PRINT January 2020



Nicolas Moufarrege, Narcissix of One and Nick’s of the Other, 1983, thread, pigment, glitter, beads, minerals, and adhesive on needlepointed canvas, 18 × 84".

I FUCKED SPIDER-MAN five years ago in a Brooklyn apartment. He texted that he was waiting for me in costume. A trim silhouette in blue-and-red Lycra met me at the door. There was a zipper at his lower back, so I could get it in while he kept the full-body zentai suit stretched over long-limbed muscles. Big white eyes bounced above a mouthless mask as he straddled me on the couch, his legs spread like he was swinging from a web.

Spider-Man strikes that same pose in Nicolas Moufarrege’s Mission Impossible, 1983, a wide embroidered painting with glitter sprinkled throughout that lines the superhero up alongside other fantastic comic-book masculinities: A wizard casts spells over a cauldron; a bearded Hercules wears a skimpy skirt and thigh-high gladiator sandals; a helmeted figure raises a fist that’s pierced with a brooch; Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, in a scaly green swimsuit, stands sword in hand over a figure torn from Guernica; and a giant robot holds a pair of drumsticks while fireworks appear to go off overhead. Employing craft techniques resistant to Western traditions of fine art, Moufarrege sews these found images of mythical he-men using materials coded as feminine, setting up a clash of signifiers within the arena of the stretcher bars.

According to Dean Daderko and Larissa Harris—curators at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the Queens Museum, New York, respectively (Daderko curated “Nicolas Moufarrege: Recognize My Sign” for its initial showing in Houston, while Harris coordinated the exhibition’s current Queens incarnation)—the artist identified with Spider-Man perhaps, in part, because he too worked with thread; Spidey became a recurring character in his paintings during his years in New York, when the artist “[took] part in what could be called an East Village style.” The show tracks Moufarrege’s aesthetic moves across three of his homes—in Lebanon, Paris, and New York—as he reimagined the art-historical canon as a tapestry into which Cubism and comics, Arabic calligraphy and classical anatomy could be stitched together. It also presents Moufarrege as someone who actively shaped his times—both as a curator and as a writer for Flash Art and the New York Native. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1947 and raised in a family involved in the textile trade, he created his first needlepoint in the late ’60s, a strawberry with which to patch his jeans, while studying at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a Fulbright scholarship. His earliest needlepoint paintings depict imagined spaces, as in Une île (An Island), 1975, in which a Brutalist city made of silky strands hovers beside a mystic mountain range in muted cement silvers and smoked-glass yellows. During the Lebanese Civil War, Moufarrege moved to Paris, where he began to represent male nudes, often a rear view of a torso executed in an academic manner. First Step into the Pyramid, 1979, features a colossal male nude overlaid with a grid, his curvy ass richly rendered in bronze tones; he merges with a Technicolor Nile that reflects a gold sun framed by a pinkish triangle above which are decorative interlocking-tile patterns. Works such as these contrast the so-called Western and Oriental pictorial traditions, and a homoerotic vocabulary emerges. When Moufarrege landed in New York in 1981, Pop art became his central concern: Specifically, he took on Roy Lichtenstein, embroidering versions of the elder appropriator’s comic-book paintings alongside those of their Impressionist and Expressionist predecessors, creating imagined dialogues between them and questioning time-bound notions of art history.

In the show’s time line, Spider-Man precedes Lichtenstein, who became a totemic figure for Moufarrege as the artist navigated queer New York. Indeed, the webslinger stars in some of his most sexually liberated works, less as an archetypal warrior than as a picaresque fool in a multicultural megalopolis. His multiplicity is the center of Narcissix of One and Nicks of the Other, 1983, another embroidered painting at the heart of this exhibition. Caught in a hall of mirrors, Spider-Man is replicated beyond the narcissistic duality of the alter ego. Elsewhere, Santa Claus—another stand-in for the artist (who played on their shared name, Nicholas)—smiles into a mirror; the doubling continues in the image of a pair of male wrestlers. The Statue of Liberty looks on from one side of the composition, a demonic figure lifted from a Hokusai woodblock from the other. Yet another figure cribbed from a Spanish Civil War-era Picasso also makes an appearance. Moufarrege reflected on his own displaced personhood through these borrowed bodies: Conflict is acted out in an agonistic polyphony, geopolitical trauma performed alongside queer pleasure.

Moufarrege died of AIDS in 1985, and the work he left behind is a reminder of the unfinished business of a whole generation of artists. Woven into a discontinuous whole, his appropriated signs express what has since become a contemporary subjectivity, a queering by whatever means necessary of the heroes we are offered. Among Marvel’s trademarked spider variants, each designed for a different demographic—from Miles Morales to Spider-Gwen to Peter Porker the Spider Ham—there is no canonically gay Spider-Man. Among fans, his relationship with male characters—such as his “Amazing Friend” Iceman; the flaming Human Torch; his Reddit-troll doppelgänger, Deadpool; and his unrepressed imago, Venom—is fodder for speculation about what anyone looking at him already knows: This urban arachnid is a power bottom swinging around town in tight bright clothes. Arguments citing subtextual evidence proliferate on Instagram and Twitter (see #BIderman). As Scott Bukatman writes in his 2003 volume Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, crime is an excuse to put on a colorful costume and fly out the window. Under his mask, Spidey could be anyone heroic enough to be a homo. 

Alexandro Segade is an artist living in New York.