November 5, 2010
It’s hard to consider a large pile of Jolly Rancher-type candies as a form of portraiture. And yet, in the corner of the National Portrait Gallery’s new show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is a tidy spill of sweets in Technicolor cellophane. You can’t miss it, nor should you—it’s one of the few opportunities you’ll ever have to not only touch the art, but to eat it. (Minding the nearby choking hazard warning signs, of course.) But the sheer whimsy of it all is quickly undercut upon realizing that the piece is a memorial to Ross Laycock, partner and lover of the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Laycock died of AIDS in 1991.
But what does a pile of candy really communicate about a human being? Minimalist art isn’t always easy to read, so careful consideration has to be paid to what visual elements are there before you. To display the work of art, the museum had a number of guidelines they were required to follow. “There has to be an assortment of colors,” says Hide/Seek curator David Ward, “and it has to weigh 175 pounds—Ross’s weight when healthy—at the start of the installation.” As viewers pass by and eat the candy, they enjoy the sweetness of the relationship Gonzalez-Torres and Laycock shared.
The piece was created at a point in time when much of America—including the nation’s leaders—was ignoring the AIDS epidemic, and the dwindling pile of candy is also a symbol for the dissolution of gay communities in the wake of this disease. Furthermore, the piece can be arranged in one of two ways: a mound in a corner or in a rectangle on the floor. “The mound in the corner is simply a way of collecting or organizing it so its not just a lump that gets spread out on the floor in a misshapen mass,” Ward explains. “But organizing it flat suggests two things: either it’s a bed or it’s a grave. This makes it more powerful in a way but we didn’t have the space to install it like that.”
But artwork that speaks to how AIDS impacted gay communities is only a facet of Hide/Seek. As a whole, the show reveals how American artists have explored human sexuality. Those who approach the show thinking that gay culture is a recent development may be surprised to find that it has been hidden in plain view for decades. It’s all a matter of knowing how to crack the visual codes that artists hid in their work. “This is a show about oblique glances,” says Ward. “It’s a show about subversion.”
For a preview of the show, be sure to check out our online gallery and Blake Gopnik’s Washington Post review. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery until February 13, 2011.
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