In opening crowd consisting of a bizarre combination of bearded and flanneled Bushwick hipsters, Roberta Smith and Klaus Biesenbach at Chelsea gallery Luhring Augustine‘s new Bushwick location, I was shocked to discover a cold screensaver-esque video installation by filmmaker Charles Atlas, leaving me with some serious questions about the progress and demands on queer art.
Best known for both his collaboration with Merce Cunningham and his films starring luminaries Leigh Bowery and John Kelly, Charles Atlas’s work has become a touchstone for documenting queer culture and performance. Recently, Atlas’s work has experienced a resurgence from being featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial to having a solo film screening looking at his major works at Judson Memorial Church for their monthly film series Dirty Looks.
Before attending Dirty Look‘s night of Charles Atlas’s films, I only knew Atlas from Mrs Peanut Visits New York, a film in which performance artist Leigh Bowery struts around the Meatpacking District in a feminized version of a Mr. Peanut costume. Hilarious, visually shocking and oddly sexy, the film is hard to forget, which I was so eager to attend both the Dirty Looks film retrospective and Luhring Augustine’s new show.
In the light of Judson’s stained glass window watching drag queens in spandex and fishnets vogue their way through a diner or watching John Kelly play the role of Delilah in Atlas’s AIDS film Son of Sam and Delilah (1991), I was completely enthralled by Atlas’s documentation of the vibrancy, humor, sadness and oppression within queer culture of the early 1990s.
Ranging from The Draglinquents (1990) where two drag queens vamp in what was obviously a music video booth at Coney Island or another amusement park and Atlas’s foray into porno films, Staten Island Sex Cult (1991), the films shown at Dirty Looks combined irreverence, camp, flamboyance and gritty realism that has always been an important staple of queer cinema.
Leaving Dirty Looks, I was excited by both Atlas’s filmmaking and Dirty Looks’s goal to present queer cinema as essential part of both film and art history, which is why I was so shocked at Atlas’s isolating new work at Luhring Augustine a few weeks later.
Starring at black walls projected with white numbers filled the warehouse space, the exhibition contained three works, Painting by Numbers, 14352 and Plato’s Alley, which were, at least in the crowded opening, almost indistinguishable from each other. Without the camp, color and dynamism of Atlas’s earlier works, I couldn’t help but feel extremely let down by the exhibition.
After watching Atlas’s fun, free-wheeling and also poignant older films at Dirty Looks, I began to wonder about point of these video installations. Is this where queer film-making has ended up? A series of numbers that seems like it should be a nerd’s desktop wallpaper? Why did Atlas choose to create these films rather than documenting human experiences as he’s done in the past? Is it because gallery-goers don’t have a campy enough sense of humor? Or is this what Atlas feels the art world needs or wants?
My disappointment in the exhibition also made me question the pressure I and others put on queer artists and filmmakers. Before taking the subway out to Bushwick, I looked at this exhibition as possibly the next step in the genealogy of queer film that I watched at Dirty Looks but perhaps that pressure is my own fault. Can artists and filmmakers who have defined themselves or been defined as “queer” make art that is not obviously referencing queer issues or culture without disappointment from their audience?
As I left, I realized perhaps I didn’t like the show simply because there wasn’t a drag queen involved.
Charles Atlas: The Illusion of Democracy will be at Luhring Augustine in Bushwick until May 20.