View of “Notes on Neo-Camp,” 2013.

View of “Notes on Neo-Camp,” 2013.

“Notes on Neo-Camp”

View of “Notes on Neo-Camp,” 2013.

Several of the works in the front room of “Notes on Neo-Camp,” curated by Chris Sharp, seemed to exemplify the ascendance of a newly contextualized, networked figuration in sculpture. The impassioned referentiality of the assemblage that makes up Tom Burr’s Fassbinder Piece, 2011—a green leather trench coat, a special issue of October devoted to the German director, and a poster for the film Kamikaze 1989 (starring Fassbinder and released in 1982, the year of his death)—resonated with that of Anthea Hamilton’s 2012 Venice Kimono across the room: a wide-sleeved, brightly colored costume hung cruciform on a steel rack, with a digital print of John Travolta’s familiar face on the back. Among the other pieces in the space were Paul Lee’s sparse Untitled (Purple), 2012, an off-kilter, decorative, shelflike structure made from small cut-up towels; Allison Katz’s Poires Noires Sand Painting, 2012, a floor piece depicting the black pears of its title in stained sand; and Daniel Sinsel’s Untitled, 2013, a brown monochrome grid painted onto a canvas bumpy with hazelnut shells. These works conveyed a lightness of touch, a fascination with affect harbored in color, and a confrontational engagement with artistic convention. Taken together, they seemed at ease, as if their signifiers from the worlds of film, interior design, and art history were in playful conversation with one another.

How much did these works really coincide, however, with the idea of “neo-camp” that was the curatorial concept for the exhibition? Sharp introduced this idea at length in a 2012 essay in Kaleidoscope before putting it to the test here. Crudely put, his underlying argument is that “neo-camp” offers a way to describe a tendency in contemporary art toward “materialistic and detail-obsessive fetishism” and a celebration of “artifice and artificiality”—which he casts as a nonnostalgic reclamation of certain aspects of Victorianism. “Neo-camp,” he writes, “becomes . . . a compelling alternative and serviceable post-homosexual mode and metaphor for art, in the sense that Victorianism can now be seen as a metaphor for art.” Among the commonalities he sees among artists engaging with “the heritage of camp in the 21st century” are “a highly sensual and plastic sensibility” and “an abundance of euphemism, veiling and metaphor.” This was perhaps clearest in the densely installed rear gallery, where, among much else, an innuendo-laden 2013 poster by Matthew Brannon, with characteristically immaculate typography, advertised the imaginary film In Through the Out Door, 2013, and Pablo Bronstein showed a set of drawings, Designs for fireplaces representing famous scenes from Handel’s Alcina, 2013.

Sharp is right in seeing a prevalence of coded discourses and a kind of aestheticist wit in such works, but he is, to my mind, on shakier ground when he claims that “neo-camp” includes a “fetishization of the domestic” that conspires toward the “domestication of camp . . . so as to recuperate it as an aesthetic strategy.” This skips over the question of camp’s politics. Susan Sontag (the inevitable “dad” of any discussion of the subject) may have claimed that “camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical,” but the work of following generations of queer and feminist scholars has viewed it as part of a greater destabilization of what were once presumed to be clear divisions between gender roles—and identities in general.

Yet if the expanding scope of queer critiques of heteronormativity was not reflected in this exhibition, there were nonetheless ways in which more politicized readings of neo-camp entered into the show. The conversation between the works by Burr and Hamilton, for instance, eloquently proposed a conception of the artwork as a pendant to the performance of identity: This was art as fashion—even art as drag. And it’s a short step from here to a performative reading of the artwork itself, as a type of object that (ideally, wishfully) exploits the codes of “passing” to challenge ingrained habits and assumptions in order to make room for new modes of social, relational, aesthetic, and political understanding.

Alexander Scrimgeour