The new exhibit at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a series of violent clashes between members of the Greenwich Village gay community and New York City police. The Stonewall riots, as they are also known, kicked off on June 28, 1969 and are recognized as a turning point in New York and American history.
As the gallery’s website explains, “Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989,” is the “first major exhibition to examine the impact on culture of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) liberation movement sparked fifty years ago...”
The exhibit at the Grey Art Gallery focuses primarily on the 1980s, while a companion exhibit at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art concentrates on the 1970s. The show, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, and curated by Jonathan Weinberg, Tyler Cann, and Drew Sawyer, features three distinct themes: Things Are Queer; AIDS and Activism; and We’re Here!
Challenging Traditional NotionsThings Are Queer “explores how the concept of queerness was developed as a way to resist categorizing people as straight or gay, female or male.” The section includes works by Diana Davies, Greer Lankton, Rink Foto and Arch Connelly. In Lankton’s “Ellen and Freddie,” two exotic-looking, gender-elusive dolls sit side-by-side on an upholstered armchair. The card describing the piece succinctly summarizes the main point of the Things Are Queer section, noting that the dolls “challenge traditional notions of beauty and gender.” Also in the section is the June 1989 issue of Homocore, the short-lived San Francisco magazine (1988-1991), with performance artist Jerome Caja on the cover, his skinny torso wrapped in belts.
AIDS and Activism portrays the struggles of people whose lives were devastated by the AIDS epidemic, which had a major impact on a number of the artists featured in the exhibit. As the gallery explains, the artists of the 1980s “raised public awareness about HIV/AIDS through propaganda campaigns and public interventions.” Notable works here include Act Up posters and t-shirts with the famous SILENCE = DEATH slogan and iconic pink triangle splashed across them, and Adam Rolston’s crack-and-peel stickers proudly displaying the phrase “I am Out, therefore I am.”
Get Used to ItWe’re Here! describes how, by the end of the 1980s, the LGBTQ presence had spread throughout the United States. The name is derived from the well-known slogan “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!”, which was chanted at demonstrations and LGBTQ rights event in the 1980s. This section is the largest of the three at Grey, with space in the main gallery and additional space dedicated to it in the lower level. Works on display include an excerpt from the White Face series by Lyle Ashton Harris, which explores the “contradictions of black queer identity in Reagan-era America.” Also on display is Marlene McCarty’s “Love, AIDS, Riot,” a variation (on canvas) of Robert Indiana’s famous “Love” sculpture that substitutes the word F*** for the word Love.
In addition to LGBTQ artists Scott Burton, Vaginal Davis, Catherine Opie, Andy Warhol and others, the exhibit features work by “straight-identified” artists like Alice Neel, Kiki Smith and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who engaged “with the newly emerging queer subculture” and addressed the struggles of their LGBTQ peers.
As the gallery notes in its material about the exhibit, NYU faculty, staff and students have played important roles in “queer activism and the formulation of queer theory.” It seems natural that the Grey Art Gallery, just blocks from the site of the historic Stonewall events, is one of the settings for this important show.
Beyond BoundariesFor this member of the NYU class of 2020, the exhibit at the Grey was the first time I experienced LGBTQ art up close. Coming from a relatively conservative society, South Korea, I never had the chance to explore art created by openly queer artists. Even if I had, I doubt I would have given it much thought in the setting of Korea, where LGBTQ rights are slowly increasing, but still take a back seat compared with other issues.
But “Art After Stonewall” has done a number on me. Studying the art more closely, looking at pictures and sculptures that I might otherwise have passed by, I began to decipher more intricate messages within. The struggles that these artists had to endure, the lengths they went to in order to get their work out, the pure freedom that they exercised when making this art. was palpable. Creating art gave them an outlet and a voice to portray their personal experience as freely as they could, with no boundaries whatsoever. The limitations society put on them did not apply in the world of art. It was their world, they made it, and someday the outside world would recognize it.