By Rita Bratovich
Richard Perram is the Director of Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) and curator of its latest exhibition, The Unflinching Gaze: Photomedia & The Male Figure – and he is openly gay. He makes a point of mentioning his sexuality because it’s an important element in understanding the context of the exhibition.
“It’s about how the curator can actually change your perception through their eye,” Perram explains, “I, as a gay man, have curated a show in which…the vast majority of artists in this are either gay or lesbian. There are people like Max Dupain and Olive Cotton and Bill Henson who are all heterosexual, but I am contextualising them within an LGBTIQ environment.”
All artists or custodians had the context of the exhibition explained and only one male artist declined to have his work included.
The show has been in planning for two years and includes an impressive collection of international and Australian works dating from around 1860 through to today. Photos have been loaned from institutions and private collections, with a generous portion coming from Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York.
Finding and borrowing works was one thing; bringing them into the country was another. Customs wants to see photos of artworks before giving permission for their import. After complying with this requirement, Perram received an email questioning one of the items. He then had to write to the 80 year old artist living in San Francisco and say: “We know it’s not a real sheep in the picture, that it’s a toy stuffed sheep, but you’ve gotta tell us it is.” Further issues with customs prompted the gallery to engage solicitors who approached the classifications board. The board advised BRAG that they could bring any work they wanted into the country – even if it was a “prohibited import”.
As for local reactions, the mayor and council have been very supportive and there has been no indication of any negative sentiments from the public. Bathurst has a small, reserved LGBTIQ community, but Perram hopes the exhibition will appeal to a wider audience.
“Some of the images will be confronting, I think, for some people, but we have enough warnings around the place, just to alert people.” Perram isn’t merely referring to nudity or sexually explicit images. The collection includes photos of three men who were imprisoned – and died – in Auschwitz because of their homosexuality; a photo of two young gay men hanged in Iran; images depicting the current persecution of homosexuals in Azerbaijan and Chechnya; William Yang’s poignant journaling of the AIDS crisis; and images dealing with the gay hate crimes of the 1980s.
However, the exhibition also deals with less disturbing material and behind some of the historical photographs are fascinating stories. One portrait from an Australian archive is that of bushranger Andrew George Scott, better known as Captain Moonlite. He is generally acknowledged as having been in a homosexual relationship with fellow gang member, James Nesbitt. Nesbitt died in a shoot out with troopers and Captain Moonlite was caught and condemned to be hanged. Moonlite’s final request was that he be buried beside Nesbitt. The request was denied but in 1995 a private group of citizens raised money to have Moonlite’s body disinterred from Rookwood Cemetery and reburied beside Nesbitt’s in Gundagai.
On display also will be rare images from a set of snapshots discovered at a New York flea market which were the basis for the revelatory book, Casa Susanna (2005). Casa Susanna was a resort operating in the Catskills in upstate New York during the 1950s and 60s which hosted (strictly) heterosexual men who wanted to dress and live briefly as women. The photos are highly posed with the most striking thing about the participants being not so much how convincing they are, but their evident conviction.
Fame – behind and in front of the camera – is a major theme in the exhibition with works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill Henson, Eadweard Muybridge, Max Dupain, Andy Warhol, Jean Genet, Deborah Kelly and many more significant figures in the art form. Dianora Niccolini is, at age 81, now being retrospectively regarded as a pioneer in photography of the male body. Her work will be seen for the first time outside the USA.
Peter Berlin was an iconic gay muse in the 1960s. The lean, blonde-haired homoerotic pin-up boy was photographed by Mapplethorpe and Warhol and drawn by Tom Of Finland, and he is still mesmerising to look at.
Mick Jagger is the subject of a silkscreen photo reproduction by Andy Warhol and Brad Pitt stands blue-lit in the rain in white socks and boxers in a still from a Robert Wilson short film.
There are over 200 pieces in the exhibition, predominantly photos and film, and the display includes three digital projections, 17 monitors and two silk screens.
In conjunction with the event, BRAG and University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) will host two forums, one in Bathurst and one at UTS. The forums will deal with queer art, representations, collecting, curation, culture and interpretation. The presenters include Dr Clare Barlow from the Tate Britain, London; Branden Wallace from Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art, NY; Bill Zewadski, a collector from Florida, USA; Dr Pawel Leskowicz, who curated the 2010 Male Nude exhibition in Warsaw, Poland; and panels featuring significant artists in the queer realm.
There will also be a discussion on transgender identity in art, with the three participants all being transgender. Moderator Dr Christine Dean (UTS) is an art practitioner and lecturer who taught the first LGBTIQ Gender and Sexuality course at the National Art School this year. Katherine Cummings is an Australian librarian who transitioned at age 52 and has written two books and is working on a third. Edie Redenbach is a young Bathurst local who has written about and taken part in activities exploring the concepts of gender and queerness.
The Unflinching Gaze is an extraordinary collection of images representing the male figure in a wide range of contexts and, as such, shows society, culture and humanity in all its nuanced manifestations.
It will only be held at Bathurst and only for a limited time and it’s definitely worth a trip over the mountains to experience this queer and thrilling event.
The Unflinching Gaze: photo media and the male figure:
Oct 14-Dec 3. Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 70-78 Keppel St, Bathurst. FREE. Info: www.bathurstart.com.au
Oct 14. BRAG, 70-78 Keppel St, Bathurst.
Oct 18. UTS Building 6 Level 6 Room 38, Harris St, Ultimo.