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In James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, the ill-fated lovers David and Giovanni first meet in a fictional Parisian gay bar that serves as a major setting in the book. Among the bar’s regulars are “the usual, knife-blade lean, tight trousered boys” who Baldwin describes as having “something behind their eyes at once terribly vulnerable and terribly hard.”  In considering these policed and unacceptable bodies, Baldwin employs a complex characterization that complicates a straightforward understanding of vulnerability. In intertwining vulnerability with hardness, he allows each term to exceed their oppositional meanings. Their hardness is fragile; their vulnerability is tough.


Further, it is not just Baldwin's characters that complicate our understanding of vulnerability, but his act of writing the book itself. It is with almost improbable vulnerability and strength that Baldwin chose to publish Giovanni’s Room as a successful young writer and black queer man in the segregated mid-50s. Using the characters in the gay bar — which include our closeted protagonist David, bartender Giovanni, the tight trousered boys, “paunchy gentleman,” “les folles,” and others — Baldwin illustrates a wide spectrum of hardness and vulnerability in which some have more room to be vulnerable while for others it may prove lethal.


Baldwin provokes the question: can vulnerability be used for the purpose of resistance? In a 1984 panel discussion, Gayatri Spivak characterized the deconstructionist project  — which, broadly, is dedicated to challenging metanarratives and scientific rationality — as “a radical acceptance of vulnerability.” For Spivak, the project of rejecting mastery is defined by relinquishing control of monolithic narratives and embracing unknowability. In this way, Spivak provides an interesting lens through which to consider the formal choices that artists might make to reject masterful vision, conclusive narratives, and binary definitions.


In her 2016 essay “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance,” Judith Butler transforms an understanding of vulnerability from being a form of weakness or passivity to being a necessary and radical element of resisting power in a marginalized body. She writes: “I want to argue against the notion that vulnerability is the opposite of resistance. Indeed, I want to argue affirmatively that vulnerability, understood as a deliberate exposure to power, is part of the very meaning of political resistance as an embodied enactment.”

Following the propositions of Baldwin, Spivak, and Butler, the works in this exhibition materialize both strength and vulnerability and frame the body as a site of resistance. Across several drawings, the undressed body is treated with both humor and reverence. Fragile materials rub up against asphalt and paving stones. The landscape is destabilized; holes act as structural markers; metal is twisted and torn; vessels and flora dematerialize. They are at once terribly vulnerable and terribly hard.

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