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Art review: David Wojnarowicz's 'Spirituality' at PPOW gallery in New York

By Kevin Conley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 8:14 AM

IN 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."

Wojnarowicz earned his Christ-on-the-cross imagery the hard way. At 14, he started slipping away from his home in Red Bank, N.J., to work as a hustler. In 1970, at the age of 16, he ran away for good to escape his father's brutal beatings. For several years, he lived on the streets and in welfare hotels, still prostituting himself. He worked on a farm in Canada, freight-hopped across the States, settled for a while in San Francisco, came out to his family at age 20. He traveled to Paris and Mexico. He played in the Danceteria club and Wigstock festival with a post-punk band called 3 Teens Kill 4. He documented the activities of the sexual underground in abandoned warehouses along the Hudson River. The combination of experiences made him an especially charismatic figure on the Lower East Side scene, an accomplished artist with a dark past.

It also left him with reserves of fury that he tapped into in his writing and spoken-word performances. The documentary at PPOW shows him reading from a handwritten text and working himself into an incantatory rage, speaking, at one point, of strapping explosives to his body and entering "that building on Fifth Avenue" - St. Patrick's Cathedral, the seat of Cardinal John O'Connor. Some of the shock in that statement is anachronistic: In 1989, suicide bombings were not yet a familiar political phenomenon. But in his final years, the artist had plenty of occasions to exercise his rage, at protests and memorials. He was not alone in giving himself to such transports, but he was good at it, blurring the lines between protest and art in a way that was particularly influential and shaped the art world well into the next decade. During an era when much of the artistic community was devastated and furious, Wojnarowicz was its strongest voice.

But as the "Spirituality" show makes clear, his legacy cannot be reduced to his attempts to rouse "people of conscience in positions of power." Much of the footage for the original version of "A Fire in My Belly" was shot in Mexico. And his camera tends to linger: on a cockfight, a pair of lonely women in pageant costumes dancing, on a 10-year-old boy blowing fire at stoplights for small change. The images come in waves, and his obsessions - with Mexican wrestlers, small gestures of ritual, coins, machinery - have an organic presence.

The finished piece included in the German documentary comes in at less than half the length of the rough cut. The National Portrait Gallery, based on its research into the viewing habits of museum-goers, trimmed three more minutes from that. These shorter versions are fully achieved polemics and they have an entirely different feel: searing images flashing by at an unsettling speed. You sense time racing by and running out.

By comparison, the slower pace of the original feels languid and surrealist, like something out of Bunuel. It contains suggestions of tentative moods that Wojnarowicz, a willing lightning rod for controversy, never had the chance to follow up on. These moods are in sync with contemporary video style, more halting and suited to our age of doubt. Luckily, in "Spirituality," both sides of the artist are fully present.

"David was a gentle and elegant soul," said Karen Rinaldi, editor of "Close to the Knives," the artist's "memoir of disintegration," published by Vintage in 1991. "But he would be so thrilled that he's still pissing people off."

Conley is a freelance writer.

Spirituality through April 9 at PPOW, 535 W. 22nd St., third floor, New York. Call 212-647-1044. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

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