“Currents ’93: Dress Codes”

This year the annual “Currents” exhibition at Boston’s ICA examined transvestism, gender-crossing, and gay and racial identities through multimedia works by 24 artists. The images ranged from Nan Goldin’s well-known photographs of transsexuals and transvestites, to RuPaul’s rock video Supermodel (You Better Work), 1992, to Boston-based Abe Rybeck’s cabaret drag performances. “Dress Codes” consisted of visual art, video, film, performance and educational programs (which included makeup seminars for male cross-dressers and an all day “Drag King” workshop for female-tomale cross-dressers led by performance artist Dianne Torr), a cross-dressing reading room, and three Saturday evenings of “Fear and Clothing” theater.

Catherine Opie’s and Yasumasa Morimura’s portraits and self-portraits stood out in a mostly mediocre selection of artwork. Opie’s series of color photographs entitled “Being and Having,” 1991—closeup frontal images of “daddy/boy” lesbians who wear moustaches and the accessories of male street gangs succeedas engaging parodies of male portraiture. Morimura’s Doblonnage: Marcel, 1988, an oversized computer-enhanced color photograph, replaces Duchamp’s famed portrait of himself as Rrose Sélavy with a portrait of the artist in drag. He substitutes his Japanese features for Duchamp’s European ones, and also adds a second pair of hands and a second hat.

Hidden in the basement reading rooms were two handcrafted books by Boston-based Peter Madden. Constructed of brown paper bags, several collages, and rusted metal covers, the books successfully incorporated narrative and art. Fairy Tales, 1992, documents Madden’s childhood fascinations with wearing women’s clothing, and Pyramid, New York, 1984 (When Queens Collide), 1993, relates through pictures and black humor Madden’s experience as a go-go cross-dresser at the famed New York club.

Instead of simply focusing on the sexual politics of cross-dressing, “Dress Codes” also raised questions of race and class. Howardina Pindell’s video Free White and 21, 1980, features the African-American artist in debate with herself dressed as a stereotypical, effete Jewess. Chilean expatriate Juan Davila’s enamel-and-oil collage poster, Nothing If Not Abnormal, 1991, portrays the former Prime Minister of Australia with a swastika tattooed on his behind, accompanied by his treasurer, Paul Keating, bearing womens’ breasts; the transvestism of forms becomes merely a disguise for deep-seated political anger.

Unfortunately, much of “Dress Codes” was laden with self-centered’ in-your-face imagery. The Secret Life of a Snow Queen, 1990–93, an installation by Lyle Ashton Harris, uses pornography as an instrument for very narcissistic art. Hunter Reynold’s performance piece as alter-ego Patina du Prey, Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress, 1993, is a travesty of the AIDS Names Quilt. Wearing a black and satin decolleté dress printed in gold lettering with the names of AIDS victims, a highly made-up but wigless Reynolds posed on a revolving stage to the sounds of somber choral music. Beside him was a notebook requesting “Please write your comments, names of loved ones and friends who have died of AIDS in this book—they will be added to the fabric of the dress.”

Madden’s closing lines in Pyramid are “Looking back, the most frightening part of all this is that I really used to think I looked pretty.” The most frightening part of this exhibition was that the curators really thought it looked good, when in reality they often merely succumbed to trendiness.

Francine Koslow Miller