Critics’ Picks

  • Artist unknown, title unknown, date unknown, photographic print, 8 x 7".

    “Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers”

    The Photographers' Gallery
    16 – 18 Ramillies Street
    February 23 - June 3

    A butch wears a Stetson and boxy suit, her leg cocked raffishly over a table. A group of cross-dressers in 1950s Washington, DC, live out their fantasies of glamour—sheer dresses and Joan Crawford hair—in suburban living rooms. And a trans showgirl named Bambi is getting her hair fixed by a muscled dancer in a dark Dusty Springfield beehive wig. These works appear in “Under Cover,” an exhibition that untethers the fixed absolutes of male and female, revealing gender to be a rich and shifting spectrum.

    This trove of around three hundred found photographs, unearthed by French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, whose work explores marginalized identities and LGBT lives, is both anonymous and intimate: snapshots of mostly unnamed people flouting the repressive norms of their times. The camera lens—whether prefiguring the selfie in the privacy of one’s own home or capturing the spirit of a social, if secretive, milieu of fellow gender dissidents—bears witness to how many ways a person can be.

    With images dating from 1880 to the early 1990s, this show is a meditation on gender as the expression of an innermost self. It is also a document of desire, an endless catalogue of possibility for radical living and liberated futures. The sheer plurality of these queer identities—flaming, defiant, unbowed—reveals “straightness” to be just another form of drag. By putting these private transformations firmly into the public eye and ensuring the sitters are seen without shame, these trailblazing nonconformists are brought to vivid life once more.

  • Mona Hatoum, Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet), 2012, Murano mirrored glass, wood, glass cabinet, 51 x 24 x 12".

    “Age of Terror: Art since 9/11”

    Imperial War Museum
    Lambeth Road
    October 26 - May 28

    The “Age of Terror”—could there be a more dismal art show for the grimmest museum in London? And yet there are seemingly jaunty works to be found here, with Mona Hatoum’s Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet), 2012, showing gaudy glass hand grenades resembling Christmas-tree decorations, and Jitish Kallat’s miniaturized security-line figurines—Circadian Rhyme 1, 2011—looking like an adult Playmobil set. Whether inadvertent or not, it is telling that this large fifty-piece show problematizes the representation of war. There is Cory Arcangel’s thrift-store find Bomb Iraq, 2005, an innocent-looking homemade video game from the 1991 Gulf War, and Gerhard Richter’s September, 2009, a print of a painting of the Twin Towers aflame that feels uncomfortably like hotel kitsch.

    A protagonist in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (2007), reflects about a friend: “Maybe he was a terrorist but he was one of ours, she thought . . . which meant godless, Western, white.” Such disconcerting ambiguities mark the best work here, including Kerry Tribe’s casting-call film Untitled (Potential Terrorist), 2002, and John Smith’s perfectly guileless video Throwing Stones, (Hotel Diaries #3), 2004, where his camera surveils a room as he idly soliloquizes about inconsequential and world-changing events.

    But the main grouping of relatively detached and conceptually assured art-world familiars is mirrored by a selection of artists from countries the West has, in the wake of 9/11, bombed to oblivion. Three brutally direct videos stand out in particular. Khaled Abdulwahed’s Tuj, 2012, shows a child’s soccer ball repeatedly bouncing off an interior wall in Damascus as sounds of outside explosions increase. In Lida Abdul’s White House, 2005, she whitewashes the ruins of a presidential palace on the outskirts of Kabul, while in Homesick, 2014, Hrair Sarkissian demolishes a model of the Damascus apartment building his parents refuse to leave. Such art goes straight to the heart of the matter.