Camp: Notes on Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
(Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hilty)

Two serious shows that touch on deep human issues.

Last week, I deployed cute and cuddly dogs to grab summer readership. For this week, I promised sex. Personally, I think nerdiness is a tried and true aphrodisiac. I hope you agree.

Only kidding. Sex and glamour are on the menu. The Stonewall riot 50 years ago is seen to have triggered the gay rights movement. Be Seen: Portrait Photography Since Stonewall is the Wadsworth Atheneum’s smart, focused story of portraiture’s challenge to sexual norms since the riot. It starts at a time and place. The clash between patrons of a dive gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and police on June 28, 1969, was buried inside the New York Times but was the instant talk of New York’s big gay population, a disparate but cohesive community. That moment became a milestone.

“Stonewall” was more than a melee. Goodness knows, the late Sixties served enough of them, and New Yorkers were unusually agitated: about race, garbage strikes, and, oh, the bankruptcy around the corner. The Stonewall riot was an effort to be seen. Resistance — pushback after years of petty police harassment — was a way to shout “look at me,” or, more precisely, “I’m human . . . I’m unique . . . I demand respect.” The portraits in the show, by 27 gay artists, all done after 1969, each present a nuanced story about gay identity or the fluidity of what it means to be male or female. The art’s good, mostly drawn from the Wadsworth Atheneum’s permanent collection.

Camp: Notes on Fashion is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show on the Camp aesthetic’s contributions — and challenges — to beauty and taste. It’s the Costume Institute’s now-annual blockbuster and as exuberant in look and scope as its subject. The catalogue is wonderful. I don’t think its makers want anyone to think of it as one of the many Stonewall commemorative shows, but it is. It doesn’t consider Stonewall at all. On its surface, it’s a fashion show, almost all high-end, sponsored by Gucci and featuring brilliant work by Dior, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and many others. With 250 objects, flamboyant clothes, Pre-Raphaelite painting, Busby Berkeley, Tiffany lamps, disco, Marlene Dietrich, and lots of horny sailors, it’s mesmerizing. It’s also both a high-culture show and a popular-culture show. It’s a gay-history show, too. Stonewall pushed gay people out of the closet and into the fight for civil rights. It helped make Camp mainstream, too.

The two exhibitions are very different. Be Seen is a traditional art-history show, and almost all photographs and prints. It’s elegant and serious, and it rewards close looking. From beginning to end, it’s about outsiders, almost. It’s the “almost” that links it with Notes on Camp, which wanders back and forth between insider and outsider art — it’s a big, omnivorous, dazzling show — but it’s mostly about mainstreaming. The big crowd there when I saw the show was a broad cross-section of America, or at least New York’s summer tourist crowd. Everyone seemed to love its fun spirit, glitter, and fancy clothes. Audubon never saw so many feathers.

That the Met is doing a big Camp show, as part of its anchor fundraiser, no less, shows that Camp is more than cool. As crazy as this sounds, it’s conservative, embracing customs and traditions we want to keep. Yes, they’re both about gay culture. Both also concern the gradual assimilation of gay culture into the broader culture, making the broader culture stronger and better. “Melting pot” has become a dreaded, triggering term. We’re supposed to be salad bowls, tribal, and identity-obsessed. Ha, ha, the Met and the Wadsworth Atheneum have done melting-pot shows.

“Notes on Camp” has a rigorous intellectual anchor. Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” invested the messy concept of Camp, now part of high culture and middling culture but once both a slummy and a slumming phenomenon, with academic bones. “The essence of Camp,” she wrote, “is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.” It dethrones the serious and moralistic, smothering them in playfulness and, often, Olympic-scale vulgarity. Sontag dedicated her essay to Oscar Wilde, who blended the can’t-look-away élan of Beau Brummel, the flounce and bounce of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Irish wit to create many fine plays but also a persona that Victorian dictionaries called “the homosexual-as-type.”

Sontag’s essay is worth reading. It was a staple of American modern-art classes when I was in graduate school 39 years ago. It’s still quite good and fresh. It’s about 60 very short observations, or jottings, each a few lines, so it’s succinct. It’s also 55 years old. It’s about time the Met did a show on Camp.

The Wadsworth Atheneum show starts locally. A giant wall mural at its entrance depicts Hartford’s first Gay Pride march in 1982. It’s a study in fashion as well as many other things. The Stonewall riot was an uprising of mostly drag queens and working-class guys, white, black, and Latino, tossed from their towns and families when they said they were gay. They came to New York, the city that’ll accept everyone with unique magnanimity.

Greenwich Village then was a seedy neighborhood. The Stonewall Inn was grungy. “Gay” wasn’t a term most people knew, and what we think now are ugly, insulting names were the lingua franca. These were people at the margins. The marchers in Hartford in 1982 were middle-class, nicely dressed, high spirited, mostly young, white men and women. “Be Seen” subjects and themes are often as quotidian as those of “Notes on Camp” are fabulous. The Met show has lots of frivolity at odds with the serious, rich scholarship the book develops and parts of the show itself offers.

For most gay people in the early 1980s, AIDS shoved them out of the closet. It was something different from fury at police harassment on a hot summer night in 1969, the night, by the way, of Camp icon Judy Garland’s wake in Manhattan. AIDS was, for gay men, the equal-opportunity, indiscriminate sandwich board and more than a scuffle with the cops. It killed. It touched every town and class, families everywhere, and was both a national story and betrayer of a million secrets. Suddenly, being gay was on the network news every night.

The first work of art in the show is David Wojnarowicz’s One Day This Kid from 1990. Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) came to New York as a middle-class kid, gay and dysfunctional, was initially a hustler and homeless in the 1970s before becoming an artist and dying of AIDS. It’s a self-portrait of the young Wojnarowicz, with the toothy grin, neatly combed hair, and funky shirt of the ubiquitous, innocent, sweet Baby Boomer boy. The autobiographical text records the “electro-shock, drug, and conditioning therapies” he experienced and “the loss of home, civil rights, jobs, and all conceivable freedoms” because the boy eventually “discovers his desires to put his naked body next to the naked body of another boy.” Wojnarowicz’s work is personal and intense, and these are Camp ingredients, but it’s also angry. His art is visual, but images are often combined with words. Camp’s not wordy. It’s usually decorative. It’s ironic, not sad. Camp’s not visceral. When it’s overwrought, it’s tongue-in-cheek.

I loved the show. There’s great work by Mark Morrisroe (1959–1989), another superb artist who died of AIDS. Nan Goldin’s Jimmy Paulette and Taboo came to the Wadsworth Atheneum as a gift stimulated by the show as it was planned. That the show is local is another very smart aspect. The curators are using the permanent collection in an exciting way, and this makes people want to give art when they know it’s going to be seen. The museum is certainly distinguished, with fine curators, a great collection, and shows that always look good.

Be Seen is well organized into sections on community, Andy Warhol and his legacy, performing identity, and the ways gay artists mined old standards from art history. Goldin’s, Morrisroe’s, and Catherine Opie’s work are scenes of everyday life at home — these communities are less Leave It to Beaver and more Rent — and nervy, strong formal portraits. They’re real people, not stereotypes, another reminder that “to be seen” means “I am unique” in a way that I find genuine and gracious, as human dignity always is. Sontag’s essay on Camp describes what could be the essence of Be Seen. The subjects and artists have character. Camp loves extremes and exuberance because it fashions the individual as “one very intense thing,” what she calls “a state of continual incandescence.”

“Reclaiming Art History,” the last section of the show, goes from strength to strength. Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Tad Beck have striking, layered work on view. Beck reinterprets Thomas Eakins’s male nude photographs in the cleverest way. Sepuya’s self-portrait is a nude seen from the back, photographed with a mirror. On the one hand, it’s a pose quoting an Ingres nude. On the other, the pose, though serpentine and languid, was physically painful to hold. Sepuya, who’s gay and black, presents himself as an object, much as Robert Mapplethorpe did nudes of black men treating them as sumptuous sexual creatures and nothing else. White viewers of Mapplethorpe’s black subjects ogle them. They titillate. For black men such as Sepuya, that kind of reductionism hurts emotionally.

John O’Reilly is the oldest living artist in the show, born in 1930. He’s a fascinating, under-the-radar renegade who makes Polaroid…

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