CEPA Gallery's extraordinary "Deviant Bodies" is a triumphal reminder that alternative art spaces, though plagued by funding cuts and pressured to cater to broader audiences, can still now and again muster the strength to make truly alternative exhibitions.
This is a show that refuses that happy dream of middle-class gays, so much part of the current political discussion, to be seamlessly integrated into mainstream America. The right to marry, the right to parent children, the right to shared medical insurance, the right to inherit, the right to jobs, the right to stand proudly over the backyard barbecue like any straight man - none of these reasonable desires are likely part of the agenda of the men represented here or, for that matter, of the artists doing the representing.
On the contrary, these images depict a gay male stance that celebrates, among other things, the tawdry mock glamour of drag queens and the grim mystique of the street hustler. One of Jeffery Byrd's video sculptures deals with the topic of nipple-hair plucking, no less. Sigrid Jakob makes calmly probing portraits of "bears," fat and hairy men who occupy their own special niche in the gay pantheon.
Keith Gemerek's unfettered documentation of the odd, latter-day pagan rites of the Radical Faeries shows a lifestyle (even if it be only part-time) that is strikingly distant from the soft top side of American culture. No would-be assimilators need apply here.
Compared to the pasted-together, never-never Druidland of the Radical Faeries, the biting satire of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgency seems like a hyperactive social critique. Gemerek's recent photos of the members of this 1970's San Francisco group - he calls them "sacred clowns" - shows them in parodic nun's habits, in bathetic poses, in bearded drag and sporting names that run from Sister Loganberry to Sister Donna My Knees. These often-hilarious pictures show individuals zealously working the margins of society, mocking and chiding a larger culture that never quite gets the point of their subversive ploys. San Francisco got it back then, however: The Sisters were true social activists who raised money and consciousnesses for many just causes.
Where Gemereck's photographs - especially his portraits - have a formal clarity and straightforwardness, Amos Badertscher's shots of Baltimore's gay hustlers from the '70s ("Illegal to See"), many barely into their teens, have the grainy, off-handed quality of snapshots rigged up for display for some perspective "client." Adding to this provisionary sense are jottings in the borders telling of the boys' often-pitiable histories or, in a couple striking examples, letters from them to the photographer pleading for help. Badertscher manages to bring these grim portraits to an emotional steady point, and after a time the sheer repetition of the erotic poses and the gray, low-tech look of the images drowns any pornographic thrust in a plaintive plea for witnesses to these sad lives.
For me, the shining highpoint of the exhibition is Isaac Julian's "The Attendant," properly shown in its own specially built viewing room. This formally gorgeous and astutely paced video deserves an account all its own. Only eight minutes long, the tape languidly, lovingly embraces a whole range of emotions that always seems on the cusp of embodiment in the congenial characters of the piece but never quite happens. What makes this magisterial restraint astounding is that, simultaneously, it is comically pitted against the high-minded elegance of museum and art culture, which in turn is joined to interracial gay sex featuring whips, studded leather accoutrements and a delightful little flying warrior-cupid that flits becomingly around the head of the participants. Great stuff.
Also outstanding was the eccentric art of Horace Mayfield, who practices a lively hybrid art made from drawn and painted photographs, objects and assembled materials. "The Catullus Shower Curtain," for instance, vigorously works the other side of the P.C. coin. Mayfield is P.C. all right, but in his case it stands for politically corrosive. This wall assemblage provocatively mixes plastic shower curtains decorated with cute cartoon fish, a fake-folksy religious head, Victorian floral patterns, Pompeii figures and some very perky phalluses.
Though replete with explicit sexual images, the show overall is only occasionally abrasive. And it is only violent once: In Akil Kirlew's window display where a video of the tiresome, methodical slashing from Brian DePalma's "Dressed to Kill" makes the point (bolstered by Jean Baudrillard's We Are All Transsexuals Now" and Angie Dickinson's ambiguous-gender look) of the cultural pervasiveness of gender indefiniteness.
This is a most welcome show. It gives a much-needed jolt to a society that is, for all its surface variety, fast becoming over-homogenized. These provocative images point up the critical fact, often stated, that outsiders - those confidently and forcefully and actively working the subversive fringe - still represent the best hope for the survival of individualism in American democracy.