Walking through the New Museum’s seductively titled but rather sleepy exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” I wondered, unhappily, if gender has become a null, dull subject, or if the problem is that artists and/or art institutions have become too risk-averse to take it on with palpable force. The headlines, of course, point only to the latter — or some explanation like it: Trump’s ban on transgender people from military service; his recent “joke” about gay people and how Mike Pence “wants to hang them all!”; Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s directive effectively eroding federal protections of LGBTQI rights; the calling out of Harvey Weinstein for decades of sexual harassment, and the declarations of #metoo that swept across social media in support of those who had spoken out; a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs from this past August that announced a 29 percent increase since last year in hate-fueled homicides of LGBTQI and HIV-affected people. Gender may be considered one of culture’s first acts of conceptualism — a received idea about one’s body, one’s identity, largely still precedes our own articulations — but the violence and fear with which its expressions are met remain all too real.
So why, despite the promised detonations of its premise, and the tumultuous times in which we live, does the show fail to go off? Interestingly, it seems that the lack of charge is, at least in part, by design. “The feeling of stalemate is palpably in the air,” writes Johanna Burton, the Keith Haring director and curator of education and public engagement, in her introductory essay to the show’s catalog. She goes on to explain that we presently suffer a “paralysis within discourse” around the fluidities of gender and identity. The curatorial remedy is simply to present the art and allow viewers to decide for themselves how it all adds up, how it reflects and refracts our contemporary moment. There is no narrative thread to follow across the sculptures, paintings, photographs, videos, and performances of the forty-plus artists included, most of whom place themselves somewhere along the spectrum of LGBTQI and beyond — and in theory, this lack of navigation presents an interesting opportunity to push back against the ways in which cultural institutions prescribe the meaning of an artwork.
As in every large group show, there is much to see, some of it worth looking at. The divinely weirdo sculptures of Los Angeles–based multimedia artist Harry Dodge are tender, awkward meditations on the strange bedfellows we know as form and function. One titled Pure Shit Hotdog Cake (2017) is a hideous-regal assemblage, topped like a totem with an oversize faux hot dog, multicolored glossy paints dripping down its tiered platform as though reveling in the indignities of postcoital (post-aesthetic?) reverie. Diamond Stingily’s Kaas 4C (2017) is a long woven braid of hair that penetrates through four floors of the museum, a quiet piece one might not even notice, but one that speaks loudly to the unseen, unacknowledged ways in which black women pierce through the powers that be. Vaginal Davis’s clay wall sculptures look like a body was pulped and pounded into pieces to create a grisly frieze, while Connie Samaras’s series of photographs titled Edge of Twilight (2011–2017) document the humble homesteads in an all-women’s RV retirement park.
“Trigger” is the most recent addition to the New Museum’s proud history of exhibitions taking on the subjects of gender, sexuality, and identity — among them: “Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art” in 1982, the first museum show in America to take stock of how art embraced and advanced the visibility of the gay male community; and “Bad Girls” in 1994, which highlighted the ways in which artists were dealing with gender and feminism in ways that were both outrageous and outraged. From the feminist movements to gay liberation, through the AIDS crisis and the culture wars, the politics of gender has had a rich, kinked history in art. As we’ve come to understand, contemporary is often code in the art world for young, though now by definition should include any and all artists working in this moment, regardless of age.
“Trigger” claims to be intergenerational — and it is, technically — though largely the artists are Generation X through to millennials, which means that part of our moment feels underrepresented. It is, however, interesting to see where and how history does appear. Mariah Garnett’s Encounters I May or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin (2010) features the artist as Berlin, re-performing moments from the gay porn auteur’s films. Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s Lost in the Music (2017) celebrates the grande dame of gay liberation, drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (here played by actress Mya Taylor), who died under mysterious circumstances in 1992. Chris E. Vargas’s Transgender Hiroes (2013) is a broadside for MOTHA (Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art), for which he collaged photographs of some of the most beloved transgender and gender-nonconforming artists in history to create a group portrait — and with this fiction, playfully tears into memory with a tender “what if,” spinning a new image of community, of collectivity, from which culture can imagine itself forward.
Like gender, narrative too is elastic, molten, potent — able to perform as both weapon and tool. Why not pick it up and use it with all one’s might? To abdicate its power in a time when the slippages between fact and fiction have fatal consequences is to valorize theory perhaps too much — to use it to justify a certain inaction — and to miss an opportunity to speak and, therefore, to resist. Without strong curatorial muscle framing the artists chosen for “Trigger,” without placing stakes in the ground that they share or don’t, a beautifully ambitious museum exhibition starts to dissolve into the crowd-bowing chaos and bulk of a contemporary art fair. Audiences are left to navigate the works via lengthy wall texts written on each artist, which produces a strange selfie effect that quarantines the artists rather than opening them up to each other for cross talk. We write to be written; we write to rewrite and then, in our turn, to be rewritten. If there is a paralysis in the discourse around gender in the art world, this kind of curatorial forfeiture may just be one of the contributing causes. Otherwise, as is one of the frustrations with “Trigger,” one risks saying too little about our overwhelming lot.
‘Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon’
Through January 18