PRINT February 1995


Kevin Killian talks with Nayland Blake and Larry Rinder

LIKE MARCEL DUCHAMP’S mustached Mona Lisa, which greets you near the show’s entrance, IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT is bound to raise eyebrows. Curated by Nayland Blake and Lawrence Rinder, and currently on view at U.C. Berkeley’s University Art Museum, this is the largest show ever to explore “the resonance of gay and lesbian experience in twentieth-century American art.” “In a Different Light” is different not only for this professed focus but because it includes both gay and straight artists, and without specifying their sexual orientations. Is the show merely another instance in which gay/lesbian visibility is “submerged” in the name of the kind of high-minded free play of identities and ideas often criticized for soft-pedaling the demands of realpolitik? Or is it better understood as a brave attempt to map the “Secret Histories” of gay experience in and through the art of this century? When Artforum asked me to look into the matter, I asked Blake and Rinder to sit down with me in my San Francisco apartment, make their own coffee, and talk.

The exhibition they describe here moves with deliberate family-of-man relish through a series of designated groupings—from “Self” to “Couple” to, yes, “Family,” and out through “World” and “Utopia.” Within each section the relationship among artworks promises to be poetic, ahistorical, and witty; the selection of artists, almost by necessity, personal and quirky. As Rinder sighs, “There are so many things out there to be looked at, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Cui bono? Blake points to the 1971 Corcoran Biennial, notorious for its exclusion of woman artists, and to its aftermath of feminist protest, the spark for much of the women’s art movement that followed. “I’m not saying that we excluded a bunch of people from this show in the hopes that they would then start a new, angry community,” he says, wincing. “But we do hope this exhibition will act as a catalyst for further debates.”

KEVIN KILLIAN: I’ve heard “In a Different Light” described as a kind of rending of the mask that has obscured not only the influence of gay and lesbian artists on the “mainstream” but the way in which art history, in its heterosexual drag, does its best to marginalize gay and lesbian experience.

LAWRENCE RINDER: You might call it a queer reading of art made by gays, lesbians, bisexuals—but also by “others.” We intended from the start to include artists of different sexualities without identifying them as such—to think of gay and lesbian culture less as tied to sexual behavior and more as a mutable cultural phenomenon with issues that can be taken up by anyone.

KK: Does that then imply that there is some kind of “gay sensibility” that exceeds sexual behavior?

LR: On the contrary, one of the first things about our approach was that we threw out the idea of “sensibility.” But we are going up against an essentialist attitude that says, Certain communities own certain issues, on which other communities have no right to speak; the original community, on the other hand, can’t speak about anything else.

NAYLAND BLAKE: Lawrence Chua has pointed out that we used to be up against a racism of exclusion that said, We don’t want to hear from anyone who’s different from ourselves. What we’re faced with now is a racism of inclusion: We want to hear from everyone, but only in a specific way about a specific thing. What remains unchanged in this formulation is the belief in a core of cultural production—the myth of the mainstream. And we’re acknowledging tiny rivulets as contributing to it, like spices from different cultures that flavor the whole. The whole trickle-up effect is something of a myth.

LR: In fact the entire culture participates in the construction of the category of homosexuality, and has an investment in defining and maintaining its symbolic terms.

NB: That’s why we avoided works with explicitly “gay” content—depictions of two happy homosexuals, things like that. Those representations do perform a function for the gay community, providing an image or mirror where there was none before, but they also reinforce the expectations of straight people who may say, We will allow this particular type of culture to happen within its community because once we localize it there, it won’t have any implications for the way we go about our lives.

KK: So there’s no Paul Cadmus?

NB: [Laughs] I hope there will be! The corollary is, we’ve tried to position these famously “out” artists in ways that people might not ordinarily think of them. So a young queer artist like Richard Hawkins, who’s fascinated with stardom and male sex objects, isn’t positioned next to, say, Andy Warhol; in our show he’s next to those artists he acknowledges as his formal influences—Alan Saret and Claes Oldenburg. We’re trying to confound people’s expectations of what queer art looks like.

KK: Is the “moral,” then, that in the last analysis art is without sexual identity?

NB: I don’t believe any art is essentially queer or inherently sexual—though art (and sexuality itself for that matter) is profoundly culturally specific.

LR: Certainly there are particular cultural codes that pertain to 20th-century American gay and lesbian experience—codes that can be read “through” the meanings mainstream culture has assigned specific artifacts. Of course, the way in which a spectator reads a particular cultural production owes much to context.

KK: Supposing that the straight world has created homosexuals and maintained them for the benefit of the larger culture, how on earth can this Foucauldian notion be illustrated in a museum setting?

LR: It may not be possible, but we’ve tried! Take the case of drag: for the past century, gender transgression has been the symbolic guise of homosexuality for mainstream culture, and by and large the gay community has accepted that, though same-sex sexual behavior has taken other social forms in other cultures or times. But the point is that drag is not exclusive to gay culture; there are periodic exceptions within the straight mainstream. In the straight art world of the ’70s, for example, you saw an eruption of interest in cross-dressing: Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Cindy Sherman. Perhaps that practice was sparked by the recognition that in a straight world so invested in maintaining gender distinction, “normal” ways of dressing by gender are actually as artificial and theatrical as drag. The investigation of that investment leads into a territory typically occupied by people who have sex with people of the same sex, but the broader issue—gender transgression, or, perhaps more precisely, gender differentiation—is much more broadly pertinent.

NB: A lot of artists became attracted to the notion of gender transgression in the years following Stonewall. “In a Different Light” brings representations from our subculture together with art we think of as mainstream to allow us to see where things are being played with in a genuinely productive or transgressive way, and where they are simply reaffirming the status quo.

KK: Your project is so—ambitious! Investigating art made by gay and lesbian artists would alone have been an enormous undertaking, but you’re doing a more general sexual-identity sort of show.

NB: Often the most interesting insights into the way the artists in the show think of themselves came in response to a question we asked each of them: “If you could hang next to any other artist, who would it be?” Often they’d frame their work in response to artists they don’t identify with in terms of either style or sexuality. I’ve found Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces inspiring in this respect, as a way to trace “secret histories,” to show how ideas can respond to previous ideas that may be submerged on either or both sides of the exchange. Marcel Duchamp’s work challenged assumptions in the art world of his time; we’re always looking at the way he influenced John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, but Fluxus, with its downplaying of personality, its emphasis on connectivity, its trust in ephemera instead of precious objects, was another, perhaps more important response to Duchamp. These challenges can be seen to link the women’s art movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, ’70s punk, the East Village scene of the early ’80s, and the queer work beginning in the mid-to-late ’80s.

KK: Was it hard to mount a big show like this in the ’90s, when everything is falling apart?

LR: Logistically it’s been a challenge; typically an exhibition of this size takes a minimum of two years and we’ve put this one together in eight months. We’ve asked a lot of favors and people have been very generous, making innumerable exceptions on our behalf. It is extraordinary that no major institution has even attempted to deal with this subject; to the best of my knowledge, the largest institution to take on anything of the kind has been the New Museum in New York, with its 1983 show “Extended Sensibilities,” and at that time it was just an alternative space. So I think when people hear about our show, there’s a great sense of anticipation—they sigh with relief and are happy to accommodate us. At last, for better or worse, someone is doing it.

Kevin Killian is not on the contributor’s page.

“In a Different Light” remains on view at the University Art Museum of the University of California, Berkeley, through April 9.