"Hide/Seek," an exhibit of gay and lesbian portraits that drew controversy at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in 2010, comes to the Tacoma Art Museum on its only West Coast stop.

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In “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the new exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum, homoerotic content often hides in plain sight in the work of artists who are firmly ensconced in the American visual-arts canon.

One stated aim of the show, according to co-curator Jonathan D. Katz, is to give voice to a vital and persistent voice in American art history that’s often overlooked, at least in a museum context.

“Hide/Seek” ran in slightly different form at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010, where controversy erupted over David Wojnarowicz’s video, “A Fire in My Belly.” The Smithsonian withdrew the piece after protesters deemed it “anti-Christian.” (Footage of an ant-swarmed Mexican Day of the Dead shrine that happened to include a crucifix was the problem). The piece is back in place in what will be the only West Coast showing of “Hide/Seek.”

The fuss over the Wojnarowicz piece obscured the range of work in the exhibit. The show encompasses more than a century’s worth of paintings, drawings, photographs and videos. Mostly figurative but occasionally abstract, the works make it clear that era-specific style is a nonissue. Instead, gay sensibility is the point, with an accent on the artistic complications and possibilities that come with belonging to a minority that can camouflage itself within the mainstream.

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Some of the names in the show conform to what you’d expect to see in a GLBT-centric art show: Berenice Abbott, Paul Cadmus, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol. Others — Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood — are more of a surprise.

Together, they create an alternative reading of the American artistic mainstream with works that, if you were gay or lesbian, you might decode in ways that straight viewers wouldn’t. Later works venture into more explicit sexual or gender-bending territory obvious to any viewer, but are still often richly layered, energized by conflict-filled meanings.

Among the earliest oil-on-canvases are Eakins’ “Salutat” from 1898 (of a young boxer saluting his fans) and John Singer Sargent’s “Male Model Resting” from circa 1895, for which his dark-haired, mustachioed manservant Nicola d’Inverno posed, sprawled across a sofa. (The Sargent nude is one of several substitute items in the show, replacing a Sargent charcoal-on-paper, “Male Nude Standing,” that appeared in the Smithsonian version of the exhibit.)

Eakins’ image is heroic; Sargent’s is languid. The two pieces are not just a contrast in style, but in public presence. Eakins was controversial in his day, Katz informs us in his catalog essay, for expecting his male and female students to pose naked for one another and for suggesting that touch was as crucial as sight in understanding the body under observation.

“Not surprisingly,” Katz writes, “his claim to have only the highest of intentions fell on deaf ears.”

No controversy attended Sargent’s lovingly depicted male nudes because they never, during his lifetime, got a public viewing. The artist’s reluctance to show them partly contradicts Katz’s assertion that, before the coining of the word “homosexual” in the late 19th century and the later conceptualization of homosexuality as something “other” in society, the worlds of gay and straight nonchalantly overlapped.

Bellows’ 1917 lithograph “The Shower-Bath,” however, clinches Katz’s point. It’s a raucous look at goings-on in a men’s public bathhouse. While some fellows shower or swim obliviously, two central figures are clearly propositioning each other. The popularity of the image — it sold out three printings — suggests that, in a world where premarital sex was taboo, this sort of encounter was a routine part of the masculine world.

In the early 20th century, you couldn’t get any more mainstream than the Saturday Evening Post. And that’s where J.C. Leyendecker’s “Men Reading,” used as an Arrow shirt-and-collar ad, most likely appeared. One of its models, the catalog tells us, is the painter’s longtime lover, Charles Beach, and the gaze he directs at his newspaper-absorbed friend suggests that he has other things than reading on his mind.

On the lesbian front, Abbott’s classic 1927 photograph of New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner depicts a woman with a powerful gaze and androgynous sense of style. Abbott’s portrait of lesbian author Djuna Barnes, while more feminine in its airs, is just as direct and theatrical.

Romaine Brooks’ 1923 “Self-Portrait,” an oil on canvas, is in a similar vein, but with one key difference. The artist’s eyes are shadowed by her hat which, with her coat, forms a stylish, protective armature. She’s strong, but she’s also guarded.

Where Brooks’ and Sargent’s paintings have a neo-Impressionist feel to them, Marsden Hartley’s “Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane” is stylized to the point of verging on abstraction. Hartley scatters clues across the canvas as to how, exactly, to read this only semi-figurative image.

The number “33” alludes to the age of gay poet Hart Crane when he killed himself. The repetitions of “8” are for “8 bells”: nautical parlance for noon, when it happened. (Crane jumped to his death while at sea.) A “9” on the throat of a rearing sharklike creature speculates as to when and how he actually died. The result is a charged visual take on a story that, at the time, couldn’t be fully spelled out.

By the 1960s and 1970s, overtly homoerotic thematic material was more widely accepted, but it was still delivered with a sense of tease. Duane Michals’ six-panel photo montage, “Chance Meeting,” is a droll take on two men passing each other in a New York City alley.

With the AIDS epidemic, the tone changes drastically. Some works are poignant: Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (face in dirt),” for instance, which shows the ailing artist’s features almost buried in sand and rubble. At least one — AA Bronson’s vast “Felix, June 5, 1994” — is too terrifying to look at for long. It shows an emaciated AIDS victim, several hours after his death, with his favorite possessions arrayed around him.

The playful notes from this phase come from the lesbian artists: Leibovitz with her cheeky image of Ellen DeGeneres making some unusual costume and makeup choices in Hawaii; Catherine Opie shooting variations on drag-king facial-hair experiments in a quartet of photographs.

Katz sees growing support for gay equal rights, including the right to marriage, as an indication that the gay and straight worlds are converging once more, albeit on a different footing. But one of the last works in the show’s chronology suggests another possibility.

Anthony Goicolea’s “Whet” from 1999, like so much of his work, explores an entirely inner world in which he’s not just the photographer but the subject, multiplied several times over thanks to digital trickery. Three youths (all Goicolea) cavort in a pool in an image that, in the artist’s words, explores “themes of narcissism and vanity.”

That’s not quite doing justice, though, to the haunting character of his work. No matter the progress on the medical and social front, it can still be scary and dangerous to be a young man or woman seeking the company of your own sex. “Whet” seems both cautionary and seductive in offering a fantasy where your only companions might be multiple versions of yourself in different guises.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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