Before this week, I hadn’t been inside the Portland Art Museum building in over a year. My hiatus began after going in to see a just-opened photography exhibition. I looked at nearly half the gallery and became convinced that I had seen the show before. I walked to the entrance and verified that the name on the wall had indeed changed, but the sense of deja vu was so strong that, right there in the gallery, I pulled out my phone to verify the details. The two shows, the one in my memory and the one I was standing in, felt the same. Not similar, but selfsame, as in exactly the same sequence of images that was there before, as in nothing ever changes in this fucking place. This is just a long way of saying that I missed the first three installments of Libby Werbel’s exhibition cycle, We. Build. Marvels. Between. Monuments. This is a series of five separate shows organized by Werbel (with support from Sara Krajewski, Grace Kook-Anderson, and Stephanie Parrish) installed in the museum between November 2017 and December 2018 which, per the museum website, “intends to build a bridge between Portland’s independent artist-run spaces, activists, and the city’s established institution.” Between. divides the fourth floor of the Jubitz center into two distinct spaces. On one side is an installation and video program curated by Chris E. Vargas that is a part of his project, The Museum of Trans Hirstory & Art (MOTHA), while the remaining space is devoted to what is possibly a portraiture show, but definitely focused on queer identity politics and featuring the work of Vaginal Davis, Zanele Muholi, Christina Quarles, Jordan Reznick, Jacolby Satterwhite and Vivek Shraya.
My first encounter with MOTHA was a humorous performance designed as a fundraising pitch and delivered to a rag tag group of artists. In the performance, Vargas asked for embarrassingly large sums of money to build an elaborate physical plant for MOTHA. The presentation was not what one would call polished, while the character Vargas presented embraced a business-like jargon that played uncomfortably against the naive delivery. Vargas even tried to dress the part of professional fundraiser which, as with all aspects of this performance, did not pass. The work seemed to acknowledge futility, that the people who would most make use of a space such as MOTHA are the least able to make it a reality; the least socially assimilable gain the least from visibility politics. The work used the specter of museum fundraising as a device for critique. I was interested to see how MOTHA would manifest at PAM.
Vargas provided another critique of visibility politics, with Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects: Transvideo Store. The walls of the room were covered with broadsheets, pasted floor to ceiling, covering the darkened room housing the video program Vargas curated for the exhibition. The sheets display gridded reproductions of drawings depicting posters of movies that contain some representation of a transperson. Since there are only three sheets, the list of movies repeats again and again throughout the room. The initial read might be that the repetition of movie titles shows how little trans representation there is in cinema, instead, I think Vargas might mean that representation itself is never enough. The posters, which are available as free takeaways, seemed to offer an exhaustive collection of trans representation in cinema, from the more sympathetic Transamerica, to the serial killer stereotype of Sleep Away Camp. Visibility politics traditionally focus on the positive, positing a minority group as socially viable, yet Vargas seems interested in the breadth of representation, accepting the bad along with the good. The project becomes a tactical fetishization of representation; Vargas uses the conceit of the video store to embrace visibility politics in the broadest terms, as a way of placing its weakness on display. When acceptance is gained on the lines of visibility, those who appear the most socially acceptable have an outsize advantage and can transform a movement to meet their more narrow needs while doing nothing for those who struggle the most. This is the story of the Gay Rights Movement, whose recent achievements involve tax law and marriage equality, while employment and housing discrimination languish on the sidelines.
The videos are irreverent, and sometimes even sexually graphic, which is only worth mention because PAM is such a staid venue. After all, if the museum has any identity at all, it is one of ineptness and pandering earned with traveling shows of cars—which you can currently see in another part of the building—and traveling shows of European artifacts for that perfect transatlantic staycation. A slip of dick, a frank mention of gloryhole sex, a cum shot—this is not the Portland Art Museum I’ve come to, well, ignore.
The video program is lengthy, approaching two hours in total, and the titles run sequentially, so there’s no skipping about. If you want to see it all, prepare to spend some time in the gallery. Vargas’s grouping of three consecutive slow burns: Erica Cho’s Golden Golden, eduardo restrepo castaño’s la llamada and Zackary Drucker’s and Rhys Ernst’s She Gone Rogue, each using some manner of surrealist device to explore a personal journey, seemed a bit indulgent within the already lengthy program. The pithy, sex drenched storytelling of Malic Malya’s FlyHole, and the Dionysian school fantasy of Cary Cronenwett’s Phineas Slipped provided enjoyably transgressive takes on the tired genre of coming of age stories. The unabashed camp of Josef Kraska’s Pool Day Act 1&2 Peppré Ann & Froends perfectly treaded the line between mind boggling and mind numbing. The frenetic pace, relentlessly vibrant color schemes, intentional iPhone-inspired misspellings and bubblegum beats leading to a trans utopian poolside Bar-B-Q were ultimately heartwarming in their light-hearted optimism.
After nearly two hours in semidarkness, emerging into the bright light of Between.’s second half is a bit disorienting. The MOTHA installation is bridged to the rest of the show with a selection of portraits of queer people by Jordan Reznick, from the series Queer Babes, that fill a space that’s a bit more walkway than gallery. The portraits are printed close to life size, neither intimate nor confrontational in scale, and the resolution is such that every blemish is revealed. Its probably as close to standing next to these people as the photographic medium allows. The models seem comfortable, dignified, while their gaze acknowledges the camera for portraits of queer people that are ultimately rather conventional. In the world of photography, there is a longstanding dialog about photographing communities, preserving images of people within what becomes a topological framework. But this is one of the reasons photography still hasn’t found complete acceptance in the art world: while art chases the new, photography resists it. Portraiture might exist as an important document within a community, but how important is it that those images are shared with a wider audience? Why is frontality the language of identity; is difference really only skin deep? With works such as this, are we being asked to side with the politics of the work without asking how they contribute to the wider aesthetic field?
The role of frontality in an exhibition such as Between. is ultimately reactionary. It posits the role of queer people as things to be examined, rather than full art world participants capable of fascinating material explorations. These images certainly meet the technical standards of “good” photography, but they exist within a long-established genre. They aren’t pushing the medium to any new reach, as there are easily dozens of people making similar documents of similar communities; I recently met with a graduate student who had a body of work similar in both content and quality; it is the proliferation of such work that undercuts any claim to subversion. These portraits are not manipulating a traditional form so much as traditio appears as an unchallenged assumption, a craving for acceptance. The damage of including work that presents politics over innovation is that it reinforces a feeling that queer people (and women and people of color when they are called upon to lend their visage) only belong in museums when they are explaining theirselves, speaking in pro forma academic dialogs, providing emotional labor to edify a museum audience instead of being full participants in defining the field of art. This work maintain’s a two tiered system in which minorities provide their stories and their bodies, while ultimately being excluded from the larger spectrum of artistic thought. Separate is definitely unequal.
At the edge of the second gallery, yet still in the corridor, hangs a number of small modernist-seeming portraits, painted by the notorious provocateur, Vaginal Davis, using women’s cosmetics. While the work is fanciful, it is also uncharacteristically tame and too beholden to easy interpretation–the use of cosmetics to both blur and invigilate gender boundaries. Got it. But I got it back in the ‘90s. Dr. Davis has also made abstract, wall mounted, relief paintings with the same beauty products. Displaying this other work could have engaged the same material questions–even the same identity questions, without affirming the impression that queer artists can only speak about the body, adding an additional dimension to the exhibition. The portraits on display seem specifically chosen to deflect the more than thirty years of truly radical politics and profound outlandishness that Dr. Davis is known for: the post-literacy movement, frontwoman for multiple punk bands, face of public access cable programming and performance art pioneer. To have a show with an ostensibly radical agenda offering such a sanitized look at one of the most irrepressible voices in radical queer thought is simply a crime of curation.
Inside the main chamber of the second half of the exhibition hangs Vivek Shraya’s Trisha which suffers from earnestness without innovation. While the narrative is touching and one cannot argue the honesty of the sentiment, how many times have we seen somebody reenacting a photograph relating to a personal or cultural trauma? It is a sister genre to men posing as the women depicted in advertising images to show how ridiculous, and by extension sexist, the poses are. It’s intellectually akin to the cottage industry of artists dressing up to recreate Cindy Sherman photographs, the type of work made by students working through personal issues, pieces that will be forgotten long before the student ever finds her footing. Shraya uses a familiar device to elicit a specific emotion from a specific audience. That’s every bit the definition of kitsch. It’s operation is, effectively, no different than the car show in the museum’s main gallery, it just panders to a different audience. If you look at the work as politics, the personal is infallible, but as art it’s rather lacking.
It seems an odd choice to have a two-hour video program in one one room and another video playing in the other. There was definitely a clash of sounds. When sitting in the MOTHA installation, the music from Jacolby Satterwhite’s video, Blessed Avenue, seemed to nag at me, letting me know that as I was concentrating on the artwork, I was also missing out on something else.
My understanding of museum etiquette is that if seating is provided, one is expected to relax and watch the whole video. If there is no bench, the video is designed to be viewed in passing. Blessed Avenue played on a flatscreen TV installed at normal viewing height, and there was no place to sit, so I did not watch the full video. The portion that I saw depicted an architectural construct that seemed to reference the man-factory of Madonna’s Express Yourself video, while also featuring dancers voguing, a dance that Madonna famously appropriated, and yes, somewhere in this video is supposed to be Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes. The video screams fantasy, but the digital aesthetic reinforces how limited fantasy actually is. The digital dungeon is filled with both African-American and caucasian leather men with nearly identical physiques, cracking corny digital representations of whips or ensnared by equally goofy looking chains. The digital space seems to want to evoke a dark fantasy of disused industrial space, though the colors, apparently chosen to reflect purple eyeshadow and dark skin, come across as more muddy than moody–the reference is there if you know to look for it, but the video provides no sensation approaching the warmth and suppleness of skin, There is no aha moment of linking the space of the video to the body of the artist. The models are such standard types, that, within the video game aesthetic and cheesy paraphernalia, chiseled abs resist any erotic charge at all. The video employs the specter of taboo, but brings with it no real surprises: the post-AIDS body–clean shaven and gym toned—isn’t terribly interesting. The piece seems to want to speak of desire but goes no deeper than glossy soft-core. Satterwhite approaches S&M on the most mundane terms; there aren’t any real kinks to speak of. The visual effects overwhelm while also seeming superfluous. Ultimately, the digital artifice can’t redeem thoughts that are so utterly conventional.
The bright spot in this section of the show is the paintings of Christina Quarles, which are distributed among other artist’s work and never seem to have a place of their own. Quarles looks at the body, but as something abstract, dissolving into patterned elements within the picture plane, or abstracted to an extent that it takes a few seconds to find the traces of the figure–a shape that looks something like how fingers might be represented extending from an area of abstract brushwork. The unceremonious hanging of these paintings seems like an afterthought within the exhibition, yet they create a sort of conceptual conclusion, a liberation from the oppression of visibility politics–something the curator is clearly not willing to concede. While Quarles work does depict the body, it eschews the assumption that queer persons are only welcome when they are performing within an institutionally sanctioned dialog. Quarles paintings could have guided the thesis statement for a more important exhibition, instead they are treated as filler.
I don’t know how to reconcile the boldness and crystalline politic of Vargas’s MOTHA installation with the bland politic and turbid curation of the rest of the show, it’s almost as if Werble didn’t know what to expect in bringing Vargas on board. It’s hard to understand how a curator receiving support from two other curators and an education department could have such an acritical eye, but the mess seems to begin with the statement and spiral outward from there. The curator’s stated intention is: “This exhibition aims to queer the curatorial process…” How is this? Academically, queering has long been understood as a type of analysis that finds overlooked traces of queerness within ostensibly heterosexual histories. That’s not whats happening here. More recently, queering has come to refer to applying the terms of queerness to an established line of thought to destabilize an existing cultural meaning, but that’s not what’s happening here either. “Queering the curatorial process” is vastly different than curating a show of queer artists.
Similarly, the show “highlights artists working within the queer and trans diaspora.” That sounds heady as fuck, but what is it actually saying? Contemporary diaspora theory is largely about the access to mobility and the neoliberal penchant for questioning borders. This is not the diaspora of Jewish exile, rather it’s often a matter of affluence. A queer diaspora is not necessarily about fear and escape, but can just as easily be about the lure of new experience. For example, when Vaginal Davis left Los Angeles for Berlin, it wasn’t because the Romans destroyed her temple and forced her on her way. Other than to elicit pity, why use such compelling language if one isn’t going to make something of it within the exhibition itself? And therein lies the problem, Libby Werbel, aided by Sara Krajewski, Grace Kook-Anderson and Stephanie Parrish, never questioned the terms of their own show. Between. seems to have never been conceptualized beyond having some sort of something to do with queerness. The curators recognize the horror people feel from current political events and instead of showing the triumph of queer artists as equals in their field, they provide an antiquated, academic and largely superficial response. And that, my friends, is pandering.
This article has been changed from it’s original version. Chris E. Vargas was incorrectly gendered as “her.” Try Harder PDX apologizes to Mr. Vargas for this error, which was accidental.