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Visual arts review: Columbus Museum of Art exhibit commemorates 50th anniversary of Stonewall

"Art After Stonewall," the largest and most significant exhibition of art marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, had barely opened at the Columbus Museum of Art when the pandemic struck. The museum and the exhibit had to close, especially disappointing during June, Pride Month.

Recently, the museum reopened with mandatory masks and social distancing; the exhibit has been extended to Oct. 4.

Tyler Cann, the museum's head of exhibitions and Pizzuti Family curator of contemporary art, called the reopening "incredibly timely" on the heels of Pride Month and "particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter protests."

"This is an exhibition that arose from a protest movement and looks at how Stonewall was memorialized and embedded in artistic culture over two decades," he said. "It's important for us to state that art is a social agent. It can advance those protest movements in symbolic but also very real ways."

"Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989" — whose works reflect gay liberation protests, the AIDS crisis, identity struggles and more — is huge, with more than 230 pieces in a variety of mediums by 165 artists. Works are by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer artists as well as straight artists addressing LGBTQ themes.

Collectively, works are bold, proud and uncompromising. Individually, they can be sexy, erotic and X-rated, defiant, heartbreaking, angry, commemorative, humorous — but always, provocative.

Expected artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe are included, but more often, pieces are by artists who, during the time period and especially if they addressed gay themes, were neglected by the established art world.

One particularly striking piece is a reproduction of the 1971 photo mural "Agit-Prop," a 32-foot horizontal collage created by John Button and Mario Dubsky for the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York. The original creation — images of demonstrations and erotic photos stenciled over with protest slogans — was destroyed in a fire at the headquarters in 1974 .

Numerous portraits of gay activists, artists and entertainers are included, but one of the boldest is David Hockney's 1979 portrait of drag performer Divine, with its formidable subject seated before a backdrop of circus colors — blue, green, red and rust.

In a colorful painting by Alice Neel, art critics Gregory Battcock and David Bourdon — one dressed and one in his underwear — are depicted in 1970, the year of the first Gay Pride march.

Sculptures are few but powerful. At the entrance of the exhibit is Scott Burton's imposing abstract "Two-Part Chair" (1986), two unattached but connecting granite blocks that represent gay sex as well as gay activist support. The piece weighs 1,600 pounds.

Nearby is Robert Gober's untitled 1989 installation, a simple empty closet with an open door and nothing inside, speaking volumes about the gay population.

In contrast is David Wojnarowicz's "Untitled (One Day This Kid, 1990-1991)," a heartbreaking serigraph that surrounds the photo of the pre-teen artist with phrases that describe what life will be like for him when he tries to live gay in a straight world.

Arch Connelly's "Taurus (Pearl Homes)" (1984) takes the suburban ideal — the single dwelling house — and covers it with shiny pearl beads, an excess of costume jewelry that seems to pay homage to outrageously adorned drag artists.

And for something completely different in sculpture, Nancy Fried used cookie dough to fabricate two miniature lesbian scenes: "Women Love Women" (1976) and "The Bath" (1979).

Abstract and figurative paintings are found: The beautifully expressive "Summer's Ease" (1975) by the African American lesbian artist Lula Mae Blocton applies various skin tones to its abstract blocks. Marc Lida's watercolor "Grace Jones at The Saint" (1982) has a soft, art deco look as it shows the entertainer before a crowd of men.

Posters capture the pride of the gay rights movement, as well as anger during the peak of the AIDS crisis.

One of the largest works in the exhibit is Keith Haring's "Safe Sex" poster (1985), measuring 10-by-10 feet and vibrant with its enormous shapes and contrasting colors.

Several panels from the 1987 "AIDS Memorial Quilt" are presented. The original quilt panels were 3 by 6 feet, about the size of a grave.

Frank Moore, an artist who lived with AIDS and died in 2002, produced the multimedia "Weed" (1989), an uprooted plant whose bright-blue flowers are adorned with eyeball-like centers.

One of the most iconic works is Haring's 1988 "National Coming Out Day" poster, with neon colors surrounding the image of a yellow man emerging from a closet.

That Columbus is one of the largest LGBTQ metropolitan communities in the nation and has long been hospitable to the population is a primary reason the exhibit was created by the museum, according to Museum Executive Director Nannette V. Maciejunes.

Part of the exhibit's local emphasis is a display of 16 sculpted heads by Corbett Reynolds, the late artist and a longtime leader of art and entertainment in the Columbus gay community. Each of the heads is a cement cast of the god Apollo, adorned with a different found object — a rake, a chain, a neon light, for example — producing an impressive wall installation of fantasy characters.

With its plethora of diverse works, "Art After Stonewall" is "hugely important," said exhibit co-curator Daniel Marcus.

"There should have been a show at the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney to coincide with the 50th Stonewall anniversary but there just wasn't," he said.

"This exhibit does a brave thing. It takes a moment that happened outside the art world and puts it in a museum show."

negilson@gmail.com

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