Donald Moffett

Gran Fury, an art collective of AIDS activists, has been one of the strongest presences in the art world of late, despite the fact that its propagandistic works are pointedly not intended for commercial galleries. Rather, Gran Fury’s métier is the exterior walls of buildings, the t-shirt—places normally reserved for advertising—and, very occasionally, the alternative, nonprofit space friendly to leftist and/or gay art. The collective’s numbers include several artists who also work individually, among them Donald Moffett. His photography-based work is a fascinating and subtle permutation of Gran Fury’s original project; namely, the incendiary manipulation of visual language. While Moffett is also concerned with representing a gay sensibility made more socially responsible by the presence of AIDS, he makes room for what some activists have called an “esthetic gray area,” especially in his bold, if tactical, interest in titillation.

For this show, Moffett utilized a format which is increasingly prevalent in outdoor public advertising—the backlit photographic image. In his case, each image is a two-foot-square Cibachrome transparency adhered to Plexiglas and bolted to a same-size lightbox. Shot by the artist off monitors showing commercial gay pornographic videos, the subject matter ranges from glistening upper body parts to frozen scenes of masturbation and, in one case, anal penetration. Moffett interrupts these pictures with a line of text, sometimes several lines, to magnify the particular feelings suggested by the models’ poses, and to emphasize the present danger inherent in their desires. In one of the strongest pieces, I Am the Judge and Jury Here, 1989, a tightly cropped pair of buttocks fills the lower half of the frame. A vague penis shaft juts vertically from the crack, disappearing into the blackness that frames the title line. The body parts, doubly distanced by having been filmed then rephotographed from an already eroded video likeness, retain their sensuality while appearing spookily translucent. The text acts both as a watchdog guarding the privacy of the models’ chosen sexual practice, and as a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, the sheep in this case being the media’s uncritical use of erotica as an advertising come-on.

In one sense, Moffett’s work belongs with that of Barbara Kruger, Gretchen Bender, Richard Prince, and others who muddy imagery with language, and vice versa. Still, the comparison is an uneasy one. When Bender, for example, prints the phrase “People with AIDS” on the screen of an otherwise normal television set, she is essentially decorating the medium with her message. Their mutual exclusivity is the basis of her point. Moffett’s lines of “commentary” are far more symbiotic with, and sympathetic to, his chosen images—something like the discreetly placed translated dialogue in foreign films, though more imaginatively arranged. Another difference is Moffett’s voice, which is less the single, generic everyvoice of Kruger than a collection of disparate voices, whose insistent points vary widely in tone—from the stoic (“Safe Journey to Some Safe Place,” goes the sentiment crowning twin heads of a man mid-orgasm) to the vulnerable (a hand masturbating a penis receives the moniker “I’m Never Never Never Letting Go.”) The results effectively cross a strong and specific ethical conscience with an equally strong modus operandi.

Dennis Cooper