Austin Powers’ Swedish-made Penis Enlarger wouldn’t find many takers at the District of Columbia Arts Center’s “Too Queer: Interrogating the Border Guards of Queer Identity” show: The johnsons on view are textbook examples of Penis americanus at its beefiest. Generous eyefuls of willies and breasts, along with Packin’ Barbie’s pink vinyl dildo and strap-on harness, will rate this show off the Family Filmgoer’s scale. But then, the show is meant to titillate our consciences, not our libidos.
Mounted by Triangle Artists Group (TAG), a confederation of about 100 lesbian and gay artists in the greater D.C. area now celebrating its fifth year of organizing art exhibitions and workshops, “Too Queer” asks artists to consider the censorship imposed on the gay community by the larger straight society, as well as by gays themselves. As is endemic to most shows organized around good intentions, this one is sometimes vacant: A list of queer Web sites printed on plain paper dangling flaccidly from the wall and narcissistic drawings of male nudes with nice abs leave a little self-restraint to be desired.
But there’s an arresting low growl from a far corner of the exhibition that, considering all the erotic imagery around, sounds from afar like the dull grunts of some stud getting it on. Upon closer inspection, the noise is a disturbing audio installation featuring the voice of actor and Torch Song Trilogy author Harvey Fierstein called Sticks and Stones: Words Reporting on Gays and Lesbians, wherein the playwright spits out a litany of antigay epithets—from “abomination” and “human rot” to “prissy sissy” and “fruit”—in a continuous loop.
“Too Queer” co-curator and artist Ruth Trevarrow got the idea for the piece when she stumbled on a paper by Harvard graduate student Lisa Bennet that included a compilation of 88 labels used in Time and Newsweek magazines from the ’20s to the ’90s to describe gays. Trevarrow and co-curator Diane Herz decided they had to make an audio installation using them. “We were blown away by it,” says Herz.
After hearing Fierstein’s distinctive voice reading at NAMES project events, the two curators vowed he’d be the one to read. “He’s a signature voice of the community,” explains Herz. After extensive networking, the curators secured the playwright’s cooperation. According to Herz, it took him only about a week: “I think he recorded it on his boom box.”
Trevarrow and Herz feel lucky to have Fierstein in their show. “It’s sort of like asking Barbra Streisand to do something,” says Trevarrow. “Only she probably wouldn’t do it.”—Jessica Dawson
“Too Queer: Interrogating the Border Guards of Queer Identity” is at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, to July 11. For information, call 462-7833.