“So my heritage is a calculated fuck on some faraway sun-filled bed while the curtains are being sucked in and out of an open window by a passing breeze,” writes the late David Wojnarowicz in Close to the Knives, an aggressively raw and poetic memoir revealing his gift for self-expression. Wojnarowicz didn’t choose such bleak beginnings, nor did he choose an untimely AIDS-related death in 1992, but in the all-too brief time he was alive, he touched countless professionals in the arts. An outspoken queer-AIDS activist and leading figure in the 1980s East Village art scene, Wojnarowicz worked in painting, photography, film, performance and writing. His work has now inspired History Keeps Me Awake at Night: A Genealogy of Wojnarowicz, a group exhibition at P.P.O.W. bringing together 18 artists — the majority of whom are young — who have felt his influence.
Launching a largely wall-mounted show, curators Photi Giovanis and Jamie Stern (also the gallery director) fill the space with small to mid-sized works. Aesthetically, the art doesn’t fit together neatly — it’s not the most brilliantly hung show in Chelsea — though pieces themselves are quite strong. Documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf’s Small Town Boys, for example, a 2003 experimental biography, deftly juxtaposes the story of a child named Sarah Rosenberg trying to save My So Called Life through Internet petitions and fliers, with footage of protests over Wojnarowicz’s death only two years earlier. As the film makes clear, both the show (which covered topics of homophobia and same-sex parenting), and the artist died due to neglect. The former was a result of poor viewership, the latter the government’s refusal to invest sufficient resources in AIDS research. The hope, if there is any, lies with Rosenberg, a figure almost exchangeable with the protesters: a dedicated, awkward prepubescent child seeing her concerns acknowledged, but ultimately never receiving substantive support from paternal authority figures.
Wolf presents a scenario that, while bleak, is less futile than those found in some of Wojnarowicz’s better-known work. His untitled photograph documenting a museum display of buffalo falling off a cliff, for instance, invites the viewer to compare the results of herding scared animals to larger political and social events. Carrie Mae Weems mimics that same pessimism in the show by using an inkjet print of his piece on canvas, adding a black female viewer in front of this image and inscribing in red the words I saw you falling black and Indian alike and for you I played a sorrow song. The open-ended content of the original piece isn’t changed significantly in this new incarnation but rather made to speak more specifically to issues of race. Certainly, Mae Weems’ words have a poetic tone Wojnarowicz would have appreciated.
If any conclusions can be drawn from the genealogy presented at P.P.O.W., it would certainly seem his artistic descendants find little more optimism from current political and social conditions than the artist himself did. However, if one ray of light may be cast, Wojnarowicz’s dexterity and lyricism with both image and text inspire the like.