In the wake of Washington State's historic gay marriage legislation, along with the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the west coast debut of "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at Tacoma Art Museum is sure to spark even more conversation on issues of gender and sexual identity. The collection of 94 works spans 150 years of American art – ranging from the late-1890s work of Thomas Eakens, to early modern pieces by Georgia O'Keeffe and George Wesley Bellows, to the post-war work of Andy Warhol. Each piece included in "Hide/Seek" has been selected to showcase how gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender identity has shaped modern American portraiture.
"This is timely subject matter, which addresses the constant debate of whether art is relevant anymore," said Stephanie Stebich, director of Tacoma Art Museum. "I think this exhibit demonstrates that the answer is a strong 'yes.'"
The collection, on display through June 10, was originally developed by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and reorganized by Tacoma Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.
Stebich is especially proud to bring the exhibit to Tacoma, after museums in Chicago and Minneapolis expressed strong interest in the collection – and it was no small task to make it happen.
"This exhibit is a major event for us, and something we're so excited to bring to the community," Stebich said. "We've already heard from people who are so grateful because this is the first time they have been represented in a museum."
An important element to note is that each piece in the collection has already been shown in museums throughout the world. "All of these artists are well-known, but the exhibit puts them in the context of gender and sexual identity," said Curator Rock Hushka. " "'Hide/Seek' breaks the blacklist of gay and lesbian subject matter in museums."
The exhibit aims to represent the evolution of sexual themes in art, ranging from the visual codes used to veil sexual themes used by artists from the early 20th century, to pieces created by artists responding to the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
The especially poignant "Felix" by AA Bronson is a billboard-size portrait taken of a man upon his death after battling AIDS. According to Dr. Jonathan D. Katz, co-curator of the original collection shown at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the striking portrait aims to serve as a reminder of how many artists die of AIDS.
A 1968 image by Yayoi Kusama, "Homosexual Wedding," is the first known photograph of a gay wedding – decades before the current debate that has been grabbing headlines nationwide.
And with the addition of the attention-grabbing "Camouflage Self-Portrait" by Andy Warhol, the exhibit more than succeeds in its goal to showcase a piece of art history not often told. "It's important to remember that everything on display has been seen in uncontroversial ways in museums in the past," Katz said. "But seen within this framework, 'Hide/Seek' works to end the sexual cleansing that has happened in the art world."
"Hide/Seek" is on display through June 10. The Tacoma Art Museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Third Thursdays from 5-8 p.m. Admission is $9/adults, $8/students/seniors/military, and children 5 and under are free.