If it is a crown it means it belongs to a king

Travis Fitzgerald and Gary Robbins. If it is a crown it means it belongs to a king. 2012. installation view.

 

If it is a crown it means it belongs to a king…or maybe not. If it is a crown it means it belongs to a king is a collaborative exhibition by artists Gary Robbins and Travis Fitzgerald at 12128, a gallery on the decks of the mighty Labrador, a derelict fishing boat moored at a “yacht” harbor on the Willamette River. A handful of objects, a photo of a doll’s penis, and 20 paintings by Fitzgerald of the same bichon frise make up the exhibition. Among the objects are what looks like an oversized tip jar stuffed full of dollar bills next to a very realistic-looking sculpture of a newborn baby in a nest of silver lamé, two pink bandanas encased in resin, and two triangular sculptures, one in a beat-up tartan, the other pink neon.

The triangles brought the elements into some kind of focus as an exploration of signifiers, gay and otherwise, ranging from the nostalgic (the pink triangle) to the frivolous (DINK couple gets dog). These are the ways we tell each other who we are, who we think we are, who we want you to think we are. Some are overt, some nuanced, and some coded.

The pink neon triangle, Robbins’ doing, leans into a corner on the floor. It is covered by plastic that traps the white vapor from a smoke machine curling beneath it in such a beautiful way. Peering into it is one part disco and one part mists of time.

The tartan stretched across the other triangle is that of Fitzgerald family, suggesting that we read this exhibition as about the identity of the artists. This is, the tartan suggests, personal.

And this makes the exhibition a refreshing dip back into identity art without the stridency or didacticism. In fact If it is a crown heads in the opposite direction with a couple of moves that are obscure enough to remain mysteries…like the tip jar, say, or the baby. Others are nominally readable, like the two pink bandanas (hankies) embedded in resin blocks on the floor (see: hankie code) and the doggies.

But of course, as with the hankie code, you’re not going to read it unless you’re in the know, as with many subculture signifiers. I knew colored bandanas from seeing 13-year-old Venice gang kids at the beach with lavender bandanas matching their lavender boxers. That lavender bandana in the back pocket says something very different to a gay man reading the hankie code for preferences of sexual practice.

We don’t see that pink triangle much anymore, either as a symbol of gay pride (circa 1970s) or more specifically as a symbol of the Act-Up movement, paired with the words “Silence=Death” raising (fiercely) awareness of AIDS (beginning in the late ’80s). Today it reads like a specific chapter out of the history books. And when the artists making work with the symbol are in their 20s, its inclusion here seems like a nostalgic move (like millennial teens who embrace the style of punk rock). It’s a fraught nostalgia that turns a blind eye to the symbol’s origins and harkens back to the newfound voice and freedom of urban gay culture in the ’70s, freedoms which are heartbreaking when viewed in the rearview mirror knowing now what we know about the tragedies of AIDS in the decades to follow.

But if I was reading nostalgia, the artists’ intention was just the opposite.

Travis Fitzgerald and Gary Robbins. If it is a crown... 2012. installation view

 

I finally asked Robbins and Fitzgerald about the baby, which, Robbins responded, is there for personal reasons, a death in the family, and the baby that, as a gay man, he likely will never have.

To Robbins the disparate elements—from the symbols on the dollar bills to the tartan—were meant in combination to create an awareness in the viewer of the “process of creating meaning that each viewer undergoes.” Thus the title of the show, “If…it means…” opens inquiry rather than closing it. But I wonder, with a symbol as potent as that pink triangle anchoring things, or I should say weighing heavily, tilting the entire exhibition in its direction, how much space is there to create meaning among the assembled objects?

Regarding that pink triangle, Robbins said, “[N]ow I feel the symbol and the lifestyle it represents has become something of a trap that is limiting to its community and the way the non-queer (and especially anti-queer) world views it.”

“Basically,” Robbins says, “I got tired of queer art that celebrates how awesome the endless adolescence and non-stop blowjob party of being a beautiful, lithe gay boy is. It’s boring, and it’s a lie. We all get hungover, we all get lonely, and it gets worse as often as, ‘it gets better.'”

Robbins’ fantastic catalogue for the show had uncut pages so the content of some of the pages was hidden in the folds. In the very best kind of interaction between printed matter and its exhibition, its form mirrored the overall sense of the show: that whatever could be read, there was plenty hidden between the pages.

On one of the exposed pages, Robbins included a Wikipedia definition of qualia, “subjective conscious experiences as ‘raw feels’. Examples of qualia are the pain of a headache, the taste of wine…” — the raw material, in other words, from which one creates meaning. The bulk of the text in the catalogue supported Boris Groys’ notion that on the one hand art must not permitted to be naked but must be clothed in language…but on the other hand, nobody reads it so the language could be, well, anything…such as the conceptual writing in the catalogue, self-referential sentences that counted the quantity of each letter of the alphabet in that sentence.

The catalogue sorts things out for me, as the best catalogues do, as an abstract guidebook to the exhibition. Further showing, not telling, it pulls back from the specifics of the objects in the show to the general, in the end suggesting the value in getting at the raw (qualia) rather than the cooked (crown).

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