Art review: Joe Mama-Nitzberg talks about a specific era in queer culture

One question kept coming up as I browsed through “Classes in Optical Art,” Joe Mama-Nitzberg’s exhibition at the Grant Wahlquist Gallery: will this work be relevant in 100 years, even in the canon of queer art?

In the absence of a crystal ball, I have no answer. But one isn’t needed to glean meaning and appreciation from the exhibit (until October 16). However, there is something in the specificity of these works which makes the investigation circle in my brain.

Prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 – widely credited 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 her sexuality. In Jonathan D. Katz’s essay “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction”, the author posits that the themes of “bifurcation, inversion, surface and depth” in Martin’s 1963 “Night Sea” “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 face-to-face sexuality and militant outrage. Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Keith Haring, and David Wojnarowicz, among others, pioneered the new franchise, sparking considerable controversy along the way.

Although 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 that some might find dated today: a reverence for torch-song divas like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. The voyeuristic fascination with—perhaps even identification—with the boozy, pilling self-destruction that accompanied disco-era fame and wealth, particularly personified by tragic singers and celebrities like Edie Sedgwick and Brenda Frazier .

Other constituent elements of this identity included the garish optimism of the pop colors and fashions of the time, a preoccupation with the scintillating life of the theater and, of course, the narcissistic cult of the male body and anonymous sex.

Elements of all of this are present in Mama-Nitzberg’s works to one degree or another. However, the artist borrows various devices, in particular from John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger, to comment on the ephemerality of this identity – both its validity in the trajectory of history (in particular gay history) and in the accuracy of our memory of this identity as springing from a more innocent and idyllic time.

“Emotional/Personal/Historical (Self-Portrait Mid-70s)”, 2021, archival inkjet print in custom painted frame, 14.25 x 10.75 inches

Two self-portraits directly challenge this last illusion. “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, evoking the idea of ​​bifurcation that Katz attributes to Agnes Martin’s work – partly extinguished, partly still closed. Svetlana Boym’s words from her book “The Future of Nostalgia” are split between them: “In the emotional topography of memory, personal and historical events tend to be confused.”

In another double image, “Total Recall (Self-Portrait Late 60s)”, Mama-Nitzberg holds up a sign that reads “Only false memories can be totally recalled!” Another more subtle work, “Untitled (Quotation)” – also a double image, coincidentally, of someone I know – suspends this portrait of a young man in the prime of life in quotation marks, as if to underline the ephemeral character of youth and beauty.

The quotation marks also refer to Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp”: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It is not a lamp, it is a “lamp”; she is not a woman, but a “woman”. And, further, his assertion that “Camp is the difference between the thing as signifying something – anything – and the thing as pure artifice.” What is the motto of this cultural identity at this point, it seems to ask, and what is our continued investment in it?

Arguably Baldessari’s most famous works used the colorful polka dot stickers ubiquitous at garage and tag sales. He said these common objects “have leveled the playing field”. Mama-Nitzberg, like Baldessari, employs them in this same service, making the famous inseparable from the anonymous, and raising questions about why we value one over the other.

“They Had Had”, 2021, Ac archival inkjet print in custom painted frame, 24.75 x 34.875 inches

In “They had had”, the points appear on the faces of two men represented in mirror. They’re only dressed in their underwear and appear to be in some sort of dressing room, holding ambiguous objects that could be miniature hair dryers or something more suggestively sexual. The work evokes both a behind-the-scenes scene and, also, the anonymous sex that takes place in the bathhouses of 1970s New York.

The mix of excitement and transgression of the bathhouse milieu is captured in another set of dots at the bottom that articulate a quote: “They had had joys just as they had had fears.” The use of the compound past also seems to presage the AIDS crisis to which this promiscuity has opened the doors and, also, to suggest that we are witnessing a bygone phenomenon.

It should be noted that several of these works – “They had had” and “Untitled (Quotation)” included – use appropriate images from After Dark, a magazine centered on the performing arts of the 70s that Daniel Harris, author of “The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture”, described as “a daring mass-market experiment in gay erotica”. Its editorial emphasis on drama and beautiful male bodies personified this very specific gay cultural identity, effectively attracting, at its zenith, 300,000 readers “consisting almost exclusively of gay men”, according to Harris.

Mama-Nitzberg uses these images, in part, as a recollection of the many men who worked as waiters or bartenders while pursuing glamorous acting careers, some never rising above C-list status, others lost to AIDS. .

“Queer Theory”, 2021, archival giclee print in custom painted frame, 32 x 25.75 inches

By deploying words or symbols within the colored dots, the device also transcends Baldessari’s intention of equating the rich and the famous, offering further considerations for the viewer to take into account. Garland and Streisand sport dots on their faces in “Queer Theory,” with Judy framing a cross and Barbra a Jewish star. Is it to evoke the historical marginalization of other groups? A prohibition of the two religions on homosexuality? It’s unclear.

Strong pop colors, hand painted graphics and frames also convey a vintage feel. Yet their sunshine also serves to contrast the darker realities of the time. “Might Delete Later” is the darkest work in the series and, again like Kruger, uses images and words. “Might” is inscribed on a bedside picture of socialite Brenda Frazier, who battled bulimia, anorexia and drug addiction, and racked up more than 30 suicide attempts.

“Might Delete Later”, 2021, archival inkjet print in custom painted frame, 50.75 x 36.75 inches

“Delete” appears in a photo of a recently deceased Marcel Proust, a literary figure irreconcilable with his homosexuality. It recalls Wojnarowicz’s photos of his lover, artist Peter Hujar, moments after his death from AIDS. And “Later” is superimposed on a photo of Félix González Torres of the crumpled sheets of his empty bed. Part of a set of billboard installations he made before he also died of AIDS, his sense of a vanished earthly presence provides the coda to “Classes.”

The work seems to emanate from the same question that has plagued me throughout the show. As well as poignantly evoking the insubstantiality and impermanence of any form of identity, it also makes us wonder who this art will speak to in the future.

Do young gays care about Judy, Barbra and Liza? Or are they too enamored with Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus to remember? Will the trajectory of larger historical events like transgender acceptance and non-binary sexuality cast aside this era, and the art about it, as obsolete? Will our awareness of other pernicious and continuing oppressions – of black people, of Asian Americans – relegate this art to yet another example of something that has primarily affected privileged white men?

The show raises all of these questions, and all of them are worth pondering for what they say about more fundamental truths of reality and existence – of what ultimately matters.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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