There’s nothing wrong with a family-friendly art show, and South Florida’s museums are filled with them – especially as summertime peters to a close. Now that the kiddies are back in school, it’s prime time for a nice controversial art exhibition, that kind for adults only, the kind that will provoke, shock, energize and inspire. Least of all will it spawn indifference, that shoulder-shrugging death knell for many an artist.
I’m talking about the ActivistArtistA Gallery’s new retrospective of works by Valyn Calhoun, a confrontational, expressive fine art photographer based in Fort Lauderdale. Last night, the Boynton Beach Arts District warehouse gallery unveiled several dozen Calhoun works, in all of their blood, guts, nip slips and general boundary-pushing angst.
For example, Calhoun’s most recent series, presented in half-dozen or so photos, shows the artist in a number of agonizing self-portraits, his hands, arms and tattooed chest caked with blood while he clutches his skull in abject torment. In one of the shots, we can see only the whites of his eyes, and in another he stares directly at us, forcing us to return his gaze – implicating us in his pain.
According to Rolando Chang Barrerro, who curated the exhibition, Calhoun discovered in February that he had contracted AIDS, and this bloody series is his response to the diagnosis. (Thanks to a fundraising campaign by his colleagues, he’s receiving treatment now and appears to be OK).
Other, older collections are less in-your-face, but just as memorable. One series shows his muse, Rita Baum, posing in fashionable boots, colorful pants and a police hat, showing the occasional bit of tasteful nudity while patrolling the sort of heavily graffitied, abandoned buildings that defined urban dystopias in ‘80s sci-fi films (Cornered away from Calhoun’s art, the gallery is also showcasing five unique portraits of Calhoun by Baum, exhibiting for the first time). From steampunk to post-punk, another series features saturated visions of punk rock bands and dancehalls – fevered distillations of countercultural visions.
Another series features black silhouettes of Baum in front of motley butterfly wings; Calhoun has turned his muse into a mysteriously angelic figure. One of my favorite series shows human body parts – usually from Calhoun’s own emaciated frame – doubled, tripled and quadrupled them in all directions, creating vaginal vortices: intimate kaleidoscopes of human flesh. One of Calhoun’s most similarly provocative collections depicts women, dressed for fetish parties, whose bodies are tired down with rope, their breasts “censored” by black plastic tape. Is this the voice of the kinky, or the voice of the speechless and repressed? Part of the pleasure of Calhoun’s work is its inscrutability, its lack of speechifying. You draw your own conclusions.
And just went you think you’ve seen it all, there’s a series of benign photos of insects and birds, close-ups from the Nat Geo cutting-room floor. It’s proof that this underground voice can rise to the surface whenever he wants. Or as Barrerro puts it, “He has a language like everybody else who experiences life. We go to McDonald’s as well as five-star restaurants.”
There will be a VIP reception of “Valyn Calhoun: Retrospective” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24. Call Rolando Chang Barrerro at 786/521-1199 for details. The exhibition will run through Sept. 27 at ActivistArtistA, 422 W. Industrial Ave., Boynton Beach. Admission is free.