Rejecting the survey exhibition trap of only showing the hottest, youngest and, let’s be honest, often underwhelming emerging artists, this year’s Greater New York takes a look at New York art in 2015 through lens of New York’s past and present. With art dating back as early as the mid-1970s, which consequently overlaps with the opening of PS1 in 1976, Greater New York asserts that one cannot understand New York art now without looking back to the city’s now heavily romanticized history. And Bun-Buns is just one of the many links between New York then and now running (sometimes literally) through the enormous exhibition.
The fourth iteration of PS1’s grand NYC survey show, Greater New York was organized this year by a team of curators, which included MoMA PS1’s Peter Eleey, MoMA’s Thomas Lax, PS1’s Mia Locks and HIV/AIDS activist, art historian and academic Douglas Crimp. While I know the other curators provided influential input, I can’t help but see Crimp as a central figure in the decision to create such a queer show with frequent nods to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, public sex in the Ramble and the piers and the creatively productive decay of Lower Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s.
With any grand survey exhibition, it’s hard–if not impossible–to make any sweeping claims about the success or failure of the show’s curation. However, I did appreciate the intergenerational links made between the exhibitions queer artists in particular. Using these connections, as well as the unique nostalgia contemporary New Yorkers possess for the grittier, dirtier and sleazier New York of the past, Greater New York questions, as Douglas Crimp asks in the transcript of a curatorial roundtable, “Can nostalgia be productive? Are there important lessons to be learned by seeing what has been lost and comparing it to what has replaced it?”
Most definitely, Doug.
With around 400 works from 158 artists, Greater New York undeniably creates a challenge to viewers through sheer size alone. In order to make it easier for us and you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, we chose our favorite queer artists and collectives in Greater New York:
The first room I walked into at Greater New York was lined with Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of New York’s legendary bygone Hudson River piers, which set the tone of the entire exhibition for me. Photographing the freewheeling sex scene in the dilapidated and decaying piers from 1975 to 1986, Baltrop captured the piers as a site of sexual possibility before–as well as during–the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Working as a taxi driver, Baltrop documented the duality of companionship adn danger that lurked around the piers at the edge of Manhattan. Baltrop’s photographs exist as haunting reminders of what has been lost through both gentrification and the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic. Depicting Gordon Matta-Clark’s iconic Days End, the photographs also couple nicely with the Matta-Clark photographs sprinkled through the exhibition.
Known for his campy drag-filled videos and films such as Mrs. Peanut Visits New York featuring Leigh Bowery and Son of Sam and Delilah with John Kelly, as well as his classier work with Merce Cunningham, Charles Atlas contributes to Greater New York with his recent video with New York drag icon Lady Bunny. Some of you, dearest gallery going readers, may recognize the video from Atlas’ apocalyptic exhibition The Waning of Justice at Luhring Augustine. In Here She Is, Bunny–adjusting her sequined dress, wig and heavy eyelashes–talks politics as she is wont to do on her Facebook page and blog. If you read Bunny’s commentary religiously as I do, this video is certainly no surprise.
Aside: Shouldn’t CNN be run by drag queens? I could watch Bun-Buns solve major issues all day.
At the end of the video, Bunny performs a song because what is there left to do after a serious and ominous discussion on inequality than sing a disco song.
Since the beginning of her career, photographer Collier Schorr merged fashion and art photography, capturing strikingly androgynous teenage boys. While she has recently gravitated toward photographing women, Schorr’s Untitled (Jordan Installation) sees a return to a focus on beautiful boys with her monumental photographs of Australian model Jordan Barrett. Playing with different notions of fantasy, Schorr presents Barrett in both a raskish James Dean-like rebellious fashion and Mapplethorpe-esque leather wear. Enlarging the prints to an enormous size, Schorr also blurs the lines between sculpture and photography. With their great white borders, the works resemble Polaroids, adding an illicit feeling to the works. As a queer woman photographing undeniably aesthetically pretty men, Schorr disrupts the normative photographic gaze. As Schorr explained in an interview with Dazed, “I don’t think men can take the kinds of pictures I take of men because men pose differently for women.”
One of the founding members of the HIV/AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury, Donald Moffett appears twice in Greater New York. While I like Moffett’s quiet and minimalist Blue NY, mirroring the colors of HIV/AIDS-related medications, Moffett’s 2003 video projection on canvas Gold/Tunnel struck me as one of the most relevant pieces in the show, particularly in conversation with Baltrop’s piers photographs. With a glittering and shimmering gold canvas depicting a park tunnel like the ones scattered among Central Park, Gold/Tunnel metaphorically memorializes spaces of public sex, resembling the notorious Ramble. With an empty landscape of the park, Gold/Tunnel both hints at the losses of these spaces of sexual possibilities and references the hidden sexuality in these places that continue to exist today. Through the video projection, Moffett’s piece also becomes a representation of the ghostly and golden aspects of memory.
While Moffett’s inclusion in Greater New York certainly hints at his participation in activist collectives, fierce pussy arrives with perhaps the most outspoken activist work in the show. Formed in 1991 through their engagement with HIV/AIDS activism, fierce pussy is a collective of queer women artists including Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla (who is also in Greater New York), Zoe Leonard and Carrie Yamaoka who address issues of dyke identity, queer visibility and AIDS activism through posters, stickers, installations and other public materials. For example, one of their famous flyers states, “I am a lezzie butch pervert girlfriend bulldagger sister dyke AND PROUD!”
For Greater New York, fierce pussy create an installation related to their 2010 work For The Record, which imagines what loved ones who passed away from AIDS-related complications would be doing if they survived. For The Record brings the losses of the HIV/AIDS pandemic into the present, which is extremely important particularly for the institutional art world which can wildly and incorrectly seem to relegate AIDS to the 1980s and 1990s (*cough* Whitney). As Peter Eleey notes in the Curatorial Roundtable, “It’s important to me that the fierce pussy piece reinscribes the past into the present as a kind of ghost…”
I’m sure most of you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, are familiar with photographer of filth Jimmy DeSana. From his odes to sexual subcultures in his Submission series to his portraiture of Lower Manhattan personalities such as William Burroughs and Blondie, DeSana reigns supreme as one of the great photographers to grace the Downtown scene. Greater New York focuses on DeSana’s perhaps widest shown series–Suburban. With an eerie fluorescent glow in all the images, DeSana’s Suburban series showcases any number of perversions within a eyesore 1970s colors scheme, contrasting with his black-and-white submission series. Whether photographing a subject leering into the camera with cocktail skewers wedged between his teeth or a man with his foam-covered head in the toilet, DeSana’s photographs are as disturbing as they transform the body into a near-sculptural object.
Last but not least, we have Nelson Sullivan, the Downtown documentarian who captured life in Lower Manhattan throughout the 1980s with his video camera. From incredible performances at Pyramid, Limelight and the Saint, decadent nights out with Ru Paul, John Sex or the Club Kids, subway rides to Coney Island or just walks with his dog Blackout from his house in the Meatpacking District to the Hudson River piers, Sullivan’s videos are perhaps the best record of New York during that period. Frankly as a big fan of Sullivan’s work, I was stunned and excited to hear Nelson hit the big time with a MoMA PS1 inclusion. Bravo!
Greater New York features three videos of Nelson including Morning Walk with Blackout, Nelson’s Birthday and Bunny Chase. While Nelson’s Birthday presents an interesting conversation with attendees decrying that the 1980s are nowhere near as interesting as the 1970s, proving that we’re always looking back no matter what decade, my personal favorite video is Bunny Chase, which, as the title reveals, follows Lady Bunny as she runs screaming around the East Village. Sure, she stops to dance in front of CBGB’s but Bunny has got some stamina. With the link between Bunny in Nelson Sullivan’s video and Charles Atlas’ film, Greater New York achieves its goal of seamlessly linking the past New York art scene with the present.