A new exhibition titled "Political and Personal: Images of Gay Identity" has opened at the Flint Institute of Arts. The exhibition, which features photos from the Jack B. Pierson Print Collection, was originally scheduled for last year but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it will run through Sunday, July 11.
"Drawing on Pierson's experience as a gay man, 'Political and Personal: Images of Gay Identity' sheds light on the important role sexual identity played in forming his collecting habit and highlights the work of several well-known and lesser-known gay artists," wrote Eric Birkle, the creative mind behind the exhibition. "In addition, the works of heterosexual artists are featured, contextualized through their homoerotic subject matter – informed by the classical mythology and admiration for male athleticism – or the supportive content of their political messages."
Birkle conceived the exhibition back in 2018 while he was working as a grant-funded curatorial intern at FIA. One of Birkle's initial tasks was organizing the Jack B. Pierson donor and object files. Soon, as Birkle began to arrange the images he saw the basis for a show.
"Because I finished this work ahead of schedule, this position quickly transitioned to a focus on the content of the artwork donated by Pierson, which revealed a segment with explicit and implicit homosexual/homoerotic/homosocial imagery and themes. It quickly became apparent that this segment of the collection had never been before explored by the museum, so I proposed it as a viable way to meet the curatorial department's mission to organize an exhibition representative of the community's greater diversity by 2021," Birkle says.
The exhibition, as it began to come together, quickly took on significance.
"'Political and Personal' is the first exhibition at a major fine arts museum in Michigan to be centered on the work of gay artists and gay identity," Birkle says. "The FIA is the third-largest art museum by collection size in the state of Michigan after the Detroit Institute of Arts and the University of Michigan Museum of Art."
Birkle also went on to explain why the term "gay" was used over "queer" or the LGBTQ+ acronym.
"The content of the work is by and largely restricted to white, homosexual men and/or their experience, though there are a couple of exceptions," Birkle says. "This is due to Jack B. Pierson's own identity as a gay, white man, and because his collecting habits simply gravitated toward this group. As such, I would like to iterate that the underrepresentation of other queer identities was NOT a curatorial decision, but a restriction of possibilities given the collection I had to work within.
"However, the significance of shared perspectives within the queer community and its allies is evidenced in the Pierson Collection, underscoring art's ability to inspire unification – an indispensable tool for the proliferation of queer identity both historically and today," Birkle continued.
As for Jack B. Pierson, he was a native of Flint and, after serving in World War II, was a longtime employee of General Motors. He later moved to Long Island, New York, with his longtime partner, Robert Martin Purcell. Together, the couple frequently traveled internationally. Pierson died in 1976 and Purcell began donating his collection to the FIA. He continued until his own death in 1997. Today, the Jack B. Pierson Print Collection contains 856 works on paper by 404 artists from around the globe.
Buy tickets and learn more about the exhibit online.