Larry Jens Anderson treats difficult subjects with humor, anger, sorrow in MOCA GA retrospective

Larry Jens Anderson: Dick Learns to Draw (Only Dick Series), 2000, oil stick, watercolor, colored pencil on paper. From the MOCA GA Permanent Collection, gift of the artist.
Larry Jens Anderson: Dick Learns to Draw (Only Dick Series), 2000, oil stick, watercolor, colored pencil on paper. From the MOCA GA Permanent Collection, gift of the artist.
Larry Jens Anderson's retropective at MOCA GA. (Photo by Michael McKelvey)
Larry Jens Anderson’s retropective at MOCA GA. (Photo by Michael McKelvey)

Larry Jens Anderson: The Atlanta Years (1979-2015), at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through July 3, journeys through one artist’s devotion to art as a tool for socio-political change.This comprehensive survey, including video, installation, painting, drawing and sculpture, leaves no doubt of Anderson’s mission.

The sheer volume of work that he has devoted to the subjects of sexual identity, AIDS, death, beauty and family proves that he is, and has been, an artist driven to make sense of his own life experience as a gay man.

In time spent with ArtsATL at the MOCA GA galleries, the artist, who will speak in the gallery on June 3, expressed a desire to radically change the discussion on what it means to be gay. He opens that discussion with the words Where Do Queers Come From? written on the wall and a multimedia installation of the same name.

The question, in scrolling red electronic letters above a larger-than-life photograph of a head emerging from a birth canal, is followed by the most obvious of answers: vaginas.

We learn early on that Anderson isn’t pulling any punches. 

Where Do Queers Come From? also employs affecting photographs and family interviews. By offering an intimate glimpse of his own family’s love, Anderson opens a way into the discussion for anyone who has been a part of any family, which is to say, for us all. 

Anaïs Nin wrote that “the personal, when it is deep enough, becomes universal.” These videos reveal a deep, personal love and acceptance of Larry and twin brother Terry that transcends even their firmly rooted religious beliefs and becomes something we can all understand and, perhaps, yearn for.

Tough to do, but Anderson achieves equally potent results with the words of strangers. He installed five black notebooks, each with its own label — Parent of Homosexual, Homosexual Sibling, Sibling of Homosexual, etc.and encouraged written responses from each group. Spend some time with these messages from mostly anonymous respondents (from three of the five times he has shown this piece), and you will see writ large the range of emotion that the subject engenders.

If Where Do Queers Come From? is the hearth around which the conversation centers, the message radiates from there in ways ranging from kitsch to humor to near-macabre.

Anderson employs it all, he purports in his artist’s statement, “in defense of who I am.”

The most accessible work in this survey shows that humor may be his best conveyance. Such is the case with “Only Dick, No Jane,” a narrative series Anderson dedicates to every child or adult who is “pointed to as different for whatever reason.”

He has appropriated the delicate little boy from the now-iconic schoolbooks and remade him in ways that are tender, funny and, ultimately, affecting. A light touch, and the near universal recognition of these images for those of a certain age, makes the series his most recognizable and approachable work.

Larry Jens Anderson: Dick Learns to Draw (Only Dick Series), 2000, oil stick, watercolor, colored pencil on paper. From the MOCA GA Permanent Collection, gift of the artist.
Larry Jens Anderson: Dick Learns to Draw (Only Dick Series), 2000, oil stick, watercolor, colored pencil on paper. MOCA GA Permanent Collection, gift of the artist.

In these drawings and paintings, Anderson says, he uses his Dick figure in subversive ways to “hold people accountable for their language.” Dick with paper dolls and flamboyant outfits (Anderson wanted to be a clothing designer); Dick with fairy wings and a wand; Dick in front of a three-dollar bill; Dick against a background of colorful pansies. Name the expression, and it’s represented here.

What presents as gentle humor was no doubt a painful part of Anderson’s childhood. He recalls that he and his twin knew they were different but didn’t know in the 1950s what that meant.

He learned to watch culture around him instead of becoming part of it. But that seems to be in spite of his mother’s best efforts. Do not miss Maxine’s Twins, in which the artist relates that his mother wanted her 5-year-old sons to march with the high school band, so they took baton-twirling lessons and wore purple and gold capes.

Two other pieces resembling an elementary school notebook paper, both in photo collage and drawing, make for laugh-out-loud (with a tender heart) viewing.

For Anderson, there is conflict in the calculus of beauty and desire as it relates to sex and attraction, for both carry with them the threat of illness and death. I Wish I Could Do More (2000) is a large painting after Caravaggio’s portrayal of Christ’s descent from the cross and entombment, Anderson’s favorite painting. It was made in response to the futility he heard in that phrase expressed by so many upon his twin’s death from AIDS.

Beauty matters to Anderson, and his allusions to beauty are mostly delivered in classical renditions of the human form. Analysis of Beauty, 1998, an installation of tacky souvenir-style replicas of the Venus de Milo he has collected, addresses the failure of beauty, like armless mothers, to be of comfort and protection.

Larry Jens Anderson: Praise God, Christian Revenge, 1998, printed baseball caps. Photo by Mike McKelvey)
Larry Jens Anderson: Praise God, Christian Revenge Series, 1998, printed baseball caps. Photo by Mike McKelvey)

As expressed in the videos, the family’s love and compassion for Larry and his twin was often at odds with, and in spite of, the teachings of their church. The effects on the artist of his church’s anti-gay teachings are seen here in the much heavier touch with which he addresses — call it payback? — organized religion.

Branding irons that spell words like SEX, FAG and HIV hang from the crossbar of a huge Christian cross. No mistaking the message there. Other paintings and sculpture with titles like Christian Revenge Series, address subjects of blame and denial and death and burial. It all seems relentless, and perhaps that is what the artist intends. In the days before drugs for treatment, living in fear — of AIDS, of death, of loss — was relentless — especially if the dying all around you were your friends and lovers. Or your twin brother.

Reserved largely in one large gallery is a body of much darker work. The centerpiece is intentionally unnerving. A life-sized figure wrapped mummy-style in white gauze hangs above a white-cube of a grave where shroud-wrapped bodies lie entombed on the dirt.

AIDS activist Kurt Rahn speaks to us in video of trying to “hang on” as he waited for the cure. It came too late for him; his flickering, animated face speaks to us now from the grave.

Anderson has not abandoned the discussion he has carried on for 35 years, and he doesn’t want the rest of us to look away either. On one side of that white cube/grave is printed the words Friends Lost to AIDS. with an invitation to record your own. The list grows larger every time I visit the museum.

Artist’s talk: June 3. 6:30 p.m. reception. 7:00 p.m, talk. 

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