I went to see this show because of its title; because it promised to feature artists who use gender and sexuality to reclaim some power in a society that denies it to them. The artists in “Trigger” do this in different ways—with different tools, theories, and visual vocabularies—and the result is a series of intense, isolated experiences with individual artworks.
If “Trigger” came with any kind of warning, it should be that you need three hours to have all of those experiences. It covers three full floors of the New Museum, and also spills into the lower level. It features over 40 artists, including Gregg Bordowitz, the Dyke Division of the Two-Headed Calf, Stanya Kahn, and Wu Tsang. Attempts to summarize this massive show feel doomed to failure. Instead, I’ll describe a small selection of the artworks, paired with the experience I had with each of them.
Mickalene Thomas, Odalisque
Mickalene Thomas is probably best known for paintings of self-possessed black women, set on richly-patterned and blinged-out backdrops. In Odalisque, an installation of multimedia video and audio, Thomas puts her own body on display with others, reclaiming the lounging, idealized sex slave from European art history.
Odalisque consists of 12 video monitors, stacked three high and set in a crescent shape that gently curves away from the viewer. The images on screen flicker between Thomas’ naked body, Grace Jones, classical nudes, Saartjie Baartman a.k.a the “Hottentot Venus,” and netted fabrics and networks of benday dots. Singer Eartha Kitt, whose mother was raped by a plantation owner’s son, recounts tales of sexual violence and inherited trauma in the accompanying audio.
Another artwork was installed in the middle of the same room as Odalisque, making it impossible to view without standing a bit too close or letting the other artwork obscure it. Maybe this was a curatorial compromise—a result of squeezing so many artworks into the museum’s square footage. Maybe it pissed both artists off. But I liked it. Combined with the curve of the monitors and the collaged images on screen, it compounded the sense that Thomas was offering up her body to me only to deny it from me at the same time.
Justin Vivian Bond, My Model | My Self: My Barbie Coloring Book
In Justin Vivian Bond’s installation, watercolor portraits hang in a quasi-domestic setting complete with a rug, lamp, and record player. The installation also features wallpaper and chairs covered in a custom pattern, a taupe-y tangle of laurel leaves. The portraits and pattern ensnare the viewer in a relationship between Bond and print model Karen Graham, decades in the making. Graham’s perfectly symmetrical face was used to sell Estée Lauder cosmetics in the 1970s, when Bond was growing up trans. Without a trans parent or role model, they self-selected one in Graham.
Together, Bond’s watercolors and wallpaper are muted, haunting, and heartbreakingly beautiful. The watercolors depict Graham and Bond as Graham, respectively, and are washed out save for blush, eyeshadow, lipstick, and other shared adornments. They remind me of the paper face charts professional makeup artists use to test different looks.
These unifying markers—makeup, a shared mauve scarf—are Bond’s tools of self-creation. They are a trans-child turned adult made in the image of a woman who existed primarily as image. The critique wrapped up in that makes me self-conscious. Standing in the museum, I worry I’m failing as a viewer, because I’ve spent such a significant amount of time marveling at Bond’s bone structure and compare-contrasting it with Graham’s.
Tuesday Smillie, Street Transvestites 1973
To start writing about Tuesday Smillie’s work I want to finish writing about Bond’s. Besides the installation, Bond will do monthly performances in the New Museum’s lobby, inspired by a rare video of Karen Graham. Rather than showing Graham “in action,” the clip captures a tension and stillness unique to print modeling. For each performance, Bond will stand in front of a laurel-leaf patterned step-and-repeat, holding as still as possible and staring blankly ahead.
Tuesday Smillie’s works in “Trigger” also have to do with movement and a lack thereof. They are echoes of protest flags and banners, wrenched from a place of action and put in a place of reflection. Flags are meant to flap, but here in the museum their physical movement and protest movement(s) can only be implied or imagined. Some are hung high, like Street Transvestites 1973. Smillie based this textile on a photo from the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, using streaks of black lace to recreate the folds and shadows shown on the original banner.
At the 1973 parade, a precursor to Pride, lesbian feminists clashed with drag queens and transgender women, claiming they were just men mocking or impersonating women. “WE FUCK UP SOMETIMES” reads another Smillie banner, hung just to the right of Street Transvestites 1973. The wall text explicitly calls out the “queer art of failure,” an idea outlined by theorist and “Trigger” advisory group member Jack Halberstam. Smillie’s banners acknowledge that mistakes, missteps, and fuck-ups are going to be made on any path to change.
Grouping over 40 artists together under the umbrella of gender, even when many of those artists consider gender to be a limiting construct, is one step on a path to change. If mistakes are expected and even embraced along that path, then it makes me think it’s ok if I had the wrong reaction to Bond’s work. It’s ok that I can’t tell if Thomas’ video is poorly or expertly installed, and that Smillie’s banners are divorced from a real activist context.
Maybe it’s also ok that “Trigger” is a show that preaches to a choir. It’s wistful to imagine that the exhibition could reach a broader demographic than the New Museum typically attracts—that it will reach across the divide of these renewed culture wars. Inspiring a new community to reflect on gender and “triggering” memories or nascent thoughts to make room for a new definition of it—that would be groundbreaking. But in the absence of that, presenting “Trigger” to an urban art audience still has its purpose. Because right now, that audience is feeling battered and bruised and very much in need of a sparkling, sprawling fortress of art and ideas.
 “Christopher St. Liberation Day, 1973,” Whose Streets Our Streets, 2017, http://whosestreetsourstreets.org/washington-square-park/.