‘Male/Female,’ by Jonathan Borofsky
The sexiest things always feel “wrong” on some level—like fooling around in a church, rough sex, weird porn, or using various orifices or bodily fluids for something other than their intended function. There’s something undeniably hot about feeling like you’re breaking the rules. In this spirit, I nominate Jonathan Borofsky’s reviled ‘Male/Female’ as the kinkiest artwork in Baltimore.
‘Male/Female’ looms over Penn Station’s beaux-arts facade like a dominatrix humiliating a straight-laced businessman groveling at her feet. The public is outraged by its indecency. It is the ‘Tilted Arc’ of Baltimore and Janet Jackson’s wardrobe-malfunction-exposed glistening tribal nipple ring rolled into one. Could anything be more scandalously perverse than letting yourself love something universally considered a nadir of taste?
Context is everything. Train-station bathrooms have an unspoken, notorious reputation as cruising zones. Very little public art is brave enough to acknowledge this fact when addressing transit stations as public space. Here, however, Borofsky boldly depicts the iconic figures from restroom signage penetrating each other in an anatomically impossible intersection of limbs and torsos.
Future perverted art historians will note that the sculpture was installed in the unique social context of 2004. At that time, the nascent gentrification of newly christened “Station North” had not yet displaced the neighborhood’s booming underground economy of queer sex workers. When ‘Male/Female’ was installed, the blocks immediately northeast of the train station were indeed an “entertainment district” where sexual services were offered by a large transgender and gender-binary-rejecting community. From the perspective of 2004, the piece reads like a passage from a Robert Venturi book about oversized signage advertising an urban space’s economic activities. Today, it could be considered a memorial to those towering, glittery sentries who once stood watch over the streets of Greenmount West and Charles North.
Could this be the repressed reason why the average person loathes ‘Male/Female’? Do they hate being reminded of the recent past’s seedy underbelly? Or are they ashamed to have been complicit members of a society that pushed already-marginalized individuals to an even more distant periphery? Like all things that turn me on, ‘Male/Female’ makes most people avert their disapproving gaze. But ‘Male/Female’ is impossible to ignore. It is big and hard. It sparkles like glitter that a suburban commuter frantically tries to wipe out of his pubic hair with napkins in the parking lot of the McDonald’s before getting back on I-83 and going home to his boring, cis-gendered wife who doesn’t wear sparkly lip gloss or give him blow jobs in alleys.
‘Male/Female’ is the accidental monument to a consideration (or lack thereof) of gender identity and sex that’s distinctly Baltimorean. In recent years, an awareness of identity politics has made small but impressive inroads into mainstream American media and popular discourse. But long before there was serious screen time devoted to trans characters on television and a cornucopia of gender options of Facebook, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter a laissez-faire attitude to identity in Baltimore. The city has its own vernacular genderqueer that’s rarely discussed, largely because a specific vocabulary never developed to label it.
This isn’t to say that violence and discrimination against queer individuals aren’t major problems here, particularly against trans people of color. But in many instances in Baltimore, I’ve encountered a native acceptance that aspects of “male” and “female” identities can be recombined into something that someone will think is sexy, and tell you all about it. In Midtown in the mid-2000s in particular, androgyny seemed to be a point of curiosity or arousal rather than the subject of policing and rage.
This perspective is all pretty anecdotal. But in the years immediately after ‘Male/Female’ was installed, I had quite a few presumably straight-identified dealers and trans sex workers on Greenmount West corners tell me that lipstick and hairy legs were a good look on me. I had a stoop full of lesbians on Barclay catcall me, explain that they thought I was female, and then offer to rim my ass anyway. From the privileged perspective of someone experiencing all this from the relative safety of a white male body, I never really felt threatened by encounters like this, despite knowing how incredibly inappropriate they were. If anything, it was oddly reassuring to know that my little corner of Greenmount was so interested in gender deviation. For every time a teenage boy has angrily asked me if I was “trying to be a boy or girl” on the bus, a chorus of bystanders have shouted: “Shut the fuck up! Either way he looks cute as hell!”
‘Male/Female’ is a gaudy monument to Baltimore’s total disregard for good taste or common decency. It’s as rude and out of place as a sexual proposition on the MTA. It’s a kind of perfect punctuation mark for the beginning of the end of Station North’s sleazy, androgynous sexual Wild West vibe. Like an SUV with tinted windows slowly cruising up Calvert Street, it seems to ask ‘Male/Female’? and then shrug, “who cares?” (Michael Farley)
‘Visions of Heaven and Hell,’ by Grace Hartigan (Maura Callahan)
‘Visions of Heaven and Hell,’ by Grace Hartigan
Paradise and hell are depicted as a dichotomy, two separate worlds, a cause and effect, in Renaissance paintings such as Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych ‘Garden of Earthly Delights.’ Good and evil and pleasure and pain are opposing forces. But in Grace Hartigan’s massive 1985 painting ‘Visions of Heaven and Hell,’ displayed in the lobby of MICA’s angular glass Brown Center, the line between the grotesque and the glorious becomes unclear, and the narratives of pleasure, sin, and punishment become nonlinear. Hartigan, a key figure of the New York abstract expressionist movement who oversaw MICA’s graduate Hoffberger School of Painting for more than four decades, compresses the two themes, taken from their traditional biblical context, into a single frame. Sanctity, vulgarity, pleasure, and punishment overlap and blur, calling into question the nature of sin and desire and where the lines exist, if at all, between heaven, hell, and Earth.
Though the figures covering the 16-foot-long canvas press against the edges of the frame in a tightly condensed composition, the painting moves in sweeping vertical motions; nothing is locked into place. Thin paint drips in long gravitation streaks, often extending beyond the black contours of the figures. The blue skies of paradise bleed into the red of hell. The painting rests in motion, moving not forward or back but up and down. In an artist statement written in 1959 years earlier, Hartigan wrote, “I want a surface that resists, like a wall, not opens, like a gate.” The architectural flatness of ‘Visions’ nearly presses forward in tension, as if in a glass box.
Near the center of the canvas a delicate hand, attached to no visible body, points to the head of a reclined figure, like Adam and the hand of God in the near-center of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, though here the pointed finger nearly pokes the eye of the figure. Next to “Adam” lies an androgenous nude, strangled by a noose or possibly a serpent. Stacked beside the pair are two white robed angels; above them, a seductively posed nude “Eve,” entwined with a serpent. To the right, four figures hanging upside down like in Titian’s ‘The Flaying of Marsyas,’ press against two upright lovers in a sensual embrace, highlighted by a cerulean blue streak against the woman’s thigh.
‘Visions of Heaven and Hell’ is like porn for art-history geeks. You can pick out visual references to Michelangelo, Titian, and Courbet and similarities to the paintings of Matisse and Francis Bacon. Hours can go by dissecting the image. But the painting contains a clear eroticism beyond the art-history orgy, as satisfying as it is to the artists that pass the painting on their way to classes and lectures.
Hartigan plays with the erotic nature of good versus bad, of nature and sin. From left to right, the figures nearly play out a “Paradise Lost” kind of narrative: from Heaven, to the first man and woman in paradise, to their sin and suffering—until the chronology is thrown off by the caressing lovers, who embody love and pleasure though they occupy the same space as the hanging sufferers.
In Bosch’s painting, sodomy is shown in one panel as an act of sinful pleasure on Earth, and in another, as punishment in hell. In the compact orgy of Hartigan’s image, the figures experience both pleasure and pain in the same space. The lines that form the bodies and faces shift between sensuousness and crudeness from elegant, flowing curves to contorted features and reductive breast lumps. Even the glowing white angels appear grotesque, buzzing and dripping like Bacon’s famously demonic study of Velazquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X.’ All flattened into the same space, bleeding in and out of their own frames and into the flesh of one another, they seem to exist not on Earth nor in paradise, heaven, hell, or even limbo, but some meeting and simultaneous destruction of these worlds. (Maura Callahan)
Anne Truitt's 'Lea' (Rebekah Kirkman)
‘First’ and ‘Lea,’ by Anne Truitt
Sex and art share weird and funny qualities. Both pursue pleasure and satisfaction and sensation, while utilizing awkward, humorous, and sometimes roundabout ways to get there. And I sometimes feel like a weirdo for laughing during sex or as I walk around an art show, but I couldn’t help myself a year or so ago, when I caught a retrospective of Anne Truitt’s work at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea. I had never seen so much of her work at once, and I felt kind of stupidly giddy as I moved around the gallery and took note of how funny her brightly colored minimalist sculptures are. One piece in the middle of the gallery lay on the floor—a long wooden beam painted with two shades of sumptuous pinkish lavender and yellow. The off-kilter geometry of her simple, specific cuts into this block of wood, the shifts of color, and subtle brush strokes inject a more human element into minimalism’s reductive qualities. And luckily, we can get a little minimalist seduction here from a couple of the Anne Truitt sculptures currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Downstairs in the Contemporary wing is Truitt’s 1961 sculpture ‘First,’ which looks like a section of a small white picket fence. The three vertical slats of the fence are all slightly different sizes, and if you kneel down and look closely you can see faint horizontal brush strokes of acrylic paint. It’s an earlier minimalist piece, and the fence is so iconic that it’s impossible to divorce the shapes of this sculpture from ideas of home, family, and suburban America. Whether or not Truitt intended those connotations, the piece doesn’t tell you what to think about any of that; it doesn’t overtly argue for or against anything.
Upstairs is a beautiful specimen called ‘Lea,’ hewn from a block of wood, standing at roughly average human height. For proportion, think of a large stick of butter. It’s painted with alternating shades of a warm and a cool yellow (which might be the root of my association to butter) in various-sized stripes. The sculpture is kind of a wallflower; the plinth that it sits on butts up near the wall so you can really only see it on three sides, and it’s too tall (for me, at least) to see the top. The tones of the yellow shades are so light, they make the sculpture almost sink into the white wall it stands in front of. Faint pencil lines peek between the shifting shades of yellow paint, bringing to mind Agnes Martin’s minimalist paintings that are about everything and nothing all at once. From the paint’s slight gloss to the rather staid shape of the wood block, each part of this piece, when considered independently, is almost nothing. Minimalism is about the bare essentials. It emphasizes the way shapes and materials come together in such calculated ways to make something substantial.
Truitt is canonized as a minimalist outside of the minimalists. Where Donald Judd and Tony Smith used industrial production to make their works, Truitt found a way to pare down her materials and shapes and still imbue her sculptures and paintings with meaning, while continuing to make her work by hand. What’s so attractive and satisfying about great minimalist art is what it holds back without leaving you wanting more. I can project anything I want onto ‘Lea’ but I won’t ever really understand it better that way; I can have my own questions and associations with it but it will always just be what it is.
It’s hard for me to look at abstract art, both as an artist and as a critic, and not turn all of its parts into characters. It’s all about the relationships between shapes and forms and colors, and sometimes those things interact in funny ways. I can’t look at a Jackson Pollock without thinking about masculinity and aggression and, well, jizz—and in some ways that’s pretty funny too. It’s also kinda sexy, but in a different way from minimalism. All art-making involves some degree of intuition and slow decision-making, and minimalism is extra sensitive to the elements that come together to make it.
Everything in our world is, at some point, complicated and hard to talk about, hard to interpret. For all the ways that people and relationships are complex and tenuous, it’s funny to think about how minimalism pares down all of that absurdity and embarrassment and fluctuation into an image or an object that is solid and sure of itself. (Rebekah Kirkman)