Oakland Cemetery is full of marble bodies, most of them angelic and heterosexual. They represent a frozen ideal of sexually conservative heteronormativity. What if an artist buys a plot here and installs a larger than life-size sculpture depicting two naked women intimately embracing, lying on a slab of stone for all to see? For some, a romantic lesbian sex scene placed here among dead celebrities like Bobby Jones and Margaret Mitchell would be an act of blasphemy. This is the kind of public artwork Patricia Cronin pulled off in a similarly Victorian cemetery in the Bronx in 2002, an image of which you can see right now at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Since she was part of a lesbian couple, and couldn’t marry in life, she would attempt to achieve it in death. The current exhibition, Sex Drive showcases a similar spirit of political challenge and truth-seeking in regards to a subject that’s recently lost some of its latitude.
Indeed, the sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s are long gone. As a nation, we question the rights of gay people to marry; birth control and abortion are under attack; and recently, popular feminist writer Erica Jong editorialized that young women writers “are obsessed with motherhood and monogamy.” After 40 years in which sexuality has been exhausted and perverted by the media, Jong asks, “Has sex lost its frisson of freedom?” And, I ask, are the reruns of Sex and the City just decadent and goofy to us now? Open sexuality is not just a frivolous expression, but rather has become a precious right that we should proudly uphold and exercise.
Perhaps the art gallery is the perfect refuge to display and discuss where we currently are in the politics of sex. Being a place where artists are traditionally allowed to exhibit imagery otherwise deemed pornographic, the art space has earned itself slightly different cultural parameters from the mainstream. (Thank god). It seems that now is a very good time to exercise those privileges. And who better to do so than artists?
Despite its strong political content, Sex Drive is not without joy or humor. It’s such a treat to see Leon Golub’s tiny oil-stick drawings, so colorful and full of high kicking fun. Laurel Nakadate’s Lucky Tiger series are teasingly playful, yet still political. Soliciting middle-aged men on Craigslist, she invited them to gather, look at her images, and ink up their fingers before touching them. The results are sassy portraits scuffed with the safe physicality of unrequited lust.
One of my favorite pieces is Leigh Ledare’s video appropriately named The Gift. Several decades back, his mother, a former ballerina, made a soft-porn movie with some friends; but it didn’t turn out so well, and remained unfinished. Handed over as an enigmatic gift, Ledare felt implicated to do something with it. And indeed, it makes an excellent art piece: He edited out the “failed story,” leaving in funny vignettes with a man’s dry voice over, giving directions like, “anything else you want to do while you’re down there?“ Other scenes involve cool 80s lingerie, spanking, awkward mistakes, and bad dialogue. It all seems to be in good sport and not exploitative, which is a relief.
Forest McMullin’s double portraits have a heartwarming confidence. They document regular people by day, in their wood-paneled kitchens and suburban backyards, alongside their alternative identities: In private they suit up with kinky sexual getups and fetishistic toys. These photographs are enticing: They allow a certain voyeurism, but not at the expense of the subjects. I find many exude a kind of happy pride. These are people among us who secretly harbor fantastic sexual sides and the camera does not catch them unaware.
Much more serious and disturbing are Susan Silas’s three prints from her love in the ruins; sex over 50 series. In a style like 90s political art, she makes us look at the unglamourized sex between older people in large, well-lit, white photographs. Placed around a blind corner in the gallery, this work may be the darkest blow.
Even Mike Howard’s exhibition is a nice match, sprawling out in the adjacent territory to Sex Drive. I love these duck-taped paintings from the “faux” realist, who relies on bank calendars, L.L. Bean catalogues, and advertisements to paint vivacious and sloppy still lifes of “fast food, bars, and beer.” Some of the largest paintings, which really have a presence in the space, were made for a shady little place called the Baby Doll Lounge, “an unspectacular topless bar in lower Manhattan frequented by neighborhood men.” I highly recommend reading the text about it in the contemporary’s fall brochure: It’s quite hilarious.
There’s a lot more to see and nothing to fear. The local artists and the world famous ones with whom they are shown (an ongoing trend at ACAC) all have something to say about the ebb and flow of sexual politics. How an era responds to human sexuality can reveal a lot about a culture’s hangups and leniencies in response to the physical body, intimacy, age, and gender roles. This seems to be a fairly thorough survey of sex at this particular moment.
Sex Drive at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will remain up through December 18, 2011.