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‘Hide/Seek’ offers insights that couldn’t be more current

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on March 22, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
March 22, 2012 3:34 pm

Berenice Abbott’s 1927 photo of Janet Flanner depicts the closeted lesbian writer as wearing masks, suggesting her need to hide her identity.

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Last year at this time, the Tacoma Art Museum was showing works by Norman Rockwell. Some in the arts community sniffed that his nostalgic view of America was less art than illustration – even “kitsch.”

But that show, which was hugely popular, brought people to Tacoma who might not have visited otherwise. The same can be said of the current show, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” in its only West Coast venue.

The show has only been open a few days, so it’s hard to gauge if it will draw as many visitors as the Rockwell by the time it ends June 12 – visitors who, we hope, will stay and see what else the area has to offer. But it’s a big show with an edgy theme, several provocative pieces and a bit of a notorious pedigree, having stirred up controversy when it was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

That museum was pressured to pull a video, “Fire in My Belly,” which includes images some found distasteful, including ants scurrying over a crucifix. TAM visitors will be able to see that video, as well they should; it’s powerful and thought-provoking – as good art should be.

Besides showing work by many of America’s most prominent artists – including Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol and John Singer Sargent – the show introduces visitors to lesser-known talents who have something to say about what being gay in America has looked like over the past 120 years.

Earlier works were often in “code,” because the subjects or artists had to conceal their homosexuality. But in the most modern pieces, they are “out and proud.” Even when the subject is the destruction caused by the AIDS epidemic, tragedy is tinged with defiance.

Could this show and its theme be more relevant to the issues of the day? With the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Legislature’s passage of gay marriage legislation, an art exhibit exploring so many facets of gay identity could hardly be more current.

Yes, the show includes some nudity – but not as much as straight viewers might expect. Anyone who has seen images of Michelangelo’s “David” and survived can probably handle “Hide/Seek.” Come to think of it, that artist was gay, too.

Museum officials took a chance in bringing “Hide/Seek” to Tacoma, gambling that the same spaces that showed Norman Rockwell’s magazine covers could be as friendly to something quite a bit edgier. If nothing else, they showed that TAM isn’t afraid of a little controversy and respects audiences’ ability to appreciate something that might be outside their comfort zone. Kudos.

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