When I visited Los Angeles this past June, the city was having a queer moment, one anchored by history. Drawing from their 2011 joint acquisition of almost 2,000 artworks by Robert Mapplethorpe, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged a two-part retrospective of the photographer’s work. Also at LACMA was Catherine Opie’s “O Portfolio” of the late 1990s, and at JOAN there was Aura Rosenberg’s “Head Shots” from the same decade. Bringing things into the present, but focused on exploring the recent past, was the freewheeling Queer Biennial II at various venues but with its opening and main group show at Industry Gallery DTLA in downtown.
Is there a more affecting icon of the AIDS era than Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 Self-Portrait? He faces us, emaciated, gripping a cane with a skull for a handle. He would die of AIDS-related complications the year after he made the picture, which hung in the Getty’s presentation of “The Perfect Medium.” The show, curated by Paul Marineau for the Getty and by Britt Salvesen for LACMA, offered an exhaustive look at Mapplethorpe’s career.
At both venues were his flower photos and studio portraits (including, at the Getty, the fascinating 1978 vertical polyptych Downtown Art Dealers, a who’s who of the period’s top gallerists). These ranged from the heartstoppingly beautiful to the merely decorative.
A surprise in LACMA’s at times haphazard exhibition were Mapplethorpe’s early works, including his first experiments with photography as well as an altar from 1970 that harked back to the artist’s Roman Catholic upbringing. The piece incorporates, among other things, fur, fabric, a lampshade, a hammer, a Jesus figurine, and holy water, and brought to mind memento mori and the Mexican and Chicano altars for Día de los Muertos.
Both shows also featured Mapplethorpe’s nudes, including those that aestheticize (some would say fetishize) the black male body and that to this day remain a point of contention in discussions of his legacy.
The standout of the two exhibitions, Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio”—images of homosexual sadomasochistic sex—was shown in full at the Getty. In the “X” photos, Mapplethorpe merged graphic content with classicism, the latter influenced by his partner and patron Sam Wagstaff’s collection of early photography. On view nearby, a sampling of Wagstaff’s holdings, now residing permanently at the Getty, provided welcome context.
For many years, Mapplethorpe and his “X Portfolio” were synonymous with the controversy it caused. In 1990, at the height of the so-called culture wars, Hamilton County prosecutors charged the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its then director Dennis Barrie with obscenity for showing the photos. The previous year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had canceled a retrospective of the artist’s work, which also included a selection of images from the “X Portfolio,” for fear of losing its funding. (The now defunct institution’s reputation never fully recovered.) Today, however, these scenes of fisting, urine drinking, and other S&M acts are less shocking for what some may perceive as their depravity than they are for their extraordinary intimacy, and their testing of what pleasure can be.
The “X Portfolio” has been influential, and in at least one case that influence was direct: in 1999 Catherine Opie, then immersed in San Francisco’s bondage community, made a series of photogravures in response to the “X” pictures, which she has credited with having a liberating effect on her. Her “O Portfolio,” which is rarely exhibited, was not shown to its best advantage at LACMA, where it was tucked into a hallway between the photography department’s offices and the museum’s Ancient World Galleries. Seven close-ups of bondage scenes, these images require using one’s imagination to complete the picture, and a poorly lit hallway wasn’t the best place in which to do this.
Completing the picture was something one couldn’t help but do at JOAN, where the 61 gelatin silver prints that comprise Aura Rosenberg’s “Head Shots” series (1991–96) were shown in a single line wrapping around the gallery’s walls. As the title suggests, these are close-ups of men’s faces at the moment they achieved orgasm. Artist Mike Kelley, one of Rosenberg’s subjects, got the joke. In a 1995 fax to Rosenberg, displayed with other ephemera related to the series, he wrote, “And because these are head shots, and not cum shots, we fellows finally have the choice, like the ladies, of faking orgasm. Only the photographer knows for sure. Aura, I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.”
But there is also a very serious side to the project, argue the exhibition’s curators, JOAN cofounder Rebecca Matalon and artist Adam Marnie. In a text accompanying the show, they argue that if the AIDS crisis, which was at its peak during the six years Rosenberg worked on the series, “is not a subject of the work, it is an implicit and important cultural and historical lens through which to consider a series of photographs depicting the sexualized male body as a site of pleasure.”
The AIDS crisis remains a key subject in contemporary art, as young artists deal with its devastating effects on the queer community. Held in the run-up to L.A.’s Pride celebrations, the second iteration of the Queer Biennial, titled “Yooth: Loss and Found,” took HIV/AIDS, both past and present, as its point of departure. A mournful ink-jet print on canvas by Chicano artist Miguel Angel Reyes entitled Remember Me (1998–2016), for example, showed the bust of a muscular man, his shoulders and chest in focus, but his face blurred, as if partly erased.
Curated by a team of nine under the direction of the Biennial’s founder, Rubén Esparza, the show brought together a largely European and American slate of artists, most of them not well known. Included were older ones who had survived the AIDS era and younger ones who came up after the advent of antiretroviral therapy.
The opening night was raucous, filled with art and performances that toed the line between elegy and eros. The show was thoroughly, even defiantly queer, as was the crowd.
Four cute ceramic works by Canadian duo Pansy Ass Ceramics (Andy Walker and Kris Aaron), portrayed images of heroes of the epidemic’s early years: activists Vito Russo (who died in 1990) and Larry Kramer, and the late artists David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring, both of whom died of AIDS-related complications in the early 1990s. A mirror piece by Greg Firlotte, titled Things I Can Only Say in a Mirror Part I (2016), was emblazoned with the words I WANT TO FUCK YOU SO BADLY THAT I CAN ALMOST TASTE IT. The work’s bald expression of desire was echoed throughout the Biennial, no more so than in Jannis Birsner and Matt Lambert’s VITIUM (2016), a collage of black-and-white photographs of men performing various eyebrow-raising sexual acts, and Ross Bleckner’s Dick, a group of close-up color photographs of penises from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, unframed and tacked to the wall (and, yes, I got cruised while looking at them).
Throughout, artworks asked viewers to reflect on the challenges that members of the LGBTQ community—and especially trans people of color—continue to face. Seated at a small table and wearing a white lace dress with a nude corset, Daphne Von Rey, a trans, HIV-positive performance artist, presented a new work, Marché Aux Fleurs. Viewers were invited to take a white rose from a vase containing water mixed with Von Rey’s blood; few did, however, a reminder of the stigma still attached to one’s HIV status in many communities. A mirror work by JT Bruns, displayed on the floor and broken during the opening, directed viewers to ALWAYS LOOK BACK.
Over the course of the evening, two performers, Valerie Reding and Ivan Monteiro, walked around wearing skirts embellished with inflated black condoms. Audience members were encouraged to pop a condom with a needle and then write something with a marker anywhere on the artists’ bodies. At a time of declining condom use among gay men in the United States, with a consequent uptick in new HIV transmissions, the performance served as a sobering reminder that AIDS, while no longer a death sentence in the U.S., is still among us.
Amy Von Harrington and Jaye Fishel’s performance and installation, The Holes of Your Memory (2016), provided some comic relief, and some solace. Dressed in neon-colored full body suits, the artists beckoned visitors to lie down with them on a mattress decorated to appear like a vagina. There, one could lounge and take part in a vaguely sexualized version of 1970s attachment therapy—comfort through cuddling.
In the early hours of Sunday, June 12, a few days after my return to New York from L.A., a man armed with two legally purchased semi-automatic weapons killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. A Twitter story in response to the massacre by @fuzzlaw, a self-described “aging dyke,” read in part: “But we were winning. Then, Pulse. 50 dead. 50 wounded [. . .] Kids. [. . .] For us, this violence is…not unexpected. We know it’s possible. We’ve seen it. But you all…dammit, you’ve never had to worry about it, not collectively. We never wanted this for you. We thought we had protected you.”
There are days when it feels as though the world is making progress. Then there are days when everything goes to hell.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 154 under the title “Around Los Angeles.”