Flint, MI–As Eric Birkle examined an archived art collection the Flint Institute of Arts, he recognized a theme: people who have been “generally marginalized by heteronormative society,” and he wanted to create a new exhibit about just that.
“There was so much here to sort of blow wide open,” Birkle said. “This material was sitting in the collection waiting to be rediscovered and re-represented in this new way.”
His discoveries resulted in the curation of “Political and Personal: Images of Gay Identity,” currently on display at the FIA.
Birkle worked as a curatorial intern in the summer of 2018 and part of his job was to go through archival files. The collection that inspired the idea for his curated exhibit was art by Jack B. Pierson. The exhibition was originally scheduled to be on display in 2020, but it was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The exhibition contains select artworks from the Pierson collection, in addition to other artworks from artists that focused on the theme of gay identity.
When a visitor first steps into the exhibit, the first thing they notice might be the center wall, dividing the room. To the left of the wall is politically-themed artwork expressing identity struggles of being gay in the 1980s, as well as political issues such as lack of funding for, and recognition of, the AIDS crisis. The other half of the exhibit is more personal, representing intimate moments between two men, which was “often more censored or taboo than it is today,” Birkle said.
Because the exhibition is based around artworks in the 20th century, Birkle hopes that museum-goers will draw connections between how being gay was represented in the past and the more explicit and graphic art that artists have had the freedom to produce in the 21st century.
“We really get a nice example of how far we’ve come,” Birkle said. “These historical objects, these physical pieces of paper that are a product of their time that, you know, depict an entirely different reality for people who are only a generation or two older than us. So, there’s hopefully, you know, a lot to be learned—for those who maybe aren’t familiar with the topic, and even for those that are who have lived through it.”
Birkle said working with the collection was difficult, but, “it was also really rewarding,” as he openly identifies as a gay man.
Similar to how he curated this exhibit, he hopes to use preexisting artworks and collections at the FIA to represent pertinent issues that reflect the Flint community.
“As someone who is an entirely sort of generation separated from many of these artists who are deceased, there is still that aspect of being informed when you have that lived experience to some degree as well, you know, having experience with stigma, with prejudice and just biphobia,” Birkle said. “So I’m really happy to be able to bring these stories that have kind of been sort of tucked away, and to be able to brush off the dust and bring it into the light in 2021 now.”
The exhibition is on display until July 11. Birkle is also leading a talk called “Homosexual Bodies and Homophobic History” on June 23 at 6 p.m. Information on how to register can be found here.