As Donald Trump provokes a backlash against a laundry list of marginalized groups, many museums have commendably stepped up with programming aimed at countering the reactionary tone of the current administration. Think about this exhibition, then, as a salvo in the rekindled culture wars. Featuring more than 40 artists and collaborative groups, “Trigger” grows out of the idea that what we talk about when we talk about gender has shifted from a fixed and simple binary to something multiplicitous, contentious and unstable.
But given the dynamic provocation of its title and the urgent charge of its topic, the show comes off as a surprisingly lugubrious affair. Despite a smattering of stellar works and an admirably diverse list of artists, too much here fails to engage, or is too tangential to the subject. The exhibition seems undercooked—more like one of New Museum’s shambolic Triennials than a thematic show with a persuasive curatorial thesis. For instance, though Nancy Brooks Brody’s series of “Glory Hole” paintings—netlike organic grayscale grids with flashes of color so subtle they appear more illusory than real—are exquisite and mesmerizing, their precise connection to gender mystifies this viewer.
When gender actually factors into the work, it often serves as a way to position the self in relation to society. In Justin Vivian Bond’s installation, My Model/My Self, watercolor self-portraits are paired with similar likenesses of 1970s Estée Lauder model Karen Graham. They’re hung on wallpaper crisscrossed with laurel leaves that manage to evoke both the myth of Apollo and Daphne and Rorschach tests resembling vaginas. Visitors can sit in chairs upholstered in the same pattern, don headphones and listen to Bond’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s song “Court and Spark.” Similarly, photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya pictures himself naked in a cloudy mirror, drawing attention to the agency of the black male body in its own erotic representation.
As might befit a matter as dependent on narrative as gender, “Trigger” brims with video, though not in an entirely satisfying way: Many of them are difficult to watch because the soundtracks bleed, echo and overlap from one room to another. (Note to New Museum: Hire a sound designer!) One of the best works in the exhibition, Patrick Staff’s Weed Killer, features a transgender woman reciting passages from The Summer of Her Baldness, a cancer memoir by artist and critic Catherine Lord. By intercutting the scene with vividly colored psychedelic images, Staff conflates the trans experience, chemotherapy and hallucinatory vision into a weirdly affecting whole that is both harrowing and transcendent.
“Trigger” configures gender as a weapon most convincingly with Sharon Hayes’s video, Ricerche: three. In it, students from Mount Holyoke College—an all-woman institution—stand outdoors and answer the artist’s questions about sex, gender and politics. The participants, who include trans men, speak frankly with myriad and contending points of view but also obvious feelings of community. Their passion ticks like a time bomb of promise and hope.