DENISE R. DUARTE: UNRAVELING IDENTITY Through July 20; Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; free. Sahara West Library, 702-507-3630.
Pay attention, as this is a tricky point: Art is not decorative. Another tricky point: Art is not teach-y. On these grounds, Denise R. Duarte’s Unraveling Identity fizzles as an aesthetic statement. With its cute sculpture, cheerful interactive works and copious informational panels, Unraveling Identity feels less like an art show and more like a public service announcement on sexual and gender diversity.
The most recent iteration of Duarte’s ongoing project dedicated to sexuality, gender and reproduction in human and botanical worlds, the Sahara West Library exhibition was initially prompted by the artist’s discovery of hermaphroditic “perfect flowers,” such as roses. Unraveling Identity explores sexual and gender identity among plants and humans primarily through language. Two interactive pieces, “Define Yourself” and “The Human Tapestry of Gender and Sexuality,” invite viewers to contribute comments about, say, gender labels, or to select pretty ribbons corresponding to sexual orientation.
“The Glossary”—14 large-format wall hangings—dominates the show. Each panel lists terminology describing human and botanical gender, sexuality and reproduction. While entries are sometimes amusing, they are neither literary nor arty. Dictionary definitions in the style of Merriam-Webster are not to be confused with Middlesex. Nor does Duarte transform language into a visual medium à la Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger. The graphic presentation—with its perky floral motifs, bounteous italics and glossy finish—abides by educational standards. The result is sincere, informational signage.
To illustrate her LGBTQ research, Duarte includes three large-format sculptural works made of aluminum and bronze mesh. “Water,” a ponderous gray bulge, is bereft of the transparency and movement promised by its title, its mesh clotted in a misshapen mass wanting in both concept and execution. “Wind,” consisting of three vaguely spermy strands of blunted mesh, flounders on the wall in search of compositional ballast. The centerpiece, “The Rosette,” has the virtue of a carefully conceived and defined sculptural form but can’t quite rise above cliché. Its pretty/nice/cute features are reminiscent of cake decoration and smother more substantive significance in a saccharine aura.
And yet, Unraveling Identity largely succeeds in terms of activism. Duarte, an important LGBTQ activist in Nevada, spearheaded Equality Days, which, in turn, finally spurred passage of Nevada’s Domestic Partnership bill. The artist’s primary material is her activism. If Unraveling Identity were assessed in terms of activist goals and exhibited in, say, governmental centers, “The Glossary” would make an interesting and laudable educational statement, but it’s in an art gallery, where aesthetic achievement—as measured by comparison with other artworks—is the highest good. Materials, composition, form, content and coherency are just some benchmarks used to measure artistic success, and in these and other categories, Unraveling Identity disappoints, despite noble and generous intentions.