When we write about art we’re always also writing about ourselves. The same also goes for writing about writing about art. So Fredric Koeppel and I lay ourselves bare here in turns, in pursuit of each other’s understanding of No Fate But What We Make, a show about art and alternative spiritualities that I curated at Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College.
In his review for GoMemphis, Koeppel reads the show completely through the lens of its perceived gayness, and then spins a web of high-gay references - Sontag on camp, nature vs nurture, the ascendence of “the gay movement,” the sacrifices of gay freedom fighters. He even schools his readers on the history of the word gay. He states that the exhibition’s goal is to “examine the social, cultural, erotic and personal impulses of gayness through the lens of art” which is in fact nowhere close to the stated or intended aim of the show. But it’s a fascinating read! Judged against this lofty standard, I would agree with him that the show fails. It seems as though Koeppel made for himself a show about gayness, and then panned it. Which is his right, but…
The word gay never appears in any of the texts associated with the show. The first line of the press release reads “No Fate But What We Make gathers objects that manifest the uncommon spiritualities of their makers.” It then goes on to talk about the way that these spiritual objects function. Nowhere in any of the written texts do I make any claims about the sexuality of the show in general. The word queer does appear once in my exhibition text and once in the press release, both times in a direct, specific reference to the inclusion of RFD, “a country journal celebrating queer diversity” (their description, quoted by me). Many of the artists happen to be queer, maybe because they’ve taken a degree of agency in their lives which that allows them to be more comfortable defining their own spirituality. But nowhere in any exhibition didactics have I put language to the identities of the artists represented in the show or made claims about gayness.
In all fairness, this use of language was strategic and intentional. It stems from my deep respect for the art in the show and the people who made it, and my desire to allow the art to have as much breathing room as possible. I can see how nuances of meaning and identity could easily get lost, especially when a bit of the content is explicitly homosexual. There are a few images of dicks. (My use of the word queer rather than gay is also strategic, but that’s a next-level conversation - let’s start with basics).
To get to the point already, there is queer content in the show, but that doesn’t make it a show about gayness. I will stand by the claim that it’s more open and more generous than that narrow view implies. Actually, slightly less than half of the artists in the show do not self-identify as gay or queer and their work has little or nothing to do with explicitly gay or queer issues, but what’s the point in my outing them as straight? If people are confused about the limits of identities, maybe the show is doing its job, or one of its jobs.
It seems that a show about alternative spiritualities that contains some queer content was mistaken for a gay show about gayness. This is understandable, and also indicative of the level of conversation that’s happening here around nuanced minoritarian positions. I can’t help but think of a group show of a similar scale at Crosstown right now called Inspired Resistance. It has a lot of straight content. No one is writing about its inability to live up to the ideals and history of straightness (thank goddess!). So why is this essentialism thrust upon the shoulders of this show? Because it sometimes takes a subject position that is novel in this city, because othering still serves a powerful function, because gayness is a point of access in a show that can be tough and demanding and private and reticent - especially to those in a majority position who may not recognize the private/alternative/othered signifiers of meaning that constitute much of the content here.
Maybe before we can deal with the spiritual, we have to work out a few corporeal matters. If this show starts these conversations, then so be it, amen. Let’s keep talking.
(There’s also, mystifyingly, no mention of the reading and meditation room or the Radical Faerie altar, which I have come to consider the head and the heart of the exhibition. And Koeppel espouses a pretty conservative hierarchy of craft, but that’s another conversation.)
I’m in this show and want to thank the curator, Joel Parsons, for writing this rebuttal.