“Hide/Seek” uncovers lesbian images in art

Ever since the controversy surrounding the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s racy photos, major museums have been rather skittish about showcasing erotic gay art. But a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery brings a wide variety of queerness into focus. “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” delves into the sexy, sad, and sincere nature of LGBT imagery. And it’s been getting plenty of attention.

“Hide/Seek” explores the themes of the role of sexual difference in depicting modern Americans, how artists have explored the definition of sexuality and gender, how major themes in modern art —especially abstraction — were influenced by this form of marginalization and how art reflected society’s changing attitudes. That’s a pretty big and varied set of goals for a show and it comes through in the diversity of the pieces, many of which can barely be called portraits.

The Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik characterizes the overall mission of the exhibition as a way of bringing light to an otherwise hidden world:

For much of modern American history — and even today, except in a few areas in a few big cities — the world of gay love has had to be a world of codes and obfuscations, of close reading and uncovering. It has been the perfect schoolroom, that is, for fine and subtle artists.

He goes on to talk about many of the male portraits specifically, though AfterEllen.com readers might be more interested in the ladies. They span from early 20th century with images such as Romaine Brooks’ 1923 self-portrait. In a metrosexual trend that surprisingly mirrors contemporary style Brooks portrays herself in oil as a sophisticated and fashionable dandy, as well as asserting her membership in the elite lesbian art scene of 1920s Paris.

In a more representational piece, another wealthy lesbian from this group, Janet Flanner uses photography to show us her masculine top hat and pants. On her hat are two masks, which do not cover her face, reinforcing Gopnik’s assertion that this show is very much about making the invisible visible at last.

There is actually not a lot of female representation in the middle of the exhibition’s timeline, until we get to a portrait of Susan Sontag in the 1970s. The author of On Photography and long time partner of photographer Annie Leibovitz, it is interesting to see a portrait of someone who explores art as one of her main intellectual endeavors. This, too, holds up a mirror to the art world, the gay world, and the world as a whole, making yet another subtle reference to visibility, which was an important trope of the 1970s as well as in “Hide/Seek.”

Finally, the contemporary portion of the show turns back to female gender play with photos of Ellen DeGeneres and a woman dressed in flannel and a trucker hat by Cass Bird. The hat reads “I look just like my daddy.” Whether this is true or ironic matters less than the outright proclamation that a female is being compared to a male.

In the picture of DeGeneres, done in 1997 by Annie Leibovitz, she wears white clown makeup over her face with mussed hair and a cigarette dangling from her lips while grabbing and squeezing her breasts inside a sparkly bra. Of course this image is meant to be funny because Degeneres is a comedian, but it also points directly to incongruous gender markers. The bra contrasts directly with the boxers, the roundness of her breasts with the tough masculine way she presents them.

It is a good image to leave with, the white mask she wears simultaneously covering her face while brightly revealing her sexuality at the very time of her very public coming out, which she called one of the most freeing moments of her life.

Will you check out Hide/Seek in D.C.?