HARTFORD — The sweetness, ferocity, and sparkle of “Be Seen: Portrait Photography Since Stonewall” at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art stands starkly against a particular societal backdrop: the hush and shadow of the closet.
The Stonewall Riots during the summer of 1969 weren’t just the pivot point between secrecy and openness for the LGBTQ community. They set off decades of personal reckoning as people confronted the pain of oppression and owned what might have previously felt shameful. Then, as many stepped out of the closet, AIDS hit the gay community.
This exhibition, organized by Patricia Hickson, the Wadsworth’s curator of contemporary art, mines a rich vein. LGBTQ artists have been at the forefront of numerous trends in contemporary art for decades, exploring personal identity, subjectivity, and performance of self — perfect themes for a portrait photography show, and ones that have only become more heightened in the Internet age.
Andy Warhol wasn’t the first artist to self-consciously shape a persona to play in front of the camera — Marcel Duchamp did that with his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. But Warhol had a way of going viral. His enigmatic, bewigged public self was part of his art.
With his “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Warhol celebrated a community of others who created their own personas. This 1975 series of screenprint portraits of drag queens recruited from the Gilded Grape, a New York drag bar, is all glam, with blots of color like spotlights accentuating already over-the-top makeup. One of his subjects was Marsha P. Johnson, who helped lead the charge in the protests after police raided the Stonewall Inn.
But Warhol was coy. He claimed to be a virgin. His persona was as much deflection as declaration. Artists who picked up the baton from him, such as Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz, boldly rejoiced in their sexual identities. Mapplethorpe put a pulpy homoerotic stamp on the formal beauty of the male nude. He also celebrated gender crossover; his 1983 photo “Roger Koch” depicts a muscular man from the waist down in fishnets and high heels.
Such artists burst defiantly out of the closet into a world of fear shaped by HIV. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, facing political pressure, canceled Mapplethorpe’s 1989 show. Both Wojnarowicz and Mapplethorpe grappled with the specter of death in their work, and died of AIDS-related illnesses.
Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (One day this kid . . . )” acutely captures the damage wreaked by homophobia. It’s a self-portrait: A buck-toothed boy in suspenders surrounded by text predicting his future: “When he begins to talk, men who develop a fear of this kid will attempt to silence him with strangling, fists, prison . . . ”
Queer artists found one another and made a safe space together. In Boston, photographers such as Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia started taking pictures of themselves and their friends, who were sometimes misunderstood and spurned by their families. They became known as the Boston School.
Photographer Catherine Opie was doing the same thing on the West Coast. In “Pig Pen,” a trans artist, one of Opie’s regular subjects, sits on a stool and stares directly, confrontationally out at us.
The sweetest images in a community-focused portion of the show are the black-and-white portraits of same-sex couples in Boston artist Sage Sohier’s late 1980s series, “At Home with Themselves.” Sohier captured ordinary affection, repudiating straight society’s worst fears. These aren’t performances of identity; they’re family portraits, and they beautifully balance work in other sections by photographers who have taken their cue from Warhol (and maybe Marsha P. Johnson) and cultivated performance of identity as an art in itself.
Martine Gutierrez is a terrific 21st-century example. A Latinx trans woman of indigenous descent, she looks into her cultural history and finds Mayan gods who were both male and female. Spanish colonizers demonized them. Gutierrez embodies them.
In “Demons, Xochiquetzal, ‘Flower Quetzal Feather,’ p95 from Indigenous Woman” she dons brilliant flowers, sculptural braids, and a beaded veil against a sunny yellow ground. Deities must be portrayed as big; they’re archetypal, symbolizing essential parts of the human psyche. Gutierrez makes a glorious claim for a trans goddess.
Every work in “Be Seen” may be a kind of reclamation, but even this story of the last 50 years in LGBTQ portraiture brings up some difficult dynamics between artist and subject. Mapplethorpe, for instance, was a white man who photographed black men; it might be said that he fetishized the black male body. Hickson addresses some of these touchy areas in a section called “Reclaiming Art History.”
Photographer George Dureau, who died in 2014, made photographs of black men that bring up the same issues as Mapplethorpe’s. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a black artist, takes on Dureau in a self-portrait: his back, shot in reflection with a camera tucked beneath his arm. He sits on a volume of Dureau’s pictures. The mirroring in “Study Reflecting Dureau (OX5A 1227)” confuses space, unsteadying us, and that lens pointing right at us adds to the fuddle.
But we’re all unsteady in life. We try to find traction, sometimes bolstering our self-esteem by judging others. It can be easier to do that than to examine our own fears and limitations. “Be Seen” celebrates a population that once lived in shadows. The subjects offer up their bright selves and tender hearts. And they remind us that the shadows remain.