific gay cultural identity, effectively reeling in, at its zenith, 300,000 readers “composed almost exclusively of gay men,” according to Harris.
Mama-Nitzberg uses these images, in part, as a remembrance of the many men who worked as waiters or bartenders while pursuing glamorous careers in the theater, some never rising above C-list status, others lost to AIDS.
By deploying words or symbols in the colored dots, the device also transcends Baldessari’s intention to equalize the rich and famous, offering other considerations for the viewer to take into account. Garland and Streisand sport dots on their faces in “Queer Theory,” Judy’s framing a cross and Barbra’s a Jewish star. Is this meant to evoke the historical marginalization of other groups? A prohibition of both religions on homosexuality? It’s unclear.
The loud Pop colors, graphics and hand-painted frames all convey a sense of the time as well. Yet their sunniness also serves to contrast the darker realities of the epoch. “Might Delete Later” is the most somber work in the show and, again like Kruger, employs images and words. “Might” is emblazoned on a bedside image of the socialite Brenda Frazier, who battled bulimia, anorexia and addiction, and racked up over 30 attempted suicides.
“Delete” appears on a picture of a recently deceased Marcel Proust, a literary figure unreconciled to his homosexuality. It recalls Wojnarowicz’s photos of his lover, the artist Peter Hujar, moments after dying from AIDS. And “Later” is superimposed on a picture by Félix González Torres of the rumpled sheets of his empty bed. Part of a set of billboard installations he did before also dying of AIDS, its sense of a vanished earthly presence provides the coda for “Classes.”
The work seems to emanate the same question that nagged at me throughout the show. Aside from poignantly evoking the insubstantiality and impermanence of any kind of identity, it also makes us wonder who this art will speak to in the future.
Do young gay men care about Judy and Barbra and Liza? Or are they too smitten with Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus to remember? Will the trajectory of broader historical events like transgender acceptance and nonbinary sexuality sideline this era, and art about it, as obsolete? Will our awareness of other pernicious, ongoing oppressions – of Black people, of Asian-Americans – relegate this art to yet another example of something that affected mainly privileged white men?
The show raises all these inquiries, and all are worth pondering for what they say about more fundamental truths of reality and existence – of what matters in the end.
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]