His Whole Self

It's got abstract painting. It's got video. It's politically courageous. It's rife with sexual overtones. "Donald Moffett: The Extravagant Vein," curated by the CAMH's Valarie Cassell Oliver, is the first survey of the artist's diverse yet related bodies of work. It's not often that an artist can pack all of his varied aesthetic, political and social concerns into his art, but that's pretty much what Moffett does in the nine bodies of work on view.

A Texas native, Moffett arrived in New York in 1978 at age 23, just a few years before the AIDS crisis broke. AIDS and the social and political response to it fueled the earliest work on view in the show, He Kills Me (1987). It's a poster diptych you may have seen before: One side is a black-and-white photo of a smirking, pompadoured Ronald Reagan with "HE KILLS ME" written in orange block letters across the bottom, the other is an orange-and-black target.

Moffett pasted these around New York anonymously, addressing Reagan's total silence on the subject of AIDS, which meant an absence of crucial funding and the stigmatization of AIDS victims. When Ronald Reagan finally addressed the AIDS crisis on May 31, 1987, more than 20,000 Americans had already died from the disease. Moffett would go on to help found Gran Fury, which created work under the auspices of the gay activist organization ACT UP.


"Donald Moffett: The Extravagant Vein"

Through January 8, 2012. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

In the CAMH installation of the work, the posters cover the wall from floor to ceiling. Photographs from Blue (NY), a late-'90s series of images, are hung across them. You can't really tell that some of the rectangles, in various shades of blue, are actually photographs of the sky. Others feature faint clouds. Hung against the outraged, jarring orange-and-black of the Reagan posters, they read as a calm and poignant lament.

In his trenchant 1990 series Gays in the Military, Moffett takes 19th-century Civil War portraits and adds sexually explicit honorifics to the stodgy images. Ulysses S. Grant is identified as a "Brilliant war strategist fierce bottom," while another officer is labeled a "Hero sure shot really thick." Moffitt's invented and graphic accolades are in-your-face, edgy and absurd, while reminding us that there have always been gay people in the military. And really, any of these guys could have been gay. Grant's great-great-grandson is, and he's an outspoken advocate for gay marriage.

The presence of these earlier works in the survey makes the sexuality of Moffett's later offerings more overt. The 2007 works from the artist's Fleisch ["flesh," or "meat" in German] series have parallels in Lucio Fontana's sliced canvases, but here the cuts and openings are less expressive, much more controlled and much creepier. Lot 032407911-110 is a stretched, raw-linen canvas with random holes in the bottom half of the neatly stitched circles that look like a grouping of orifices; above them are a corresponding number of short horizontal cuts in the canvas that read like mouths. But instead of opening up the canvas, they're zippered closed, giving what could be read as simply a collection of lines and circles an unsettling BDSM vibe.

Elsewhere, Moffett creates paintings by coating panels or canvases with thick extrusions of paint. It's layered in stripes like icing, or looped like yarn or clustered in tiny peaks so fine, and so dense, they look like fur. In others, slender lines of paint create a net-like coating over the surface. The wooden panels contain holes. Lot 0117109O0 (2010), from the Comfort Hole series, could look like a square of white furry pelt or shag carpeting, evoking a kind of chaste sensuality. But an oval hole has been drilled through the panel at a 45-degree angle, with fine strands of paint clustering around the opening like hair.

Moffett also uses his paintings as screens for video. The works from The Extravagant Vein (an over-the-top double entendre that lent the show its title) are flicking scenes of nature projected onto the gold surfaces of canvases. The romantic, tranquil paths and foliage were shot in the Ramble of Central Park, a noted cruising spot that has also been the site of antigay violence: a stroll in the park undercut by sex and violence.

Also strong is What Barbara Jordan Wore, a body of work that reveals Moffett's Texas roots. In Untitled (Ms. Jordan) (2002), part of a video installation, an indistinct video of Jordan's speech during the Nixon impeachment hearings is projected over the textured silver surface of a Moffett painting. The footage is blurry and memory-like, but Jordan's voice is clear and strong, the words of her speech infused with a controlled, dignified righteousness.

Jordan was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate and the first African-American congresswoman from a Southern state. In her speech, Jordan acknowledges that the founding fathers would never have considered her a part of the citizenry, let alone eligible to serve in government. As a Texan born in 1955, Moffett no doubt has a strong sense of where Jordan came from and the obstacles in her way as she sought to be treated fairly and equally, not to mention play a role in the political world. And as a gay man who lived through the discrimination, demonization and indifference of the AIDS crisis, he must feel a strong resonance with Jordan's words.

There are artists who create within tightly defined parameters, moving neatly from one body of work to the next. Moffett isn't one of those easily defined artists; if he were, he might have had a survey of his work before this. He brings his whole self to his work, and Oliver has done a great job bringing him to us.

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