DOC NYC 2020 Review: “Wojnarowicz” Commands Your Attention

Out of the chaotic opening to “Wojnarowicz,” the calm voice of Terry Gross emerges to ask David Wojnarowicz about how he found his way into art as punctuation to what’s perhaps the most loaded question ever asked on “Fresh Air,” describing his background thusly: “Now you came from a really rough family background. Your father abused your mother, your ended up in an orphanage for a while and your father kidnapped you from the orphanage and you’ve written you threw yourself into sex and became a hustler for a while.” It’s a succinct description that director Chris McKim is wise not to linger on much when Wojnarowicz didn’t either, obviously drawing on it as fuel for his work, but rarely looking back when the amount of tragedy he experienced in such a short time would’ve stopped anyone else in their tracks.

Likening Wojnarowicz’s early days to a rollercoaster, McKim solves the question of investigating an artist without demystifying him with overexplanation that could take away the power of the work, employing the audio journals the artist/activist recorded from 1976 on and the shards of archival footage available to him to juxtapose memories of his life against the paintings, photography and collage that he produced, rendering the inspiration inseparable from the art. The result feels as if taking a hit of acid before putting on headphones for a guided tour of one of his shows at the Whitney, appropriately warping the biography framework that’s to be expected when the observations of friends and Wonarowicz’s work are asked to burn brighter to break through a melange of other sensations spurred on by what McKim throws at the screen.

Bold and abrasive stylistically as it relentlessly plows ahead, “Wojnarowicz” would likely have the approval of its subject if he were ever satisfied with anything, portrayed as irascible and implacable, the kinds of qualities that happened to benefit him in getting his work to stand out amongst the East Village artists of the 1980s. Remembered for putting his work up on the ceiling of a crowded gallery when it was the only unobstructed view in the place, Wojnarowicz would demand people’s attention on the streets with confrontational stencil paintings that were one of the only ways for getting people to take notice of the AIDS crisis, which was taking the lives of his friends and lovers by the day before he ultimately succumbed to it.

Pity the poor souls that attempted to divorce his art from his activism, but the National Endowment of the Arts tried after complaints arose from an exhibit featuring Wojnarowicz’s work that they had given a grant to, leading to a standoff in which it was fruitlessly asked why his art had to be so political and McKim’s holistic approach, where getting to visually take in the art while hearing of the battles behind the scenes simultaneously, conveys just how inextricably linked all aspects of his life were. Beyond summoning the sense of pandemonium that Wojnarowicz was experiencing internally, the film captures the raucous spirit of the era in New York in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where all bets were off, and just as it was a time when the artist could commandeer an abandoned pier on the Hudson River to turn into a creative space for artists, “Wojnarowicz” carves out a place in this moment to let the artist be in his element and seemingly, blissfully, unmediated.

“Wojranowicz” will be streaming through DOC NYC from November 11th through 19th.