evan moffitt

Month: July, 2016


The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut


Published in Issue 181 of frieze, September 2016

The modernist philosophy of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and their contemporaries was democratic and utopian – at least until it was realized in concrete, glass and steel. Despite its intention to produce affordable designs for better living, modernism became the principle style for major corporations and government offices, for the architecture of capital and war. Are its original ideals still a worthy goal?

I found myself asking that question at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, while watching Modern Living (2016), the latest work by choreographer duo Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly. As I followed the sloping path to Johnson’s jewel box, pairs of dancers dressed in colourful, loose-fitting garments, mimicking each other’s balletic movements, appeared in emerald folds of lawn. With no accompaniment but the chirping of birds and the crunch of gravel underfoot, I could’ve been watching tai chi at a West Coast meditation retreat. The influence of postmodern California choreographers, such as the artists’ mentor Simone Forti, was clear.

When the Glass House was first completed in 1949, Johnson was criticised for producing a voyeuristic domestic space in an intensely private era governed by strict sexual mores. Like a fishbowl, the house gave its inhabitants nowhere to hide. But if Johnson invited the gaze of others, he also gave himself a space to perform before their eyes. That suburban domestic ideal – the middle class ‘American dream’ – was unattainable then for gay men. In the Glass House’s ‘theatre in the round’, heteronormative behaviour is revealed to be a set of learned and habituated gestures, which Johnson amplified to absurdity in a kind of drag performance. The house thus provides a perfect stage for Gerard & Kelly’s exploration of queer bodies within the legacy of modernism.

Johnson was a camp appropriator, famous for inhabiting the styles of other architects and designers in exaggerated fashion. His Glass House refines the elements of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House to extremity; his 1984 AT&T Building in Manhattan, with its oppressively weighty Chippendale roofline, merged the historical pastiche of postmodernism with 1980s corporate bombast, perversely turning a macho office building into a gigantic closet. As the primary space of queer life that lies at the dark heart of the home, the closet is not simply a rhetorical device but links (domestic) interiority with (public) appearance, personal secrets with dress and social behaviour. Structurally and materially, the Glass House embodies this paradox; fully transparent yet exceptionally private, the building gave Johnson and his partner, David Whitney, exactly what they could never have beyond the property – the freedom to be openly intimate without fear of assault.

As rain began to fall, the dancers entered the living room, where their movements grew less synchronized. Like human clocks, each performer announced the ‘arrival’ of an hour, their awkwardly staggered voices suggesting a gradual temporal slip. These were followed by brief personal memories associated with each hour: ‘eleven’ for some meant ‘sweeping the floor’; for others, ‘the taste of coffee’ or ‘holding him close’. As more bodies gathered in the house, their recitations thickened into a palimpsest which recalled that tender tribute to romantic disconnection, Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991). Gerard & Kelly borrowed the move from their 2014 performance Timelining, but at the Glass House it took on new meaning: modern life cages bodies in the vicious clockwork of daily labour – a mathematical system that cares little for our subjective experiences of time. As dancers slowly merged and separated, the erotic magnetism of their movements left me somewhat melancholic, reminded of how difficult it can be to find real love when ‘matches’ are determined by dating-app algorithms.

With no score, Modern Living is organized around three maxims, which the dancers chant in unison at regular intervals throughout the 70-minute performance. The first (‘clockwork, clockwork, relationships like clockwork’) captures the quiet violence our daily routines inflict on those we love. The second (‘the home is a mathematical equation’), recited by dancers seated at Johnson’s dining table, is a paean to the stiff precision commonly associated with middle-class propriety. And the third (‘the family is a system of regeneration’) ascribes the sole purpose of procreation to the nuclear family, explicitly denying queer people its graces. This last axiom was spoken outside, as the dancers extended their arms rigidly out or up towards the sky and twirled together in dense clusters, like skyscrapers of human flesh.

At the climax, dancers assembled around the coffee table in black tailored suits to perform a hybrid goose-step and vogue to Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (1945), a suite inspired by the sight of marching Nazi soldiers, here remixed live by an audio technician. It seemed a clear excoriation of Johnson’s crypto-fascist politics and refusal to come out during the AIDS epidemic, when he turned a blind eye to a gay community in crisis and built lavish office towers for the homophobic barons of Wall Street.

As I left the Glass House, I recalled that ‘utopia’ means ‘no place’. Gerard & Kelly traced Johnson’s development from modern purist to corporate hack, but they also revealed the fallacy of a one-size-fits-all architecture. If the modernist project can be resuscitated to accommodate queer bodies, it won’t be by doubling down on its high ideals, but by acknowledging those principles as just another performative gesture – another manifestation of style.



MoMA PS1, New York, Studio Museum, Harlem, and ICA Philadelphia


Published in Issue 181 of frieze, September 2016

In three concurrent museum shows that feature more than a decade’s worth of painting, textile, sculpture and video work, Rodney McMillian examines what happens between the sheets; in that intimate space where the sexual, potentially violent co-mingling of bodies reveals the deeper parts of the human psyche and our broader social fabric.

For ‘Landscape Paintings’ at MoMA PS1, McMillian has used bedsheets to frame the body as a kind of landscape. The marbleized red and purple paint layered atop the sheets’ surfaces could depict aerial views of muddy river deltas, bright with algal blooms, or the topography of scar tissue. Sticky globs of latex house paint pile up on these makeshift canvases like shed harlequin costumes, and in some works – such as Site #3: stumps in plain sight (2008-14) – they take on unnervingly human profiles. Many of their names make these allusions plain: fleshy pink paint extrudes from the surface of Untitled (tongue) (2014), lapping the gallery floor. The black lips of a Mouth: and the galaxy within (2012-15), speckled with bright colours, cast the body as a universe of spoken language or a constellation of physical pleasure. Sweat, blood, cum, tears: sheets claim the fluids that affirm our biological humanity. Here they pulse in dozens of exuberant hues, like the joyous secretions of a waking dream.

McMillian’s ‘Landscape Paintings’ mark a preoccupation that has long defined his career. An iconic textile piece opens ‘The Black Show’ at ICA Philadelphia: the glistening black vinyl surface of Untitled (target) (2012), visibly stitched with white string, greets viewers with its gaping maw not unlike a Lee Bontecou sculpture. A star of flayed fabric radiates from this orifice like flesh flapping at a wound. Black vinyl’s appeal is multivalent: it is cheap yet glossy, both nightclub décor and sexual fetish wear. McMillian provokes with abstraction, using bodily materials to evoke the violent and erotic charge of our own skins.

‘Views of Main Street’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem features readymades hauled from Los Angeles curbsides – household furniture left to rot in poverty-stricken streets. (The objects recall Noah Purifoy’s works of reclaimed rubble from the 1965 Watts riots.) Chair(2003) splays its woolly guts onto the gallery floor. The icebox door of Untitled (refrigerator)(2009) bears a gaping hole like evidence of domestic abuse. McMillian has sutured his sawed, battered Couch (2012) with a strip of cement, as if to suggest that nothing can truly mend a broken home. These ‘street views’ are also intimate artefacts of lives ravaged by home foreclosures, unemployment, and urban neglect  – forlorn forms bringing to mind the disproportionate poverty and incarceration rates of black men in the US, and families torn apart.

In his move from textiles and sculptures to video works, McMillian shifts from using materials that invoke absent bodies to using his own body as material. In Shelter (Crawl)(2015) at the ICA, a response to William Pope.L’s Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), McMillian crawls on his stomach through a South Carolina field while croaking the chorus from The Rolling Stones classic, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (1969). At the Studio Museum, the darkly comicNeshoba County Fair (2012) uses puppets to restage an infamous ‘race-baiting’ speech Ronald Reagan gave in Mississippi in 1980. Here Reagan is a soul-singing velociraptor, silver-tongued and poison-clawed, fomenting racism for political gain.

McMillian endows simple objects with affecting political resonances. This material relationship surfaces most poignantly in a single video at PS1 (Untitled, 2005): in it McMillian, lit by a spotlight, struggles to escape from beneath a large white bedsheet. His frenetic movements could be a dance or a more sinister struggle; the fabric resembles both a child’s Halloween costume and the white garb of the Ku Klux Klan. Sheets smother and conceal, but they also comfort; they mask hatred and swaddle love. Cast-off bedding can carry marks from tender trysts or violent recriminations. McMillian indulges this paradox with such sensual energy that his textiles assume the tactility of human skin: beaten and bruised, kissed and caressed. There is anger in them, but there is hope too.


SFMOMA opens in a San Francisco Transformed


Published on frieze.com, May 2016

I used to imagine that, long ago, the US tipped over, and all of the country’s misfits tumbled from its eastern shore across the Great Plains to San Francisco. John D’Emilio once described the city as a kind of Rome for gay men and lesbians. Not long before, in her 1967 essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, Joan Didion called it a site of ‘social hemorrhaging’. But if the latter description is still true, it’s certainly not as Didion intended. Today’s San Francisco bears little resemblance to the hotbed of deviance and counterculture that it once was. Surging dot com wealth has transformed it into a glittering capitol of 21st century industry, a technological utopia high on New Age spiritualism scrubbed of its radical zeal. Now social haemorrhaging occurs at the city’s physical margins, where its native communities have been forced by surging rents in the country’s most unaffordable real estate market.

If San Francisco is a city transformed, its newly expanded Museum of Modern Art is already an outdated affair. Designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, the towering, pleated pearl-white extension was funded by barons of retail and finance. Three of its elongated floors house the extensive Doris and Donald Fisher collection, amassed by the founders of the Gap – old money, in American terms. (According to the bequest, three-quarters of all works in the new building must come from the Fisher collection, and the museum must mount a Fisher-exclusive show once every ten years.) The new building’s cleanly functional, if repetitively linear galleries are pleasant spaces for viewing the major new Fisher acquisitions, from Gerhard Richter’s greatest paintings to rooms of stunning Ellsworth Kelly works. But conventional arrangement of the inaugural exhibitions presents a stale vision for a rejuvenated museum. On the sixth floor an all-male, all-white lineup of similarly aged, mostly German artists eschews broad art-historical narratives for a slice of the Fishers 1980s and ‘90s blue chip taste: witness a procession of exemplary Gerhard Richters followed by Georg Baselitzes, Sigmar Polkes, Anselm Kiefers, Thomas Struths and Andreas Gurskys. Even on lower floors, where a greater temporal range might permit other forms of diversity, abstract expressionist, pop and minimalist artworks testify to art history’s reigning patriarchy. A cramped, octagonal room crammed with Agnes Martin paintings – their chromatic subtlety bleached by harsh fluorescence, their insistent grids clashing with a scalloped ceiling – seems to say, tucked discreetly in a corner, that women have been brought along for the ride yet consigned to the back of the bus. The museum has also hung their permanent collection to mirror the Fishers’, so lesser works by the same artists appear in the same order; I left wondering what SFMOMA owns from other places and periods – to say nothing of Californian art. What’s more, Snøhetta has attempted to preserve the museum’s original Mario Botta building – a stripey marble and granite fortress completed in 1995 – by removing the central atrium’s zig-zagging staircase, leaving behind a spineless architectural skin. Now effectively deboned, the much-beloved Botta feels like an awkward annex to the new building, its spatial logic incompatible with Snøhetta’s rectangular galleries.

The city became world-renowned for a counterculture that flourished in geographic and cultural isolation from the older, Eastern coast. Now its appeal to global capital relies on the accumulation of the same high-cultural signifiers one might find in London, Dallas or Dubai. Although the Fisher collection was initially amassed in San Francisco, its presence in a new modern building – the largest modern art museum in America – designed by a Scandinavian architecture firm only heightens the impression that the city is no longer content to run on local pride. San Francisco wants the world on its doorstep.

And the world is now happy to oblige. A number of New York galleries have recently opened outposts there, to a flurry of outsider interest. Gagosian’s inaugural show in its newest space – a sampling of disparate, though impressive, works by marquee artists, from Pablo Picasso to Bruce Nauman, with only one Bay Area artist (David Ireland) included – feels baldly commercial across the street from SFMOMA. Pace’s new showroom, with a single James Turrell ‘Wide Glass’ installation on view, is located in the upper-crust suburb of Palo Alto, known for its competitive preparatory schools where the children of tech scions are groomed for postgraduate education at nearby Stanford. What could be a more transparent appeal to America’s new class of Silicon Valley billionaires? The surge of commercial interest in the San Francisco art scene has little to do with the art of the Bay Area, and more to do with the region’s shift from a place where art is made to a place where it is bought.

San Francisco’s newest scions camouflage their corporatism by coopting the language of the artistic avant-garde, singing a ‘gospel of disruption’ that transforms radical politics into a string of meaningless buzzwords. But despite their insistence on ‘creativity’ in the workplace, the tech crowd appears relatively uninvested in art. Will Mark Zuckerberg start buying Light and Space art? Will Sergei Bryn fund museum education programs? In order to fundraise effectively, SFMOMA must appeal to the Silicon Valley crowd, just as Gagosian and Pace hope to do. Recently, the museum announced that mobile phones will be at ‘the forefront of its engagement strategy’, through an interactive app that will ‘break down the boundaries between art, entertainment and learning’. At their best, such strategies can engage visitors with little prior interest in art beyond Instagram; at their worst, they exacerbate digital distraction by promoting mediated viewership, rather than first-hand observation.

A number of long-running local institutions have decided to ignore the tides altogether and continue producing top-notch programs. In her new show at the Wattis Institute, California College of the Arts’s kunsthalle-style exhibition space and study centre, Laura Owens has covered the gallery walls with an intricate screenprint collage that combines motifs from earlier paintings – checkerboard patterns and colourful strokes from a digital paintbrush – along with fragments of spam emails from online horoscope generators and self-help guides. Floating through the checked patterns like faintly discernible data in a sea of vibrating pixels, the emails prophesy good and bad fortune in the language of Bay Area yoga cults. Two speakers amplify disembodied voices’ stilted answers to questions texted by gallery visitors to a mysterious number, adding a foreboding layer of technological omniscience to the show. I sent the service a number of questions about surveillance – such as ‘Are you watching me?’ and ‘Do you have access to my personal data?’ – that received predictably cagey responses (though the voice did confirm it will vote for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming presidential election).

If Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Beuys had shared a vacation home in the Mission District, it might have been at 500 Capp Street, the longtime residence of artist David Ireland, where I found myself one morning breakfasting under a pair of wall-mounted antelope horns. During the three decades that Ireland lived there, he continuously lacquered the walls until they turned the tawny colour of over-steeped tea and as shiny as polished glass. The modest rooms were filled with curious sculptural objects: piles of painted sardine tins, transistor radios tuned to static, a swinging blowtorch chandelier. Quotidian accidents that left scrapes or dents in the walls and floorboards were commemorated with brass plaques. In the artist’s bedroom lay a small shrine to the house’s prior owner, an accordion maker: cutlery stubbornly jabbed in cement lumps excavated from the building’s foundations, and a slice of 40-year old birthday cake in a sealed glass jar, unrecognizably brown with mold. After Ireland’s death in 2009, collector Carlie Williams saved the house from imminent demolition and established the 500 Capp Street Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and study of Ireland’s work, much of which is housed onsite in a brand-new basement-level archive. The house fiercely guards its whimsy, hard to come by in today’s San Francisco of luxury condos and Soul Cycles.

Just as the city today is a case study in gentrification, it has also prompted productive solutions to such problems. A dozen younger and more established galleries have moved shop to the Minnesota Street Projects, a newly renovated warehouse in the Dogpatch district, where pristine white spaces ring a central atrium complete with a high-tech welcome desk, like a museum or a shopping mall. Collective offices, a kitchen and restrooms free up square footage for art in the galleries. Older players such as Anglim Gilbert have joined artist-run spaces including Capital and Et Al, giving the project much-needed variety, though its uniform architecture tends to flatten one’s approach to the work on display. (New York galleries Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern have also teamed up with a collaborative group show in a temporary space here.) Minnesota Street Projects is a fundamentally philanthropic venture, and its tenants rent their spaces at significantly below market rate; some of their artists will soon occupy studios across the street. Though laudable for fashioning a viable alternative model for galleries threatened by skyrocketing rents, Minnesota Street Projects is a somewhat archaic response to a figurative and literal invasion. The dramatic retrenchment of a dozen galleries from far-flung neighbourhoods to a single building trades a physically and geographically diverse scene, capable of engaging directly with different public audiences, for a one-stop shop. It remains to be seen what kind of crowds the project will draw, and whether its economic model can be successfully reproduced in other rapidly gentrifying cities.

Its unclear how SFMOMA will grow into its new building, or how San Francisco’s new galleries will fare in the local market. But one thing is clear: these recent developments aren’t aimed at longtime locals, who will struggle to pay steep $25 museum entrance fees, atop dramatic rent spikes. (The costly privatization of public spaces extends from museum to street: the San Francisco Department of Parks and Recreation notably declared last week that it would begin accepting paid reservations – for as much as $260 – for patches of grass on the public lawns of much-beloved Dolores Park.) In a city marred by acrimonious battles over rising inequality, San Francisco’s new public and private galleries are riding the tidal wave of wealth that threatens to washing away local culture – a development hardly offset by noble efforts like 500 Capp Street or the Minnesota Street Projects. If the Bay Area’s class of collectors and museum donors grows to include tech scions, its unclear whether institutional power structures will change for the better or worse; in the meantime, the economic gulf will likely widen. In her 1967 essay, Didion proclaimed that ‘the centre is not holding’. If it ever did in San Francisco, it has long since fallen out. Then again, perhaps the centre was always an illusion in that boom and bust town, now the seat of a new Gilded Age.


Race, Sexuality and Portraiture


Published in Issue 179 of frieze, May 2016

Twenty-five years ago, a portrait sparked a national debate about sex, artistic expression and censorship that galvanized the cultural politics of the United States. That portrait was Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit (1980), a close-cropped photograph of a black man’s penis hanging exposed from his open fly. It was a key piece of prosecutorial evidence in an obscenity trial filed by the City of Cincinnati over the exhibition ‘The Perfect Moment’, which had travelled to the Cincinnati Art Museum after its planned run at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. was cancelled by Republican congressmen. The photograph was not the only controversial work on display there but, unlike the others, it managed to offend everybody, from white religious conservatives to black gay liberals.

Mapplethorpe framed and lit all his subjects – from flowers to sadomasochistic sex acts – so they appear abstract and pleasing to the eye. Both rose and rectum received the same refined classical formalism. In the Cincinnati trial, curator Janet Kardon described Mapplethorpe’s Lou, N.Y.C. (1978), a photograph of a man sticking a finger into his urethra, as a work of artistic value because: ‘It’s a central image, very symmetrical, a very ordered, classical composition.’ The consistency of this approach also constituted its radicalism, at a time when alternative sexualities were less accepted and, in some states, homosexuality was still censored and criminalized.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Cincinnati trial and the ‘culture wars’ that followed, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have jointly acquired a bulk of the photographer’s archive from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Its arrival in Los Angeles was celebrated by ‘The Perfect Medium’, a sweeping dual museum retrospective that opened in March. But, 25 years later, it isn’t the photographs’ sexual charge that unsettles most. Many critics and historians who failed then to see their problematic racial dynamics can clearly identify them now. So, what has changed?

In the early 1990s, homophobic anti-sodomy statutes and brutal ‘broken windows’ policing ravaged the gay black body; black people mostly appeared in the media as perpetrators of drug violence or victims of AIDS. Now, white gays enjoy widening presence in film and television, while black men – gay and straight – consistently appear on the nightly news as victims of police brutality and (according to figures released this year by the Centers for Disease Control) 44 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the US are among African Americans, though they comprise only 14 percent of the population. Not much, it seems, has changed. The principal aim of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to insist in response to these tragedies that, as Judith Butler put it, black bodies are ‘bodies that matter’, deserving of the same legal protections and access to healthcare that whites enjoy. But the lifeless bodies of Michael Brown, Laquan MacDonald and nearly a dozen others, seen in the photographs and video footage of their deaths used as court evidence, mattered little to the jurors who acquitted the cops that killed them. The question of representation has rarely been as urgent as it is today.

The Republican politicians who denounced Man in a Polyester Suit believed the openly gay photographer’s emphasis on male sex, if not sexuality, qualified the picture as ‘homosexual smut’ and an assault on Christian values. Black gay artists and critics were more conflicted: Kobena Mercer recognized an object he desired, but one whose metonymic capacity to stand in for an entire body perpetuated a racist stereotype. He quoted Frantz Fanon: ‘One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis; the Negro […] is a penis.’ The cheapness of polyester suggests that even when wearing a suit, the uniform of bourgeois white culture, the black man doesn’t fit in. Glenn Ligon responded to this sexual objectification with his photographic installation Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991–93), a display of Mapplethorpe’s anthologized black male portraits annotated with quotes from figures such as Fanon, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

If Man in a Polyester Suit is a failed attempt to make part stand for whole – a penis for a man – then Mapplethorpe’s other portraits of black men are successful attempts to make whole stand for part: in them, the entire figure becomes a phallus. Take Jimmy Freeman (1979), for example: the subject’s folded pose turns his body into a pinwheel that spins on a genital axis. The tensile, athletic body of Thomas (1987), posed in a Vitruvian circle, seems ripped straight from a Greek amphora; his muscles are as obdurate as stone. The close cropped buttocks of Derrick Cross (1983) are as voluptuously abstract as a Constantin Brâncuși bronze. By riffing on a canon familiar to white, museum-going audiences, Mapplethorpe’s photographs suggest they deserve the denomination of ‘Art’ in spite, and not because, of their supposedly ‘troubling’ subject matter. Yet, this aestheticization of racial difference censors the historic violence inflicted upon black skin.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian British photographer and contemporary of Mapplethorpe’s, produced a dazzling but little-known body of work just a few years before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989, some of which were shown in New York earlier this year in a compact exhibition at Syracuse University’s Palitz Gallery. Fani-Kayode’s studio portraits of nude black men elegantly meld Western Europe and West Africa, black and gay culture – a syncretism that highlights the challenge of marginalization on multiple fronts (sexuality, race, nationality). Unlike Mapplethorpe’s classical black and whites, the colour photographs in Fani-Kayode’s last series, ‘Nothing to Lose’ (1987–89), are sumptuously baroque: chiaroscuro, velvety shades of umber and scarlet, drapery, flowers and fruit all recall the paintings of Caravaggio. In the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and a resurgence of political conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic, Fani-Kayode and others – from Andres Serrano to Derek Jarman and Madonna – incorporated baroque aesthetics into their work as a way to uncover the perverse, queer desire hidden not just within the canon of art history, but the dominant social, political and cultural institutions that shape it. If Mapplethorpe’s quotations are retrograde, Fani-Kayode’s are subversive.

In the arresting photograph Gold Phallus (1989), a crouched figure wears a Venetian plague doctor mask, a 16th-century emblem of the reaper. His penis, painted gold, mirrors the mask’s ghoulish proboscis, while a string tied around its shaft seems to tug it in two directions. By focusing our gaze on the golden phallus of its title, the photograph recalls Man in a Polyester Suit; but, unlike that violently close-cropped image, Fani-Kayode exposes the crime of objectification by including the figure’s full body in the frame. Gold Phallus depicts a man enslaved by white desire, which the mask suggests is a kiss of death.

In Fani-Kayode’s earlier black and white Union Jack (1987), the male model’s muscular thighs in contrapposto could belong to Derrick Cross, were it not for the fraying British flag that hangs from his left hand, like the ornamental drapery that lends structural support to marble sculptures. Its corner snags on his foot, disguising a gesture of defiance to imperialism as one of classical repose. The flag’s placement recalls a towel in a men’s locker room, removed by an exhibitionist; it no longer shields the black body from view in the name of public decorum.

Such ambiguous symbolism reflects an ambiguous relationship to photography. As a gay black man, Fani-Kayode was doubly invisible: subject to white gay men’s racism and black Africans’ homophobia. In the 19th century, Europeans employed photography as an extension of phrenology to justify colonial subjugation. Photography has long been used to marginalize and to solidify binary ways of thinking. Fani-Kayode’s work acknowledges that photography can never fully capture black gay diasporic experience, since nothing truly can. The photographs lay no claim to truth but, instead, fashion a self-aware fantasy.

Like ‘Nothing to Lose’, Lyle Ashton Harris’s 1994 series ‘The Good Life’ toys with racial and sexual fantasy. In it, intersectional subjects parody tropes of black and queer identity. For Venus Hottentot 2000 (1994), fellow photographer Renee Cox posed with prosthetic breasts and butt as a millennial Saartjie Baartman, the 19th-century Khoi woman paraded around Europe as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. Cox’s dark body pads stand out against her lighter skin, but she poses with pride, as if to say that no stereotype can define her. In another photograph, Saint Michael Stewart (1994), Harris himself dons a cop uniform and red lipstick, queering historically discriminatory, macho police forces while canonizing Stewart, an unarmed black graffiti artist who died mysteriously in New York Police Department custody in 1983. (Stewart’s arresting officers were all acquitted, a poignant fact in light of black activist Sandra Bland’s unexplained death in a Texas jail cell last year, and the subsequent lack of indictments.)

At the 1983 African-American Day Parade in Harlem, Lorraine O’Grady helmed a parade float bearing a massive gilded picture frame and a skirt emblazoned with the performance title Art Is … down New York’s Seventh Avenue. At various points along the parade route, O’Grady and fellow performers bearing empty picture frames jumped off the float and invited members of the crowd to pose inside them. Photographs documenting the event show joyful people eager to become works of art. O’Grady’s performance acknowledges the frame’s ability to restore the power of self-representation to those historically deprived of it.

Portrait photography exemplifies a principle contradiction of its medium: it claims to capture the essential qualities of its subjects more accurately than painting or sculpture, while also being highly contingent on the styles and techniques of its practitioners. But is a portrait ever not a fiction? Man in a Polyester Suit makes this failure plain, though that does not make it a fatal flaw. Perhaps it’s unfair to demand that Mapplethorpe’s portraits honestly and accurately portray their sitters; photography is not a ‘perfect medium’, as the LACMA and Getty shows’ title suggests. But that’s why framing matters, especially in portraiture, where human bodies are at stake. Mapplethorpe’s framing reduces subjects with complex histories to coveted erotic objects. The portraits by Fani-Kayode, Harris and O’Grady, on the other hand, constitute a different form of photographic exchange – one in which power lies not behind the camera but in front of it. By giving their models the agency to perform freely before their lens, they rescue photography from its racist, sexist and homophobic past. Their portraits refuse to show us who we want or expect to see.