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Outsiders: recognizing ourselves in what we've never seen before

by Drew Rowsome

"Some chose to step outside, some were systematically excluded," says Sophie Hackett, co-curator of the Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibit Outsiders. "There was a huge transformation in American culture between the end of the second world war and the beginning of the internet." And the artists who documented it were outsiders, inadvertently creating art in the process of defining themselves, finding themselves and creating a world where they belonged.

Hackett says that a quote from Outsiders' photographer Diane Arbus was one of the guiding principles, “Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize.” And it is where one recognizes oneself where Outsiders becomes an incredibly powerful experience.

One enters Outsiders confronted with a giant screen playing Kenneth Angers' masterpiece Scorpio Rising. The mash-up of bikers, homoeroticism, BDSM, black magic and rock n roll, is as intoxicating as ever and feels like a home movie to a collective erotic fantasy. Anger, for all his filmmaking skill and notoriety, remained an outsider, known to all as a gay forefather but surviving off his past as minor Hollywood royalty and the author of Hollywood Babylon. He was definitely "systematically excluded" from the mainstream though Scorpio Rising is now tamer, in content not emotion, than many boy band videos.

Gordon Parks, director of Shaft, is represented by a photographic essay, "A Harlem Family," he shot for Life magazine in 1968. The tension between the meticulously framed images and the poverty depicted is palpable, multiplied by comparing the large prints to the layout in the magazine splayed under glass. The AGO provides a Parks' quote, "I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapon against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty."

By the time one reaches the eloquent "The Only Picture Hanging in the Fontenelle Home," Parks' weapon has become a knife in the gut. A knife that twists when one realizes that for all the power of the images, they have been as effective on society as large as the photo of a lifeless Aylan Kurdi that shocked us all and galvanized the world into well, being shocked.

The Jack Kerouac-narrated Pull My Daisy, plays noisily in an alcove, the frat/beat generation humour spilling over into the churchlike silence surrounding the gallery of Arbus photos. The photos are stunning: the freakishness of the mundane exposed, the wabi-sabi beauty of freaks celebrated. Arbus is probably the best known photographer in Outsiders and many of the images are well known - however there is no way to prepare one for the effect of the actual large prints. They are breathtaking. 

It is the next gallery that is unforgettable. The walls are lined with snapshots and polaroids taken at the fabled Casa Susanna, a resort for cross-dressers that flourished in the '50s and '60s. For brief periods of time the men were able to be their female selves and the photos ache with their outsider status. A glass case down the center of the room is filled with their anonymous documentation, probably hidden away in drawers or wall safes for decades. 

One of the subjects, Sandy, is quoted, "Whatever your secret fantasies were you were meeting other people who had similar ones and you realized, 'I may be different but I'm not crazy.'" Seeing Christmas card photos that could never be sent, social events that could never be spoken of, elaborate pin-up poses that would never be admired, brought me to tears. How many others are just not documented? How many memories of those who dared to express their inner transgressions against a sexually intolerant world are not preserved? 

Still shaken, I took in a few minutes of Shirley Clarke's 1967 film Portrait of Jason. Jason is a legend in his own mind hustler with dreams of becoming a nightclub entertainer. He is flamboyant, brazenly gay and utterly charming if terrifying. It is impossible to tell, as the crew and Clarke goad him on as much as they record, whether this is a documentary or a performance piece. He seduces the camera in a now-familiar world-weary utterly unself-aware celebrity style, "Sex is the thing I'm trying to forget. I've spend so much of my life being sexy."

We have gone from voyeurs documenting to an exhibitionist expressing. The artists represented are indeed Outsiders, and are representatives of many undocumented outsiders lost to time, but they are outsiders who broke barriers and helped create the world that I live in. The world we all live in. A world where what we've never seen before is what we recognize in ourselves.

More Outsiders is at drewrowsome.blogspot.com

Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950 to 1980 continues until Sun, May 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St W. ago.net

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