Andy Johnson, a two-time alumnus and faculty member at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, is no stranger to showcasing sex in his art exhibits.
One of his pieces contains collated footage of gay pornography from the ’60s to today. But the work isn’t meant to be shocking or overtly sexual. Instead, it stitches together small, intimate moments between sexual acts like stolen glances, awkward pauses and gentle caresses and is meant to show pleasure that is rarely discussed in portrayals of LGBTQ eroticism.
For his latest work, Johnson selected artists that similarly challenge sexual politics to curate the exhibit “Queer(ing) Pleasure.”
Johnson, the program administrator for the art history program and the director of Gallery 102, was chosen to curate the exhibit as part of the D.C. Arts Center’s curatorial initiative this year, a program that supports emerging artists and curators. As a junior curator, Johnson put together two exhibits that he said are a product of an idea initially sparked when he attended graduate school at GW.
“These ideas have evolved over several years, beginning in grad school, and have now manifested themselves into these two shows,” Johnson said. “You get those ideas now out of your head because they were lingering there for so long.”
The intimate exhibit at 2438 18th St. NW opened earlier this month and runs through mid-October. The 17 works are confrontational and sparse in the blank white space, running the gamut of mixed media, acquired objects and handmade works by five local and national artists.
In the work of Tsedaye Makkonen, flowing gowns from Nigeria are arranged in columns below rose petals and gilded gold casts of pelvises.
Continuing this contrast of airiness and heft, “Torso Floret” features an intricately hand-cut sculpture made from an ’80s porn magazine, precisely sliced with a scalpel by artist Jade Yumang.
Even when you see an exposed private part in the art, it hardly registers as more than decoration to the larger emotions and messages at hand, Johnson said.
“Pleasure can be a space in which we can begin to unpack the layers that have been put on of how the body has to function in society or is required to in order to be deemed legitimate or valuable,” Johnson said.
Yumang, an artist who just began his tenure at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, has three other artworks featured, which at first look indecipherable. Glancing at the chosen three abstract wall sculptures from his 2013 collection, you would never guess the cotton rags were scanned photos from a “well-loved” erotic magazine called “My-Oh-My” that he said was embroiled in legal trouble for obscenity in the 1970s.
“What I found fascinating was if you look through the magazine, it’s two people that are slowly undressing, every page,” Yumang said. “It’s nothing hardcore at all. They’re just touching, loving, embracing, undressing, caressing and kissing. That was, I guess, considered obscene.”
But it’s not just about pleasure – sometimes the exhibit deals in a human existence molded by trauma, Johnson said, or pieces of family and home. Some artists dive into more intersectional art on being a black queer woman, like the video work of D.C.-based artist Monique Muse Dodd.
“Trauma, healing, pleasure, the erotic and desire, as Dodd illustrates, are not mutually exclusive, but in fact share space,” Johnson said in the exhibit’s catalog.
Johnson said he experienced homophobic encounters in Adams Morgan, a “hyper-heteronormative, hyper-masculine” neighborhood, while attending GW through 2015. To juxtapose the neighborhood, he said that he wanted to feature an exhibit that was “overtly queer.”
“I don’t focus on straight white men – you won’t find them in any of my work that I do,” Johnson said. “Being in this space and living tangentially to academia, but I’m not actually in it, I still see who we prize and who we recognize.”
Johnson noted the important connection between two pieces from Maryland artist John Paradiso. A black and white photograph from 1991 captures an anonymous man covered in caution tape – a comment on the AIDS crisis, Johnson said. But the work sits alongside a newer, more vibrant work from 2014 depicting naked men in pastel hand embroidery, with a thread for each stubble on their chests.
Johnson previously curated an exhibit, “Queer(ed) Performativity,” at the same venue which ran from April to May. He posed the exhibit as a critique of expectations about LGBTQ embodiment and the baggage behind images in popular culture and social media.
But with “Queer(ing) Pleasure,” Johnson said he wanted to use what he learned from his last exhibit and choose art pieces that could fit as tools for resistance and celebration, rather than a gallery space of doom and gloom.
“Any personal project I do is probably always going to be somewhere along the line of dealing with queer politics, just because that’s what interests me the most,” Johnson said. “Most of the work I do is often parallel to me figuring out my own sort of place.”