LATE AFTERNOON IN THE FOREST, 1986, ACRYLIC, SPRAY PAINT AND COLLAGE ON MUSLIN, 79 1/3 BY 158 3/4 INCHES. COLLECTION ELI BROAD FOUNDATION.
When he made "The Four Elements," Wojnarowicz had recently returned from Mexico. He has traveled a lot in the last 15 years, hitchhiking, riding freights, later renting cars, in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. "I've always loved being anonymous and moving around, traveling," he says." "In fact, that's the most powerful state for me to be in. Away from any references. I love that moment. That's where my life makes sense. That's where I get things for working. I try to do it as I can."
I picture him speeding through the night, voyaging the torn maps that figure in his paintings and his occasional sculptures (a map-covered child in flames, a map-covered animal skull holding the globe in its teeth, a map-covered shark and snake, a 1984 painting of two men standing in water, kissing, over a map of the world). The map is at once a symbol of potential freedom and a metaphor for the unquestioned structured of government. "By tearing through maps," he says. "I erase borders; borders create ownership and wars."
Wojnarowicz never studied art, but his affinities lie with Surrealism and Dada, subverted by the formal and emotional influence of comics. While his paintings lack the preciousness that marks the work of virtually all the Surrealists (with the frequent exception of Max Ernst), his unconscious does seem to have run along the tracks laid by Magritte, de Chirico and Ernst, exhuming imagery like the floating business0suited man, ants on an eye, he train, machine parts and isolated biologies and anatomies. This was more evident in Wojnarowicz's early works such at the Ernstian Bill Burroughs' Recurring Dream of 1978, whose Egyptian references predict Burroughs's recent novels, Cities of the Red Night and Western Lands.
Perhaps after his accrued experience of high art, Wojnarowicz developed the highly original structures that characterize his mature work-the piling on of patter and vignetted images, the mix of pop and classical culture, the layering of chaos over order, horror over serenity. Some of his works, like Silence Thru Economics-halves of a bread loaf sewn together-resemble classical Surrealist objects. But Wojnarowicz has typically taken the image over the edge into reality. The Fall1990 cover of High Performance is a photo of the artist from the film Silence=Death by Phil Zwickler and Rosa von Praunheim. His lips are sewn together; blood oozes from the wounds.
The harsh and iconoclastic exuberance of Dada is also perceptible in Wojnarowicz's adaptation of montage techniques. However, the artists he reminds me of most are Frida Kahlo and William Burroughs. He shares with Kahlo the weight of pain and the freedom of vision, the use of art as a healing process for damaged lives, an occasionally raw technique disguising subtle content. Like Burroughs (an early influence who later wrote a blurb for Wojnarowicz's book, Sounds from a Distance), Wojnarowicz balances aggressive violence and pessimism with transgressive, life-affirming vitality.
The contradictions that infest any thinking person's life are particularly evident in Wojnarowicz's various art forms, which are pervaded by empathy for the human condition and anger at human actions. His preoccupation with social justice-or the lack thereof-is highlighted by titles like The Newspaper as National Voodoo: A Brief History of the U.S.A., The Death of American Spirituality, Fear of Evolution, A Painting to Replace the British Monument in Buenos Aires and Crash: The Birth of Language/The Invention of Lies. He talks about making an X ray of civilization (which he refers to as the preinvented world") and says that he is
Beginning to believe that one of the last frontiers, left for radical gesture is the imagination. At least in my ungoverned imagination I can fuck somebody without a rubber or I can, in he privacy of my own skull, douse Helms with a bucked of gasoline and set his putrid ass on fire or throw Rep. William Dannemeyer off the Empire State Building. These fantasies five me distance from my outrage for a few seconds.
His imagination is overlaid on history, and sometimes on transhistorical time. Cursed or blessed with a cinematic memory for both images and conversations, Wojnarowicz writes:
Inside my head behind the eyes are lengthy films running on multiple projectors; the films are images made up from information from media... some of the films are childhood memories of the forests I lay down in' the surfaces of the earth I scrutinized and some are made up of dreams. Sometimes the projectors run simultaneously sometimes they stop and start but the end result is thousands of feet of multiple films crisscrossing in front of each other thereby creating the endless juxtapositions and associations.... THE EYE/THE SPHERE/ THE GLOBE/THE WINDOW OF CONSIOUSNESS/THE PORTAL TO SLEEP AND WALKING/THE ENTRANCE TO THE CINEMA OF BIOLOGICAL THRUST.
Peter Hujar, he recalls, "demanded that you bring it all right up to the front and not deny things." Wojnarowicz has "always believed in gesture... loved drawing by people who didn't know how to draw [because] the energy was more direct than with somebody who'd studied and developed a style." But his populist and confrontational approach not withstanding, "the quietest things I've always kept in," he says. "My work has always been intuitive. For some reason, I always felt ashamed of that. I think it's also what kept me from being cynical. Trusting myself. Finding some home in terms of change."
For a long time Wonjnarowicz was also somewhat embarrassed by what he perceived as the extreme literalness of his paintings:
I always thought my work could be read like boom, boom, boom, boom. There's so much art out there that doesn't read. The information is so oblique that you can't get it unless there's a library next to it. Creating an elite in the art world, in terms of how gets the joke or can understand the information, is no better than what happens in the larger social structure. You see group shows where there are bits of things that touch you but they are really just a few steps above a blank.
Too true. In June 1980, I was wandering through a group show called "Quiet Trauma" at the Milford Gallery in New York, wondering why the traumas were virtually invisible, why so few artists can say what they think; why the fear that it is uncool to show feelings on the surface, to explain one's work in the titles or captions, seems so universally internalized. In the midst of a decidedly gray viewing experience I came across Wojnarowicz's contribution--small collage painting, whose red angular patters frame and are overlaid by nine photographs of Peter Hujar a moment after his death, a $20 bill, germs/sperms: in the central area is a long, excruciatingly angry and agonized typewritten text about AIDS, political neglect and the experience of having been diagnosed as HIV positive. The work was electrifying in every sense that art can be, and the rest of the room simply vanished. This was not a quiet trauma, nor was it a passive commentary.
Being known as an artist-who-has-AIDS saddens and infuriates Wojnarowicz: "I wish there were some way that people could see the structure of the who thing so that you could be treated as an entire complex human being and not as this receptacle of death. Yet one result of his encounters with AIDS over the past decade has been the rare appearance of an art (by him and others who have followed his lead) that t deals directly with the disease, its causes (social and physical) and its ramifications, rather than indirectly performing the function of mourning or glorifying a (sex) life-style. Also fighting the homophobia endemic in our society and the suppression of sexuality that long precedes AIDS, Wojnarowicz calls for artists to picture anted to responsibly explore the topic of homosexuality.
His photographic "sex Series" of 1988 was partially inspired when a wok of his depicting homosexual activity was rejected from a Paris show on sexual themes; purporting to be "liberated," the show focused primarily on "images of straight whit e male fantasies," including an " occasional lesbian image." The "Sex Series" began with an accident in the darkroom Wojnarowicz inherited from Hujar, where he began to print many years' worth of his own old blanc-and-whit negatives. The eight 18-by21 ½-9nch photomontages are printed as negatives and usually consist of a principle image framed or punctuated by small circular insets, which Wojnarwowicz has related to surveillance photos, to suppressed information and to cells seen through a microscope Most of the circular cameos contain explicit homoerotic or occasionally heterosexual scenes. The reversal to negative suffuses them with a nocturnal glow and generates unexpected sources of light and energy, haloing heads, cocks, bony hands. The larger underlying images are often quite ordinary to begin with-- a speeding train, a plane disgorging parachutes, a house next to a water tower-- but they take on, through the inversion of light and dark, a menacing oneiric aura. Wojnarowicz has a formal, highly idiosyncratic camera eye, but the tonal reversal provides an eerie distance that makes these photographs look "appropriated" whether they are or not.
Other photographic composites from 1988–89 include Spirituality (For Paul Thek)—a close-up of a glory crucifix with ants crawling on Christ's face balanced by six smaller squares of classic Wojnarowiczian images (clock, men dancing, money, kid with mask, the Futurists' machine-as-god and a photograph of an early victim of AIDS with cigarette smoke pouring from his mouth like the spirit leaving the body.) The recurrence of Catholic and more general religious imagery in Wojnarowicz's work is double sided. On one (positive) hand it refers to his travel experiences and to popular culture:
Going south of the border I found myth to still be very much alive and with it the sense of connection to the ground people walked on... Popular culture still carries the most spiritual reverberation. As adults we are pressured to leave myth and thus spirituality behind...