EARTH, 1987, ACRYLIC AND MIXED MEDIUMS ON WOOD, 72 BY 96 INCHES. PRIVATE COLLECTION.
The best art being made today is by people who are bucking the system. David Wojnarowicz is one of them. As a highly visible AIDS activist he was briefly notorious in 1989 for having been scapegoat by the NEA in the Artists Space skirmish (as a writer in the catalogue, he had the nerve to name names in a text entitled "Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell"). In June1990 he brought suit against Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. More important, as an artist he has cut through the sentiment and guilt surrounding the AIDS crisis and made art directly about homosexuality. In his determination to make the private public, he has also gone beyond specific thematic material to forge a unique combination of politics and spirituality, of the known and unknown.
When I first saw Wojnarowicz's work in the early 80's I liked it, but figured he could be just another Lower East Side artist kid—hot now, soon to burn out. Wrong. Although it hasn't yet been generally acknowledged in the art world, Wojnarowicz is one of the more brilliant fugitives to land on this cultural island—something of a renaissance man who can write, paint, make photographs, films, music, performances and installations without missing a beat. Even now, years after I started to love his paintings, I find it difficult to describe their robust poetics. They map a territory I recognize but don really know. They blow me away.
I got serious about Wojnarowicz's work after seeing his "Four Elements" exhibition at Gracie Mansion in 1987. The show's centerpieces were four brightly colored 6-by-8-foot paintings: Fire, Earth, Water and Wind (for Peter Hujar)—a good point at which to begin scrutinizing this complex oeuvre. Each painting contains components of the personal iconography Wojnarowicz has developed over the years: animals, maps, tornadoes, volcanoes; a nebula/cellular series of concentric circles, handless clocks, snakes, wrecked trains, brains sizzling with electricity; a window with curtains blowing in the wind, homoerotic vignettes, a skeletal prehistoric bird head; collaged supermarket advertisements, U.S. currency, music sheets and other printed matter; and a blank-eyed, bared-teeth, big-eared mask that might be either a self-portrait or an image from a reoccurring nightmare. These elements are repeated erratically throughout his work, giving birth to new meanings each time they are freshly juxtaposed.
Fire is irregularly quartered, the vignettes and painted collage images formally anchored into each section while playing off each other's content. A broken classical male figure if dwarfed by a jar containing a viciously fanged snake's head. A huge beetle foraging in a forest is struck by lightning crackling from a celestial brain, heralded by a vernacular devil. A monkey with a club (probably a reference to one of the artist's rare heroes: the Russian cosmo-monkey who got loose and bashed up the instrument panel of his aircraft/prison) hovers over a volcano circled by a tail-eating snake with a handgun. An ad for a car battery is commercially charged with "Potencia!!!" These magnetic references, however personal, attract new associations from every viewer.
Earth, also divided into quadrants, has a dark, compelling center circled by a pulsing green "cabbage" of cells (leaf mold) leading into brown filigree of roots/veins that forms a cross. The earth is moved by an ant in one corner, a bulldozer in another. A gray cowboy rides a steer as a snouted kachina mask pushes through the undergrowth; a red bridge/aqueduct and skeletal rib cage hover over a train wreck caused by, or exuding, mysterious worms of light (which are actually three stages of germinating seeds, as in school science projects). The painting is marked by an overwhelming textural and tactile density, while Water has an appropriately fluid structure. An amoebic form is divided into a grid of black and white rectangles dominated by images of lesbians and gay men making love- and pictures of the microscopic organism that causes AIDS. Over this are superimposed further enigmatic vignettes: a spotted frog with the photo of a car on its belly, a bandaged hand reaching from a prison cell for a daffodil in a snowstorm, a swirling sea about to engulf a black ship, all on a background of sperm-like tadpoles made of maps. This painting (a prime target of the AFA's "pornographic" anti-NEA flier) was brought by Wojnarowicz's lawyers to the Wildmon trial in full-size reproduction.
Wind is structurally more complex. The grid has gone underground, only partially visible in the sparse, right-angled lines diagramming a nuclear reactor. The image at the painting's top center- the place traditionally reserved for angels, visions, the Resurrection or Ascension- is a painted window opening in the sky, its white curtains blowing around a vulval aperture from which a red umbilical cord emerges, attached on one side to a red, screaming newborn in a dark hospital towel and on the other to a strange little scene of two men, one a headless parachutist about to jump ("like being born but more conscious"). This cluster is balanced by a great multicolored wing (after Durer), a memory of Icarus. The near-symmetry of the upper section disappears at the bottom right, where the clouds part to reveal a ruined gray earth, a man turning away from an obsolete machine/bird head being struck by a gold-outlined tornado. The landscape is gray, devastated, industrial. (Robert Smithson would have loved these paintings.) Despite the intensity of each vignette, the images are spread serenely across the canvas in what feels like a limitless space.
Wind, which makes synchronicity almost tangible, is one of Wojnarowicz's most transcendent paintings, emotion distilled. He made it during the period of the impending death of his best friend, photographer Peter Hujar, author of the compelling Portraits in Life and Death, whom he met when he was 26 and credits with being "in a great way responsible for everything that I've done... Essentially Peter was the audience for everything I did. It was like finding a member of one's tribe..."