This selection of works from 1979 to ’90 by David Wojnarowicz, which included paintings, photographs, sculpture and video, was put together by P.P.O.W. co-owners Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington, who were the artist’s gallerists during his brief but influential career and now manage his estate. It was intended to provide a more rounded view of Wojnarowicz’s practice and his relationship to spirituality than has surfaced during the recent censorship flap, in which a re-edited version of his video A Fire in My Belly (1987) was removed from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
In his voluminous autobiographical writings, Wojnarowicz described how he was raised Catholic by an abusive father from whom he escaped as an adolescent. He lived for a while in Times Square as a gay hustler. Eventually he found a home in the East Village art scene of the early 1980s, and there gained recognition for his symbol-laden, Surrealist-inspired art. The works gathered here were closely tied to his anguish over institutional indifference to the AIDS epidemic, which in 1992 claimed his own life. However, they also illustrate his nuanced approach to religion and faith.
A Fire in My Belly was presented as a work in progress—silent, without the controversial soundtrack added posthumously by one of the “Hide/Seek” curators. In other pieces, we see the recurring use of the symbols that appear in this video, not least the motif of ants, whose crawl over a crucifix was cited by the critics of “Hide/Seek” as an example of hate speech against Catholics. In fact, ants here serve as surrogates for the negative aspects of human civilization. Wojnarowicz wrote in notes to a 1989 exhibition at P.P.O.W. (made available here by the gallery): “Ants are the only insects to keep pets, use tools, make war and capture slaves.” In the works on view ants also crawl over clocks, coins, human bodies and guns, and hence represent what Wojnarowicz referred to as the “pre-invented world” of human culture, which he persistently contrasted in his writings and artworks with the world of authentic experience found in nature, sexuality and spirituality.
Many of the works draw on the Catholicism-drenched culture of Mexico, to which he frequently traveled, focusing on skulls, masked wrestlers, bullfights, Mayan temples and religious figurines. To quote again from the 1989 exhibition notes, Wojnarowicz described Mexico as the locus of a more authentic world of spirit, noting: “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.”
Scouring their own and other archives, Olsoff and Pilkington organized a fascinating survey, assembling major paintings like Spirituality (for Paul Thek), 1988-89, and Excavating the Temple of the New Gods (1986), in which Wojnarowicz laid out the contrast between the material and spiritual worlds, and little seen and newly discovered works—including a photograph from the series “Rimbaud in New York” showing the artist wearing a Rimbaud mask before a street painting of Jesus—as well as holy cards, newspaper clippings and other relevant ephemera that belonged to the artist. It is a shame it took a return to the Culture Wars to bring Wojnarowicz’s powerful and complex work back into focus.
Photo: David Wojnarowicz: Untitled from the Ant Series (control), 1988-89, silver gelatin print, 401⁄4 by 47 inches; at P.P.O.W.