Antony Hegarty, the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, who has soared to cult prominence with his otherworldly, transgendered performances, has brought together 6 artists for this debut curatorial effort.
Upon entering the gallery, we find a poem, lyrics really, from which the title 6 eyes is taken. This poem describes a pre-birth experience from within the womb of seeing 6 stars which then trail the author's life after birth. This poem sets the tone for this exhibition by calling forth the muse, the guiding lights, which seem to lie behind the work of each of these artists to help them cross over from one state to the next. From dark to light, inspiration to actuality, male to female/female to male, gritty to visionary, these 6 stars each confront the process of transmigration in their own way.
In thinking about this exhibition, I kept returning to the idea of a constellation. I guess it is a natural leap from stars to constellation. The Big Dipper or any other constellation is an image or pattern that we discover from a great distance. Upon closer inspection, we realize that this thing is actually a few points of light among thousands and thousands in a given area of space. At some level this exhibition seems to reflect a grouping personal to Antony; all of these artists are closely connected to Antony himself, whether as influences, friends, family or collaborators. These artists not only revolve around him in terms of personal relationships, but they also reflect the same silvery light of the visionary and the outsider that he, himself, has cast. Together they help illuminate each other - together they can bear the emptiness of the dark night.
Moving past the poem we are confronted at once with the work of the late Peter Hujar, a New York photographer who is counted as a significant influence to many of the artists in this show as well as such luminaries as Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin. It is fitting that Hujar should come first. Upon browsing the room filled with an array of Hujar's iconic images from trannie divas to disparate scenes of decaying animals and back alley detritus, one becomes immediately aware of the darkness of his vision and the detached gaze that he places upon his sensational subject matter. In one way, this work is about scene - - it documents infamy and celebrity in the New York counter culture of gays, artists and trans-performers in the 70's and 80's. But it is also about about perseverance. Hujar's images reify the gritty anguish of the street urchin or the hustler, and enoble the terribly private moments of mega-personalities such as Candy Darling on her death bed or Divine half-dressed in his/her dressing room. Taken as a whole, Hujar's work seems to open the door to the postmodern Other as it moves from brutality, to social commentary, to eroticism and finally to a kind of deep pathos for the frail, the lonely, the harrowing and the hollow.
We walk out of the dark vision of Hujar into the over-lit awkwardness of Alice O'Malley's portraits. Expounding on the tradition of society and celebrity photography, O'Malley has only recently started to show her work, which she refers to as primarily documentary. It will be interesting to watch her development. Using large, empty studio settings almost devoid of context, she seems to be deft at attracting her models into an agreement of revelation. But instead of the gritty, almost-baroque richness found in Hujar's portraits, or the elegance and refinement in someone like Cecil Beaton, O'Malley's subjects present as fragile, faded beings that seem to have failed to fully embody. Her "stars" are contrived of artifice and distance; they deny depth and try to console us with strange little quirks and costumed self-consciousness. Sitting or standing at center stage, there seems to be a discomfort pervading O'Malley's models much like the discomfort of sitting disrobed and vulnerable in a doctor's office. In her Self Portrait, this discomfort manifests as a disturbing dialogue between the person of Alice, defiant, vulnerable, confronting the staring eye of society while she mercilessly captures herself with the push of a toe on the camera'sautomatic switch, and the mannequin which seems to hover behind her like a long-lost boy-twin. Where are her stars now?
In marked contrast to these artists, we find the mystical drawings of Kiki Smith covering 3 walls in the middle salon. The hand-crafted fragility and delicacy of these works seem to lack force against the black and white drama of Hujar or O'Malley. Yet, Smith always has the ability to seduce the viewer, to slowly pull them into the dream or myth that she has created. From peacocks to birds to snakes, Smith's muse seems to run after these creatures reaching out to catch them, but always just missing. There is a distance here as well, a gap between the longing and the fulfillment, much like other pieces in this show.
This longing rings forth as well in the Cummard photographs from the late 70's and in the video installtion which sits so nicely in the basement room. This installation (entitled Cloudline), has a haunting soundtrack by William Basinski and video by James Elaine. The piece reveals a slow moving sheet blowing on a clothesline in the middle of a rural field. Shot in hand-held imperfection with a fuzzy, blurry image that induces a dreamlike reverie, we move through this landscape of nostalgic self-consciouness not knowing where we are or why we are there. There is an awkward child walking through the field with their back to the audience, which further mystifies. As with so much of the work in this exhibition the sense of there being a story behind the scenes but beyond reach leaves one slightly off kilter.
The show is capped by photographic work produced by Antony in conjunction with others.
All in all, the exhibition loses its cohesion if looked upon too closely, but it holds many points of light in the individual works, and certainly a fascination in terms of the enigmatic persona around which this constellation turns.
Well worth a stroll down Quincampoix. Then head over to the Pompidou for the blockbuster duo of Calder and Kandinsky!
- Georgia Fee
(Images: Antony Hegarty, ghost, 2008 @ Antony Hegarty/Don Felix Cervantes; Peter Hujar, Divine, 1975, silver gelatin print @Peter Hujar; Alice O'Malley, Dr. Julia, NYC, 2000, silver gelatin print @Alice O'Malley; Alice O'Malley, Self Portrait NYC, 2002, silver gelatin print@ Alice O'Malley)