Arts Review – Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics and other works

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Until 31st May, Gallery of Modern Art

American artist Hal Fischer spent the late 1970’s immersed within the gay community
surrounding San Francisco’s Castro district. The three series of black and white
photographs he produced during that time are currently on display at the GOMA, and
offer an insight into a relatively liberated era of gay culture that is often
overshadowed by the 1980’s AIDs crisis. I found that the exhibition also raises
interesting questions about the parameters of community and identity.

The exhibition is spread across three rooms and the first houses Fischer’s seminal
series, ‘Gay Semiotics.’  Each photograph features the image of a different ‘type’ of
urban gay man, posing confidently in the street, with text layered on top explaining
the various visual signifiers of their identity. For instance, a blue handkerchief in the
left pocket of a ‘basic gay’ signifies that they wish to play a dominant sexual role. The
combination of image and text gives the impression that each photograph is a page
torn from a sociology textbook. GOMA informs viewers that the series was indeed
‘ground-breaking’ and ‘demystifying’ when first exhibited but, as a modern viewer, I
was struck by how antiquated the concrete categories of identity seem. The series
thus serves as a reminder of how far we have come in terms of allowing for fluidity
and developing a nuanced discourse around queer identities in a relatively short
period of time.

The sense of irreverence flows freely into the second room where the next series of
photographs, ‘Boyfriends,’ is displayed. It is comprised of portraits of young men
Fischer had casual sexual relationships with, accompanied by a brief account of each
tryst. Each of the subjects exudes sexual freedom and self-assuredness as they
lounge around in various stages of undress, mugging for the camera. The mood of
playful naivety which Fischer skilfully captures elicits the sense that one is viewing an
age of innocence lost. I found myself wondering what became of these young men –
the sweet blonde boy with the southern drawl, the back-packing Harvard drop-out –
and specifically how had they been impacted by the sinister spectre of AIDs looming
large on the cultural horizon?

The third and final series, ‘18th Near Castro,’ sees Fischer’s lens pointed back out
into the street. Once an hour over a period of 24 hours, Fischer photographed the
same bus stop at the centre of the Castro and the result is an immersive journey
back into the bustling gay enclave. Various groups form throughout the day to flirt,
smoke pot and turn tricks before casually dissipating. The resulting impression is of a
community in perpetual motion and whilst the exhibition is focused exclusively on the
experience of young white gay men it is reassuring to think on how much ongoing
evolution there has been since the late 1970’s in terms of increased visibility for other
subsets of the LGBTQ+ community. My hope is that anyone wishing to tell a more
diverse story than Fischer’s largely autobiographical one, does so with a similar level
of talent.

[Riona Stewart – she/her – @rerestewstew]

[Photo credit: Glasgow Life]

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