“Too often, the study of sexuality in art is dismissed if it departs from the iconographic depiction of sexual acts or bodies that are deemed to be erotically appealing. It’s one of the ways that those suspicious of or uncomfortable with queer theory, for instance, attempt to domesticate its critique–by claiming that anything other than the obvious is ‘reading into’ or hopeful projective fantasy,” reflects art historian David Getsy in an enlightening and captivatingly theoretical conversation with fellow academic Jennifer Doyle on “Queer Formalisms” in Art Journal.
Getsy is right, even though queer theory is as guilty of this as any discipline. We’ve been trained to analyze queerness in art as almost entirely connected to the representation of bodies of difference. Even, dear readers, on Filthy Dreams, we rarely delve into abstraction, partially due to my boredom and disinterest with formalist critique. And, well, it just doesn’t ever feel filthy enough for our demented and depraved concentration.
There are exceptions, of course, that allow for an understanding how abstraction can be harnessed by artists to represent complex, multifaceted visions of queer existence–an existence that strict definitions of sexual or gender identity has little or nothing to do with. On view at both Boesky spaces in Chelsea–the stalwart Boesky at 509 West 24th and the new Boesky East next door at 507 (it should be called Boesky East-ish), Donald Moffett’s recently opened exhibition Any Fallow Field places him firmly as one of these abstract and formalist outliers that manages to represent the body and sexuality in a coy yet metaphorically rich way. While presenting coded hints at queerness, Moffett’s sculptural paintings maintain an undeniable beauty and experimentation with form and function.
Most Filthy Dreams readers will know Moffett as one of the founding members of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury (Think: Kissing Doesn’t Kill), but Moffett’s own artwork has little in common with graphic, politically charged public art that screams from the streets and refuses to adhere to willful governmental ignorance. Instead, his art is reflective and quietly transgressive, filled with orifice-like holes, fuzzy spikes of paint, lawn ornaments, fetishized steel tubes and natural forms.
With a title that makes me think of lesbian farm communes, Any Fallow Field exhibits a range of his recent work including his now-iconic extruded paintings, which jut from the wall, his sculptural contraptions that erase the divisions between painting and sculpture and his newer landscape resin works. On the surface, Moffett’s works exist in a world of formalist concerns, rejecting the trappings of the “normative” painting on canvas adhered to a blank white-wall.
Take, for example, Moffett’s bored-through hole-covered extruded paintings, which could be taken simply as just another rip in the canvas of abstraction, fucking with the picture plane. With plain titles, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to attribute the focus of Moffett’s extruded paintings solely to wonky art historical concerns.
However, there is an undeniable sexuality and bodily connection to the extruded paintings that lies just underneath their tactile surface. Right around the corner from the entrance of Boesky Gallery, Lot 121415 (graphite) hints at something much more wonderfully erotic. Rather than being typically hung at the viewer’s line of sight, the small grey piece is situated right above crotch level like a glory hole. Or at least one that is perfectly sized but poorly placed, making it difficult, lucky for Boesky, to employ. Surrounding this hole, the tendrils of oil paint recall not only AstroTurf, but body hair, looking like a Robert Gober sculpture on an acid trip.
Of course, this could just be my imagination. It wouldn’t be the first time, but David Getsy in his “Queer Formalisms” conversation, acknowledges and encourages diverse readings from the audience. He asserts, “The big question is how to characterize the capacity of the nonfigurative to manifest queer performativity in these mediums—whether that performativity is deployed by the artist, the historian, or the viewer.” Basically, it barely matters if I’m bringing the filth, my reading is legitimate despite the often restrictive and apolitical readings of abstraction in the conservative art history field.
In addition to his extruded paintings, Any Fallow Field also showcases a new body of work that seems to relate to his video-oriented series focusing on Central Park’s cruising zone The Rambles, which I obsessed over at PS1’s Greater New York exhibition. Moffett explains his newfound interest in landscape in an interview with Steel Stillman in Art In America, as well as his exhibition title. He states, “When the phrase came to me in Texas recently, it seemed to suggest a kind of spatial and temporal openness, a precarious and physical present suspended between past and future. If at times I’ve felt like a warrior in my work, for this show I was hoping to look out at nature, quite literally, for a change.”
These new resin works combine the piercing holes of the extruded paintings with natural or rural imagery including road signs and flowers. Not just using obvious photographs, Moffett complicates these images by adding bright color washes of blue or pink over some scenes of fields or wooded landscapes. And yet, even with these almost idyllic landscapes, there remains an undercurrent of potential physical violence with the rupturing tear of his holes. More than circles, the holes in his resin works resemble the form of flowers or, more ominously, buckshots.
Moffett himself recognized this duel violence and beauty existing in his new series. As he observed in his Art in America interview, “These works, which will mostly hang on the wall, and a new series of extruded paintings, will be drilled with recognizable motifs that suggest both biological and destructive forces. As ever, in our world, beauty and violence are interlaced—like the beauty of the young people murdered in Orlando.”
This reference to the tragic mass shooting in Pulse Orlando exposes Moffett’s socially relevant and queer aims beyond an interest in formal aestheticism. It also indicates Moffett’s desire to escape into nature as a means to leave the chaos of modern life. Can’t we all relate? Particularly after the news this year. Hey, I’m ready to go. However, Moffett remains unconvinced of its viability even as he represents this possibility for escapism.
As he said in Art in America, “ I’m wondering whether nature can still hold our attention. It’s actually kind of boring compared to the rowdy intensity of culture: the news, Trump, assault weapons, Mitch McConnell. I’m not so naive as to think that we can go back to the land. It’s too late for that; there are too many of us and not enough land. But, what’s left out there? Can we experience it quietly . . . again . . . still? I’ve said in the past that I proceed with one eye on my work and the other on the news, and that’s precisely the tension I’m feeling right now. Much as I’ve wanted this show to turn away from violence and spectacle, I’m not sure it can. I’m not sure I can.”
But is this yearning for nature queer? Yes and no. Moffett’s exhibition does have a certain connection to transcendentalism that seems more than a little influenced by Walt Whitman’s oeuvre. Like Whitman’s poems like “Song of Myself,” Moffett connects eroticism and nature in a way that is understated but clear to those looking out for it.
In Art Journal, David Getsy concludes, “Underlying these anxieties about “reading into” is a defensive and pernicious desire to uphold the normative. Immediately suspect are any interpretations that make use of artworks or ideas to carve out semantic space for differently identified individuals to adopt those artworks. To prompt us to see a material or an object in a different way—against or to the side of its intended use—is a queer tactic.”
Not that Moffett’s work needs queer adopting per se–unlike Robert Morris who David Getsy is referring to–since homoeroticism runs throughout his various series. And yet, not everyone will acknowledge or find it within his abstractions, allowing for this queerness to remain coded, concealed and creatively articulate of the queer experience.