New York

Donald Moffett

Wessel O'Connor / Simon Watson

As an AIDS activist, Donald Moffett has created or collaborated on numerous graphic campaigns designed to wake up ordinary citizens and unresponsive public figures to this devastating crisis. In the works displayed here, some of which refer indirectly to AIDS and all of which endorse uninhibited homosexual behavior, Moffett continues to exploit the strategy employed by many artists in the ’80s (and subsequently appropriated by the AIDS activists) of combining found images with provocative, often subversive texts, here infused with the artist’s characteristic bad-boy humor.

At Wessel O’Connor, large backlit Cibachromes attack symbols of repressive authority: the White House, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court, and (in postcard form) Senator Jesse Helms. A photograph purloined from a same-sex porn video is imprinted with the command “Call the U.S. Supreme Court 1 (202) 479-3000. Ask five of the nine judges if they’re getting any,” thereby linking restrictive legislation with the legislator’s own sexual deprivation. In another work, the phrase “Call the White House I (201) 456-1414. Tell Bush we’re not all dead yet” is emblazoned on the color-bar scrambler pattern that appears when cable TV subscribers neglect to pay their bills—an apt metaphor for both the president’s willful screening-out of a restive population and for the dysfunctional communication between gay-rights and AIDS activists and the powers-that-be.

At Simon Watson, prints of 19th-century war heros are supplied with captions that supplement assertions of military prowess with graphic sexual descriptions such as “Brilliant War Strategist, Fierce Bottom,” or “Medal of Honor, Stingy Mouth, Butthole Like A Whore.” Elsewhere a grid of photographs blown up from a ’50s high-school wrestling guide exploits double entendres presumably lifted from the text itself: “A smart wrestler will govern his practice so that on contest nights he is full of desire to ‘mix’ with an opponent.” Both works point out realms in which boys (through sports) and men (in the military) can live out fantasies of homosexual encounters and aggressive sexual behavior with society’s sanction.

These works are basically indistinguishable from the activist graphics that Moffett has created in the past for posters, placards, subway advertising spaces, and other public sites; his sculptures, however, qualify more strictly as fine art. Though the artist may eschew such distinctions, he did choose to exhibit these works in galleries, according to the conventions of the single-artist show, thereby establishing a distance between this work and his outdoor issue-specific pieces. Like many contemporary artists, Moffett employs the Minimalist sensibility with its apparent ideological neutrality to explicitly social ends, creating monochrome, serial works that comment on his persistent concerns. A cluster of maroon bowling balls with enormous thumb holes, each inscribed with words such as “citizen,” “discharge,” and “freak,” partakes of the sports theme introduced in the wrestling photos via explicit anatomical puns and associations. A series of custom-made sheets (displayed on mattresses mounted on the wall, like bas-relief monochrome paintings) feature holes embroidered at groin-height. Words such as “Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.” and “God. God. God. God. God.” can be taken as either pious or blasphemous, depending on whether they are uttered in moments of spiritual or sexual passion (an ambiguity reinforced by the hole/holy pun). By using intimate domestic artifacts such as sheets, Moffett reiterates his concern over the political infringements on our most private behavior signaled by the recent reinforcement of antisodomy laws as well as by the government’s notoriously irresponsible handling of the AIDS crisis.

Moffett’s point of view comes across loud and clear, and his economical visual language serves his messages well. In the end distinctions between “high” art and activism are of consequence primarily in terms of who sees the work. Unlike the street pieces, which confront passersby of all political stripes, the works displayed here may only reach a selective and hence sympathetic audience.

Lois E. Nesbitt

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