New York — “A Fire in My Belly,” the David Wojnarowicz video seen briefly at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, recently reappeared in its natural habitat, hanging beside his uncensored works in the artist’s longtime New York gallery, PPOW. Many of the images flashing past in the four-minute film (including the one of the white crucifix with ants crawling over it that prompted outcries from the Catholic League and others) reappear in the sculpture, photographs, montages and multi-panel paintings nearby.
Wojnarowicz, a lapsed Catholic, filled his work with the iconography of his boyhood faith. This consistent imagery justifies the gallery’s title for the show, “Spirituality.” (To be fair, it could just as easily be called “Provocations,” after another of the artist’s proclivities.) In one hand-colored Xerox by the reception desk, a haloed Jean Genet appears in the foreground, while a suffering Christ ties off in the background for an IV fix. In another, a Saint Sebastian torso, pierced with arrows and painted on U.S. currency, hovers between inset images of explicit sex.
“A Fire in My Belly,” recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, shows up not once but twice in the show: in an early rough cut and in a shorter, more finished version that appears as part of an hour-long German documentary, “Silence=Death.” The controversial work is clearly the draw here. But the paintings provide the reason to linger, and the justification for the show’s title, “Spirituality.” Their organizational principle is the jangly juxtaposition of disembodied images — an outtakes-from-the-id style popular with ’80s art stars such as David Salle, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. But the dominant and downright medieval mood is more particular to Wojnarowicz: sorrowful, distant, all too conscious of the violence of life and the corruptibility of the flesh.
These preoccupations predate the artist’s HIV diagnosis in 1987. In fact, they predate the virus itself. One vitrine displays personal ephemera — stones he collected in Mexico, journals, a fruit crate labeled with the words “Magic Box.” Above a 1979 journal entry in which he described a meeting with “Patty Pinhead aka Gina Lolaberkowitz,” he pasted a prayer card depicting the same doleful Christ who later appears in the 1990 work with a hypodermic needle.
In a conversation recorded in the documentary here, Wojnarowicz sums up his view of the afterlife as “food for flies.” But the show could scarcely be called “Spirituality” if his paintings shared this view — if his pictures were all ants and no crucifix. Instead, his paintings and videos betray the hallmarks of other artworks by literary apostates such as James Joyce and Anthony Burgess: They teem with ritual and a sense of the theatrical borrowed from Mass, provocative settings for the occasional erotic tidbit or obscenity. “It always struck me as a mistake that the Catholic Church never claimed artists like David,” Jonathan Katz, a curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibit, says. “His work is suffused with its iconography.”