Art Fag City at the L Magazine: P.P.O.W’s History Keeps Me Awake at Night

by Art Fag City on August 20, 2008 The L Magazine

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, 2003, 21 minutes, DVD Image via: P.P.O.W. Gallery

My latest review is up at The L Magazine. The piece below.

“So my heritage is a calculated fuck on some faraway sun-filled bed while the curtains are being sucked in and out of an open window by a passing breeze,” writes the late David Wojnarowicz in Close to the Knives, an aggressively raw and poetic memoir revealing his gift for self-expression. Wojnarowicz didn't choose such bleak beginnings, nor did he choose an untimely AIDS-related death in 1992, but in the all-too brief time he was alive, he touched countless professionals in the arts. An outspoken queer-AIDS activist and leading figure in the 1980s East Village art scene, Wojnarowicz worked in painting, photography, film, performance and writing. His work has now inspired History Keeps Me Awake at Night: A Genealogy of Wojnarowicz, a group exhibition at P.P.O.W. bringing together 18 artists — the majority of whom are young — who have felt his influence.

Launching a largely wall-mounted show, curators Wendy Olsoff and Jamie Stern (one of the owners of the gallery and the gallery director respectively) fill the space with small to mid-sized works. Aesthetically, the art doesn't fit together neatly — it's not the most brilliantly hung show in Chelsea — though pieces themselves are quite strong. Documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf's Small Town Boys, for example, a 2003 experimental biography, deftly juxtaposes the story of a child named Sarah Rosenberg trying to save My So Called Life through Internet petitions and fliers, with footage of protests over Wojnarowicz's death only two years earlier. As the film makes clear, both the show (which covered topics of homophobia and same-sex parenting), and the artist died due to neglect. The former was a result of poor viewership, the latter the government's refusal to invest sufficient resources in AIDS research. The hope, if there is any, lies with Rosenberg, a figure almost exchangeable with the protesters: a dedicated, awkward prepubescent child seeing her concerns acknowledged, but ultimately never receiving substantive support from paternal authority figures.

While bleak, Wolf presents a scenario slightly less futile than some of Wojnarowicz’s better-known work. His untitled photograph documenting a museum display of buffalos falling off a cliff, for instance invites the viewer to compare the results of herding scared animals to larger political and social events. Carrie Mae Weems mimics that same pessimism in the show, by using an inkjet print of his piece on canvas, adding a black female viewer in front of this image and inscribing the words I saw you falling black and Indian alike and for you I played a sorrow song in red. The open-ended content of the original piece isn’t changed significantly in this new incarnation but rather made to speak more specifically to race and colonization. Certainly, Mae Weems’ words have a poetic tone Wojnarowicz would have appreciated.

Other works are similarly eloquent, either by combination of text and image or iconography alone. Henrik Olesen’s Untitled, an eight-part computer collage, resembles a series of underexposed photocopies. Suggesting a sullen past, the words in two individual frames losing the form in darkness overlay an erotic gay scene and an obscured image of Ronald Regan, respectively. Shannon Ebner’s quiet black-and-white photograph, Leaning Tree, makes reference to conditions beyond our control that change us, while Michael Bilsborough’s line drawings of emaciated men and women giving each other head in a public bathroom feel oddly sanitized. All of these works speak to themes Wojnarowicz himself explored.

If any conclusions can be drawn from the genealogy presented at P.P.O.W., it would certainly seem his artistic descendants find little more optimism from the current political and social conditions than the artist himself did. However, if one ray of light may be cast, Wojnarowicz’s dexterity and lyricism with both image and text inspire the like.

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