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In Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship, opening next month at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, all of the art has previously been censored from major museums. The 17 artists represent the “controversial” perception of LGBTQ work over three decades, from Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in the 1980s to the expulsion of David Wonjarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery in 2010.
“On the one hand, some museums and gallery spaces are beginning to recognize the value of queer art for its own sake, and yet, major museums continue to censor queer artists from their walls,” curator Jennifer Tyburczy told Hyperallergic. Tyburczy is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of the upcoming book Sex Museum: The Politics and Performance of Display from the University of Chicago Press. While she emphasized the high-profile nature of the 2010 Wojnarowicz removal after pressure from Republican elected officials, she said censorship “takes many forms, occurs all the time, and more often than not, happens behind the scenes.” Mostly, she explained, these stories of censorship “live in the memories of the artists whose work was deemed ‘controversial,’ ‘obscene,’ ‘offensive,’ or ‘pornographic’,” and could easily be lost.
The exhibition therefore will not just be about showing the art; the stories of censorship will be a major focus. They include the brutal vandalism of Andres Serrano’s A History of Sex photograph series in 2007, in which four masked and still anonymous men ravaged a Swedish gallery with axes and crowbars. There were also the intense protests against Alma López’s “Our Lady” digital print that transformed Our Lady of Guadalupe into a nearly nude, proudly standing woman draped in flowers displayed in a group exhibition at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art in 2001. The work sparked violent threats against the artist, museum, and curator for its supposed sacrilegious content. More recently there was the removal of Michelle Handelman’s “Dorian: a cinematic perfume” video, which reinterpreted the gay undertones of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, from the Art House in Austin in 2011. Then in 2012 in Turkey, officials with the İzmir Art Center removed photographs including one by Barış Barlas of two men kissing in Mexico City, another by Seray Ak of two women in headscarves also kissing, and one by Damla Mersin of a woman confidently posing with an embrace of her sexuality in a headscarf.
“By reflecting on the ways in which queer sex has been displayed in museums, this exhibition exposes museums and art galleries as spaces where some of the most volatile and informative battles about sexual identity, sexual practices, and the history of sexuality have been and continue to be waged in the public sphere,” Tyburczy explained.
Below are some selections from Irreverent, each representing an individual moment of expulsion which is part of this greater narrative of censorship.
Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship will be on view at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) February 13 to April 19.