New Exhibit Has Sparked Praise, and Outrage

Home Brooklyn Life New Exhibit Has Sparked Praise, and Outrage
Frame grab from the David Wojnarowicz film, "A Fire In My Belly," with ants crawling on a crucifix. Photo courtesy of AP.

“HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is the first major museum exhibition to center on how sexual identity and gender have shaped modern art. It also emphasizes the influence of gay and lesbian artists in the last century.

“The Brooklyn Museum is uniquely positioned, I believe, to host this landmark exhibition since New York is where many of these artists and their subjects discovered their voice and where the gay rights movement was launched,” said Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold L. Lehman.

The exhibit first appeared at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from fall 2010 to February 2011.

The Catholic League and others protested the 4-minute segment of the film, “A Fire in My Belly” by late artist David Wojnarowicz, when it was part of the Smithsonian exhibition.

They called it sacrilegious for showing a crucified Jesus figure with ants crawling over it. Wojnarowicz created the film as a response to those suffering through the AIDS epidemic, which greatly impacted the gay community. He expresses this idea in the film with images, such as the crucified Jesus, of loss, pain, death and suffering. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992, and the film was never finished.

Following the protests, the Smithsonian pulled the piece just a month after the exhibit opened.

Frank O'Hara painted by Neel. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue, in a statement last week, criticized the Brooklyn Museum for keeping the film segment in the exhibit. He called “HIDE/SEEK” an “ anti-Catholic exhibit” shown at “New York’s most anti-Catholic museum.”

But Donohue said the Catholic League will not stage a demonstration outside the Brooklyn Museum. He cited two reasons for this decision: “a) we won the big prize when Smithsonian officials voluntarily bowed to public pressure and withdrew the vile video, and b) the video has been shown many times since at other venues across the nation.”

In response to its critics, others have spoken up in support of the film.

Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Brooklyn) agrees with the museum’s decision to keep “A Fire in My Belly” in the show. “Freedom of expression is the pillar of democracy, and much is to be gained from the entirety of this show. Censorship has no place in a free society,” she said in a statement.

At a special “HIDE/SEEK” preview Thursday morning Brooklyn Museum Director Lehman and the exhibition’s two curators, Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward sought to blunt the criticism from Catholics. “I just wanted to make an offer that, if I can be of any service to the Bishop of New York in terms of teaching him the iconic tradition of his faith I would he happy to do so,” curator Jonathan D. Katz said with undisguised sarcasm.

The point, Katz explained, was that “throughout the history of Catholicism the singular metaphor for human suffering has been the body of Christ. It’s been deployed from the very beginning of Christian art.”

Museum Director Lehman, describing the exhibit, said, “‘HIDE/SEEK’ traces the expression of sexual identity through the major movements of realism, abstraction, pop art and conceptual art, framing portrait making in America in a new and illuminating way. ‘HIDE/SEEK’ brings together works by iconic figures in American art and artists who forged the way for free and open representation of sexual difference.”

The exhibit, Lehmann added, “explores the unexamined impact of gay and lesbian artists on the portrayal of personal identity.”

Walt Whitman by Eakins. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

“HIDE/SEEK” features approximately 100 works of art from 67 artists. The pieces, which span 100 years, from the late 19th century to today, include a range of media, from paintings to photography, to film and music.

Most of the artwork is from the original show at the National Portrait Gallery. About five pieces had to be swapped out because some of the loaned works were no longer available.

The exhibition’s pieces include a Thomas Eakins’ photo of Walt Whitman (1891; printed 1979), who is believed to have been homosexual; “Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills” (1935) a painting from Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist known for her suggestively sexual work; the Alice Neel painting of gay poet Frank O’Hara (1960); Yayoi Kusama’s photo “Homosexual Wedding;” Nan Goldin’s photo of two drag queens, titled “Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC” (1991)’ and the Annie Leibovitz photo, “Ellen DeGeneres, Kauai, Hawaii” (1997), shot the same year DeGeneres announced she was a lesbian.

It also features gay artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Keith Haring.

This extensive exhibit, however, gives prominence to Wojnarowicz’s film. A four minute truncated version of the film is shown together with other contemporary pieces. There is also a separate room that features a timeline of its history and longer versions of the film.

“HIDE/SEEK” is not the first controversy for the Brooklyn Museum. In 1999 the Catholic League led a demonstration in front of the museum protesting the exhibit “Sensation,” which featured a painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary” by artist Chris Ofili, in which cutouts of female buttocks and genitalia from pornographic magazines were displayed together with real elephant dung.

Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to pull $7 million dollars of funding from the Brooklyn Museum. The battle between Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum ended up in the courts, which ruled in favor of the museum.

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