aybe it doesn’t signal the arrival of a major arts movement and maybe it is just a symptom of another consumer-driven micro trend, but it would seem that something is afoot in the contemporary art world and it concerns what you could call, for lack of more comprehensive terminology, a burgeoning of gay male art. You can spot it at galleries like John Connelly Presents or Daniel Reich in Chelsea, or at Peres Projects in Los Angeles, or making a splash in the sales booths at any of the virally replicating international art fairs. It is also, most recently, displayed in “The Male Gaze,” a just-opened group show at the power House Arena in Brooklyn, that makes clear how a new generation of artists is addressing itself frankly to the varied and mutating shapes of sexuality. Although there are some older artists like Jack Pierson on view at the gallery in Brooklyn, most belong to a generation born in the ’80s and too young to have experienced the full brunt of AIDS or the identity politics of that era.
Many have barely experienced gayness as a threatened condition. Thus they seem to have skipped past self-acceptance and the hoary dramas of the closet, and moved directly to forms of expression that are frank, exuberant, celebratory, bawdy and not infrequently marked by the spirit of juvenilia that the (heterosexual) photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark has been mining for years. “The art we’re showing,” said Nicholas Weist, the curator of “The Male Gaze,” an assembly of more than 20 mostly young gay artists, among them such collectors’ darlings as Christian Holstad, Scott Hug and Michael Magnan, “argues for a new kind of alternativism that reacts against the mainstream of the culture.”
Not so surprisingly, that includes that expanding part of the mainstream that is gay. This burgeoning scene is hardly equivalent to a battle for the cultural ramparts. Yet there are signs that something livelier is at play than some random shows at a select group of galleries.The most persuasive evidence of this may be the crop of gay art publications at venerable outposts of culture like the Printed Matter artists’ bookstore on 10th Avenue.
“I’ve noticed a huge number of little gay periodicals coming out and they’re all focused toward the creative end of things,” said AA Bronson, the artist and director of Printed Matter, citing publications like Kaiserin, a French magazine “for boys with problems”; Pinups, a coyly elaborate one-image publication by the Brooklyn artist Christopher Schulz; Shoot, the photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s autobiographical me-and-my-naked-friends magazine; the provocative Australian zine They Shoot Homos Don’t They?, and Daddy, a spray-painted, limited edition production. There are others, from Sweden, Poland and Germany and also hipster outposts throughout Canada and the United States. One would list them all if some titles weren’t too outright raunchy to be printed here. This is not to say the magazines are pornographic, although the images they present are often sexually candid. Rather, they, like much of the gay art now being made – and so much art and music and culture of all types – seem to hybridize a generalized fetish for youth culture, for self-exposure, for the small and the intimate and apolitical. They are as solipsistic as a Rufus Wainwright lyric. They are as whimsical as one of the neo-hippie Devendra Banhart’s tunes. They have a proudly do-it-yourself aura, but what, these days, does not? Almost all of the magazines are new, which is to say that their first issues were produced within the past year.
And, just as significant, said Bronson, many are among the top sellers among the thousands of titles Printed Matter displays. “I’m not sure if I’d say what’s happening is a movement or a moment,” said Vince Aletti, an independent curator and photography critic for The New Yorker, referring to the latest iteration of gay culture. No one does. Yet, as David Rimanelli, an art critic and long time contributor to Artforum, said, “There is this huge efflorescence of artists right now doing this kind of work.” There are an awful lot of people, gay or otherwise, he added, “making intimate, slightly obscure narratives,” of exactly the sort that artists like Hug and Magnan have turned into an a minor industry with K48, their print magazine collaboration with other artists along this loosely federated circuit.
Their publication is so polished in its chic, mixtape naïveté that each issue comes with an accompanying CD, a fold-out poster and, lately, a back cover advertisement for Dior. It is probably an exaggeration to say that it all started with Butt, yet it seems obvious that this Dutch gay zine with its trademark pink pages and its aura of 1970s outsider culture provided a template for a passel of imitators. “I adore Butt,” said Bruce Hainley, a critic and curator who is the associate director of criticism and theory in the graduate program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Its publishers, Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom, Hainley added, “are clearly aware of an After Dark, Andy Warhol’s Interview, 1970s GQ gay aesthetic, but are not beholden to nostalgia.” Still, nostalgia remains a powerful current running through the new gay male art scene, manifest as a longing for what, from a distance, looks like the utopian days of radical and pre-AIDS politics and unfettered sex.
That many gay people now find themselves squarely in the mainstream is a source of useful friction for artists like Dean Sameshima, whose Web site explains that his randy autobiographical work was inspired by “the will to assert and examine the continued existence” of underground gay cultures. A similar thought turned up a while back in a Butt interview with the gay German playwright Patrick Schuckmann. “Gay culture is coming to an end,” said Schuckmann, head writer for a hugely popular German soap opera whose title, translated, is “Good Times, Bad Times.” “In a way I regret that, because this gay identification was so important for me, and I liked the revolutionary aspects of this idea of having a different sexuality.
Now it’s all about marriage and being like everybody else.” Well, it is unless it is not. “It’s important to be gay and be out, of course, to be who you are,” said James Morrison, 29, an artist whose piece in “The Male Gaze” is called “Friendster Is Dead.” “But I think we’re moving into this next generation of art where being gay comes secondary. “Gay culture has been more and more exposed, but what is it?” asked the artist Qing Liu. “I am Qing Liu – Asian and queer, poor and artist, and many other things,” Liu said. “Everything others claim I am entitles me to a question. And the one question I have been working constantly to raise is, What exactly is gay now?”