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arts

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American Art: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall  
 
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The curator, Daniel J. Cameron, put forth three categories of gay art content: homosexual content, or stereotyped images; ghetto content, or work that is easily recognized only by the gay community; and sensibility content, "work which is created from the personal experience of homosexuality which need not have anything to do with sexuality or even lifestyle." The latter category was further subdivided into three types: "the homosexual self," "the homosexual other," and "the world transformed."

Though overall the exhibition failed conceptually and was criticized for not being "political or gay enough," it became the best-attended show to that date at the New Museum and generated a necessary dialogue regarding gay and lesbian representation in art.

Sponsor Message.

As postmodernism with its anti-feminist rhetoric redefined aesthetics and fueled the 1980s art boom, lesbian artists redefined their content to be less abstract, more political, and more sexually explicit.

An important element of this shift was the emergence of working-class artists and artists of color such as Chicanas Judith F. Baca (b. 1946) and Yolanda Lopez (b. 1942), and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (b. 1954), a Seminole, Muskogee, and Diné "two-spirited" person--a term she prefers to the more white cultural term "lesbian." Their work deals primarily with issues of self-identity and representation.

Photographers such as Jill Posener (b. 1953), Zoe Leonard (b. 1961), Laura Aguilar (b. 1959), Kaucyila Brooke (b. 1952), and Gay Block (b. 1942) found the medium ideal for investigations of race, gender, and representation. As the most democratic art form, photography could easily incorporate both "high art" and popular culture references, frequently inserting the lesbian body into mainstream scenarios, as in Deborah Bright's (b. 1950) "Dream Girls" series (1990), in which she deftly replaces the leading men in famous film stills with photographs of her butch self getting the girl.

Millie Wilson's (b. 1948) 1989 installation "Fauve Semblant: Peter (A Young English Girl)," based on a Romaine Brooks portrait of lesbian painter Gluck (née Hannah Gluckstein, British, 1895-1978), imagines a museum retrospective exhibition for a fictional lesbian painter while paying homage to those two real, largely forgotten predecessors.

Lesbian sexuality, in particular the sexual outlaw, is explored in the work of Della Grace (b. 1957; now known as Del LaGrace Volcano), an American artist working in London, whose images incorporate S/M and gay male iconography. It is also an important subject of the work of Catherine Opie (b. 1961), whose portraits of her own S/M community and and drag friends claimed the traditional genre of portraiture for these marginalized--and previously unseen--subjects. Self-representation, including portraits of community, had become crucial.

The 1990s and 2000s: Queer is Here

After 1980's "GALAS," there was not another major lesbian-themed exhibition until lesbian curator Pam Gregg's "All but the Obvious: A Program of Lesbian Art" at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in 1990. ABO established a queer lesbian sensibility and consisted of performances, readings, film, and video in addition to the visual art exhibition with works by Laura Aguilar, Janet Cooling, Catherine Opie, Millie Wilson, Kaucyila Brooke, Della Grace, Nancy Rosenblum, Tracy Mostovoy, Collier Schorr, Laurel Beckman, Beverly Rhoads, Catherine Saalfield, Jacqueline Woodson, Gaye Chan, and Monica Majoli.

Gregg's "Situation: Perspectives on Work by Lesbian and Gay Artists" (1991), co-curated with Nayland Blake, followed in San Francisco, and the decade saw numerous exhibitions and spaces devoted to lesbian art from California to Houston ("Out! Voices from a Queer Nation," 1991) to Boulder, Colorado ("2 Much: The Gay & Lesbian Experience," 1993).

In 1991 British-born lesbian artist Nicola Tyson opened Trial Balloon in a section of her New York studio loft, an all-woman, semi-commercial gallery that highlighted the work of lesbian artists and was the first in more than twenty years to focus on women artists.

At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s gay and lesbian artists found themselves at the forefront of arts funding controversies. In 1990, lesbian performance artist Holly Hughes (b. 1955) became one of the NEA Four, along with Tim Miller, Karen Finley, and John Fleck. These artists, all of whom had been awarded individual grants by the National Endowment for the Arts (and all of whom, except Finley, are gay), were charged with indecency and their grants rescinded.

They sued and their grants were reinstated, but the climate for government support had shifted and the decade was marked by conservative reaction and controversies regarding artistic representation, particularly when it related to gays and lesbians and people of color.

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