Philadelphia

Stuart Netsky

In a series of black and white photographs, “What Should I Wear?,” 1993, Stuart Netsky changes his pose as often as his dress, creating coy, honest, then decidedly camp self-portraits. It was as if the artist were watching us watching him press against the cultural boundaries of gender identity. Seen before the installation, Time Flies, 1993, the portraits served as a prelude to the extended dialogue of that piece.

The installation was like a bizarre salon, museumlike in its considered arrangements, but illumined by a garish, violet glare borrowed from after-hours clubs. Unfolding around a large sod carpet imprinted with a double image of hearts made from dried rose petals, a series of tableaux shifted the focus away from the artist’s sexual identity to the more general issues of vanity and mortality and, specifically, the reality of AIDS. Netsky’s camp sensibility was operating at a feverish pitch, nearly embodying Susan Sontag’s 1964 definition of the term as the love of artifice and exaggeration. On one side of the gallery, reupholstered furniture—daybeds, chaise lounges, and chairs—accompanied dressing tables covered with perfumes and beauty aids. On the walls, an eclectic assortment of gilded mirrors was covered with a creamy-yellow latex paint, refusing the viewer’s gaze. Poured latex froze some of the beauty aids to the dresser tray, and a latex material appeared on some furniture. The association to condoms was opaquely transparent. One of the mirrors remained uncoated, reflecting our image and bearing the etched words “When you look at yourself, think of us.” Despite the layered interplay of imagery, Netsky couldn’t resist telling us what to think as we experienced this work.

The mirror also reflected the opposite side of the gallery where signs of illness were more directly visible. The mirrors there opened from medicine cabinets filled with prescription and AIDS-related drugs. These daybeds appeared more functional, grimmer—hospital slippers sat at their feet, a walker or cane could be found nearby.

Netsky’s message was delivered in many forms. Some of the most playful and ironic ones came in the form of quotations embroidered on scattered pillows and clothing. One of Edna St. Vincent Millay reads: “Oh, you mean I’m homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual too. But what’s that got to do with my headache?” Also part of the installation were works from Netsky’s series of castings, all 1991, which addressed AIDS with an unexpected and subtle touch. Fragments of body parts from classical sculptures were cast in AZT and marshmallow or Vitamin C, a fact revealed only by their labels. Escape Knowing Eternity, 1993, a three-part work, employed a related strategy. In one element of this piece, a shadowy reference to the Calvin Klein’s “Eternity” campaign, Netsky uses AZT, Hivid, Videx (pharmaceutically available AIDS drugs), and cornstarch silkscreens to create the work.

As a counterpoint to this collection of still images, a wide-ranging music track played and videos of Bette Davis in Dark Victory, 1939, and George Cukor’s The Women, 1939, faced Cindy Crawford’s exercise tape in another corner of the gallery. In Time Flies, Netsky took on the daunting task of presenting the horror of AIDS in the face of the less critical but more common horror of our own vanity. The installation was nearly overwhelming—it traded the poignancy of each moment for the obsessive accumulation of evidence. Or to borrow one of Sontag’s standard phrases of camp enthusiasm, “It’s too much.”

Eileen Neff