Concealing and Revealing Ourselves

When I was in sixth grade, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. Nothing life threatening, just a moderate curvature of the spine. Unfortunately, I’d have to wear an ugly, bulky back brace for the next five years. I was devastated. In middle school, I wanted to be like everyone else, to blend in with my peers. With a brace, I’d surely stick out like a sore thumb. I wore the brace begrudgingly, but I hid the damn thing beneath layers of clothing.

At the same age that I was hiding my brace under heavy sweaters, Jennifer Finney Boylan was hiding away in a spare room, clandestinely trying on women’s clothing. [1] Boylan, an English professor at Colby College, was born biologically male. Her memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders chronicles her struggle to identify herself—and to have others identify her—as female. As an adult, Boylan underwent sex reassignment surgery. Throughout her life, Boylan presented herself to the world by hiding pieces of her identity. A young Boylan concealed her female identity within her male body. And on several occasions, a post-surgery Boylan chose not to reveal that she was once male. [2]

Robert Rauschenberg, "Canto XIV" (1959-1960), washingtonpost.com

Similarly, many portrait artists have used concealment (and its partner, revelation) to depict gender identity and sexual orientation. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture addressed this topic at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from October 2010 until February 2011. Hide/Seek explored depictions of sexual difference from Walt Whitman to Ellen DeGeneres. [3] In particular, the exhibit examined how artists depicted the fluid nature of sexuality and gender identity, how social marginalization influenced modern art, and how changing attitudes about sexuality were reflected in art. The portraits featured in Hide/Seek conceal and reveal parts of their subjects’ identities in response to the social context of their creation.

I’d like to highlight two artworks that play with concealment and revelation within their contemporary milieux. Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canto XIV” (1959-1960) is part of a series of paintings illustrating cantos from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Canto XIV describes the circle of Hell reserved for “sodomites,” who must run barefoot through scorching sand. During the “Lavender Scare,” or witch-hunts of homosexuals, Rauschenberg used abstraction to quietly identify himself as gay. Specifically, Rauschenberg represented himself and his lover Jasper Johns among those punished: at the top of the painting Rauschenberg outlined his own foot, and the American flag on the left symbolizes Johns. Abstraction helped Rauschenberg simultaneously hide and reveal his and Johns’s sexual identity.

Glenn Ligon, "Mirror #12" (2006), avion.egloos.com

Glenn Ligon’s “Mirror #12” (2006) employs a different kind of hiding within a more tolerant society. Ligon reproduced the words of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, who was, like Ligon, African American and homosexual. Ligon hid Baldwin’s words, which deal with racial and sexual themes, under layers of black paint and coal dust. The paint and dust mimic the imposition of Baldwin’s and Ligon’s blackness and homosexuality, which overshadow their complex identities. Ligon’s artistic process discloses his sexual orientation, but this revelation subsequently hides other aspects of his identity. “Mirror #12” proclaims that Ligon and Baldwin are not only gay African American males.

Likewise, I’m not only a girl with a slightly deformed spine. When I realized that my scoliosis didn’t wholly define me, I began to embrace my brace and rejoice in being different. We shrewdly calculate which pieces of ourselves to conceal from and reveal to the world. But in the end, we’re so much more than whom we love, what gender we are, or what medical conditions we have. That’s the ultimate message of Hide/Seek: our identities and desires are not so easily categorized. [4] We are large, we contain multitudes.

[1] Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 30.

[2] Ibid., 16, 18, 190.

[3] “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” [online exhibition] National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. <http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek/index.html&gt;. Hide/Seek received international attention in December 2010, when religious groups and conservative politicians objected to one of the pieces, David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly.” “A Fire in My Belly” is a 1986-7 video installation, created in response to the death of Wojnarowicz’s mentor and lover from AIDS and Wojnarowicz’s discovery that he himself was HIV positive. The video included a segment of ants crawling over a crucifix. Under pressure, the National Portrait Gallery removed the video from the exhibit.

[4] Ibid., “Walt Whitman” by Thomas Eakins.

2 thoughts on “Concealing and Revealing Ourselves

  1. I’m interested by this idea of concealment of identity, as it describes purposefully hiding part of oneself from others, arguably for personal protection or out of shame. Whether a back brace or one’s sexual identity, we conceal the personal tidbits that we don’t want others to know about.

    Therefore this coding within the artwork is really interesting, as the artists left subtle hints at details that they wanted to share but could not. This underscores an important point that keeping secrets about identity out of fear or shame is extremely hard, and has often been a challenge in life for many different people. I believe our human instinct is to share our complete selves, making the hiding process unnatural in comparison to the sharing.

  2. I was really impressed with your interpretation of these pieces of art. They were spot on historically. You really knew a lot about the artists and were able to extract the meaning behind these pieces. I wonder how many people who saw this exhibit found the same meaning. I think that art can really speak for itself, and that historic knowledge adds to our understanding. The artwork you chose are strong on both levels. Brava!

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