Those who deviate from gender norms threaten, though gender itself isn’t an actual weapon. It may be seen as an affront to religion, politics or biology, but regardless of how you feel about it, stopping change is a useless hobby. Queer and women’s liberation were huge movements, and those begot others. In 1995, gender’s patron saint David Bowie released a song called “Hallo Spaceboy.” “Do you like boys or girls? It’s confusing these days,” he sang. Even David Bowie could not imagine how much more confusing gender and sexuality would get. Or maybe gender and sexuality have become less confusing because now at least we have an expansive vocabulary to describe who we are.
That’s the result of one specific gender war. There have, of course, been others. Many have been fought via art — whether it was the Guerrilla Girls (active for over 30 years now) protesting the lack of women artists in museums; Judy Chicago inviting us to remember crucial feminist figures while we get comfortable with women’s genitalia in The Dinner Party (1974-1979); or Yoko Ono allowing random people to treat her body like an object in the 1964 performance work Cut Piece. None of these artists are in “Trigger,” though the exhibition shows the next generation is carrying the torch.
“Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” explores how gender is used against us, and celebrates gender wins. It shows how flouting gender rules can be a tool to build greater understanding.
The exhibition consumes almost the whole building of the New Museum, from the cellar through the fourth floor. Art is placed pretty much anywhere there is room for it, stuffed into the museum like so many toys in a stocking on Christmas Eve.
Mickalene Thomas is an exhibit highlight, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed her. Known for her pop art style and celebration of black women’s beauty, the lesbian artist traveled back to various time periods for her 2016 multimedia piece Me as Muse. “A man has always wanted to lay me down, but he never wanted to pick me up,” Eartha Kitt confesses in an audio interview that is the piece’s heart. She speaks of discrimination from mothers who “would rather [their boys] marry trash than marry someone of color.” As Kitt is talking we see Thomas, Grace Jones and Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (a Khoisan woman who performed for white audiences in various 19th-century European “freak shows”) displayed on 12 screens. Visually, the piece reminds one of looking into a kaleidoscope. The contrast of Kitt’s story against images of Thomas and Jones — women who were able to come after her because of her — is moving. Thomas is speaking to us, but it also feels like she’s speaking directly to her late idol, showing her how beautiful and worthwhile she is.
Gender-fluid performer Justin Vivian Bond found an icon in Karen Graham, a former model for Estee Lauder, and created two pastel and pencil artworks of her in 1979 and 1980, when Bond was just a teen. The artist also went on to reference her in My Mother | My Self (2014-present). The museum shows watercolors, wallpaper, a recreation of a living room, and a performance space decorated like the outside of a movie premiere, all from that same project. Bond is next to Graham in portraits that have a creepy Single White Female edge to them. These practically dare the viewer to look for the difference between cis and trans beauty, and the conclusion you reach is that there is no difference. Beauty is beauty. Close your eyes as you sit in the living room and you can see Bond there too, sketching those pieces of Graham, yearning for a more authentic life. There is a record player and the album on tap is by Bond, showing the dream came true for this gender warrior.
Despite these and other excellent pieces, “Trigger” as a whole does not deliver — not with a thorough investigation of feminist and lesbian movements, not with a long, hard look at current events and gender. There are two sculptures from 2011. Table for One (at the sad cafe) and I’m Every Woman I Ever Met by Anicka Yi. In Every Woman pearls have been vacuum-packed, a commentary on Chelsea Manning. I would have never in a million years guessed Yi’s was the subject.
The exhibit is crying out to be separated by theme. Editing would have been welcome, too. When there are so many artistic voices, it starts to feel like a talk show in which everyone is speaking on top of each other.
When you come right down to it, “Trigger” is a pat on the back, a way to show how cutting edge the New Museum is. If that’s all you want from your art, fine. I’m going to need a lot more.
Image: From Justin Vivian Bond, My Barbie Coloring Book, 2014. Watercolor on archival paper, 14 ½ × 11 ½ in (36.8 × 29.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist.