Students are back on campus, the streets are bustling with activity and places are starting to open up again. Among those venues, the one I have been most excited about reopening is the University of Michigan Museum of Art. For the past year and a half, this backbone of the University was effectively closed to the public — although, the main atrium morphed into a study space for students to work among art, a warm glow and undisturbed quiet.
On the second day back on campus, still jet-lagged from my flight and very much late on the move-in process, I grabbed my Art Basel tote bag and my notebook and meandered into the museum. I read in the UMMA newsletter about the inauguration of a brand new exhibit titled “Oh, honey…” Curated by doctoral candidate Sean Kramer, the exhibit looks at the museum’s permanent collection through a queer lens — an exercise of immersion and selection of works owned by the museum that fit into the realm of LGBTQ+ aesthetics.
“Queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live,” as defined by author bell hooks, in the exhibition’s introductory text. This statement summarized well what one ought to expect — works that dance the line between self-liberation, activism and outright intolerance.
Kramer, who is the Irving Stenn, Jr. Curatorial Fellow for the 2019-20 academic year, assembled the room with a series of pieces of various mediums — from photography and video art, to painting and sculpture. “Oh, honey…” deals with topics that are either directly or indirectly linked with the theme in question, although it is, by no means, an all-queer-artists show. Kramer creates a synergy between topics ranging from intimacy, sexuality and gender, to the AIDS epidemic and forms of corporate power.
Kramer mentions in an interview with Jacob Gorsky, author of the podcast “The Gayest Generation,” that the title of the exhibition, “Oh, honey…” is a “phrase that can be used for anything” but is intrinsically queer. It’s polyvalent in a similar way to how the showcase is itself.
In the interview, it’s stated that this is the first exhibition that UMMA has done specifically relating to this type of art and the issues that come with being and engaging with queer aesthetics. Although “it isn’t a broad and comprehensive view of queerness,” in Kramer’s words, it is the result of his experience as a queer man navigating the museum’s archives. Regardless of what may have been left out or themes that could have been explored further, I found the exhibition to be both enlightening and suggestive.
From the moment I stepped into the room, I knew that I would be experiencing a sensorial and exciting journey. The first thing that caught my gaze was Tracey Emin’s “Love is what you want” bright neon heart. A familiar face in a crowd full of strangers. Although I had previously seen it in the permanent gallery years ago, I was happy to see it take a new shape. From where I was standing, the left side of the heart was interrupted by the exhibition’s cover — Lynn Davis’s photograph of an athletic black man, the muscles of whom created continuity with the heart’s own curves. A good start.
On the left wall, the showcase begins with 27 linocut prints titled “Sultana’s Dream,” which reimagine a 1905 feminist, utopian novella that inspired and empowered Chitra Ganesh — the current artist in residence — to depict a world where gender roles are inverted. Women working in male-dominated surroundings, a revolutionary protest led by women, female superheroes — Ganesh’s pieces sparked a curiosity that followed my voyage through the exhibit. I felt an excitement that was enhanced by the marching drum that came out of a TV across the room.
The first explicitly queer artwork, in my opinion, was a screenprint by Keith Haring titled “Art Attack,” calling attention to the HIV crisis, as Haring often did. In conversation was Félix González-Torres’s installation — one of the pieces that made me reflect the most. Two attached light bulbs simulated him and his lover, both of whom eventually died of AIDS-related complications. One would have to observe the light of the other expire before him.
As I continued through the exhibit, I began noticing a narrative — or I subliminally made one up for myself. Regardless, I found an underlying sequence between artworks and their meanings with regards to how they had been placed. The aforementioned works were united by Emin’s heart, the core of which becomes a conundrum when applied to this context. Is love really what I want? Or is it what I am made to believe I want? Or even more, knowing what I want, can I really fulfill that desire?
Robert Indiana’s piece reinforces that dilemma in the realm of Christianity, with his “Love Cross,” and the role that religion has on people who identify, or are trying to identify, as queer within their faith and the church. In the piece, one can see the word love in red ink on a blue background, symmetrically repeated. The precision in which they fit also suggests a sense of measure, of having to perfectly fit into enclosed laws and perceptions. Love isn’t what you want when you are cloistered within limits and limitations — unfortunately, in some cases, LOVE has to fit a mold.
I found “Oh, honey…” to be cathartic. A glimpse into the richness of queer art, an impressive tailoring of the museum’s collection to merge Kramer’s viewpoint with that of the visitor, a first encounter with artists I will be exploring further. It’s not an all-encompassing representation of queerness, but it is a great place to start.
The perfect plan for a Sunday. Or a Wednesday. Or a Thursday, truly. In between classes, in multiple visits, with friends or by yourself — it’s never a bad plan. “Oh, honey…” is at UMMA until February 2022.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org