from coastal cruising to eroding lineage

building a future in intimacy

EROS/ON is a collaborative project coordinated by [ 2nd floor projects ] featuring the work of four Bay Area artists—Daniel Case, Nicolaus Chaffin, Johnny Ray Huston, and the late Curt McDowell—for the Bay Area Now 7 triennial exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. As described by the exhibition's narrative, EROS/ON "unites the work of these artists in a provocative dialogue concerning the erasure of queer lineage. Through photography, sculpture, film, and writings, these artists engage 'heritage' to illuminate emotional/political perspectives on the complex longing for an unfractured history. AIDS, institutional erasure, censorship, and fear have dictated in/visibility, coupled with the current economic climate stressing the Bay Area’s queer/artist communities’ shrinking stable ground to maintain roots. Through site-­specific installations and events, the unstable shore between past, present, and future becomes grounds for interventions against a growing phantom void. EROS/ON simultaneously calls for response as well as responds to calls from times past and passing through the historic silence."

EROS/ON brings together: Daniel Case (Photography)
 Nicolaus Chaffin (Co-curator, sculpture installation)
 Johnny Ray Huston (Writings, readings)
 Curt McDowell 
(Film Screenings at YBCA and Roxie Cinema, presented by Curt’s sister and actress Melinda McDowell) and Margaret Tedesco (Co-curator).

For Visual AIDS, Johnny Ray Huston speaks with Nicolaus Chaffin and Daniel Case about the themes raised by their EROS/ON exhibition, on view through October 26.

Johnny Ray Huston: Nic and Danny, I want to ask about your work in this show, in relation to places such as Baker Beach, whether in the Bay Area, or elsewhere. What have these coastal settings or zones (for cruising, reflection, engagement with the outdoors, or all three) meant to you, and what do they mean to you today? What drew you to make this work, and what would you like it to invoke and evoke?

Nicolaus Chaffin: For me there was a large amount of coming into my own body done on the coast of northern California. It feels like the edge of things. I have been going there to spend time with thoughts for over 8 years; either to cast them out or steep in them. Sometimes the erotic would remedy the voyage or be the vehicle for navigating anxiety. Sun on skin is a powerfully intoxicating snake oil.

In the curation of the gallery works with Margaret for EROS/ON I was drawn to the vanishing of queer spaces for examining sexual intimacy and landscape as a way of confronting the edge of stable grounds. Especially how the examination of places/objects of leisure can call forth so much more when placed in context of this rootlessness and intentional erasure. In the making of my works drifting became a powerful idea to engage in, a way of turning over the wheel to natural forces as a way of seeking out future. In a way I wanted to evoke a sense of touch/ untouchability, almost a vaporous performance between object and viewer and maker, that anxiety holds such resonance to me. Not unlike visiting a fogged in windswept beach that you are familiar with in a parallel reality of leisure and sun.

Daniel Case: The first time I went to Baker/Marshall’s Beach I felt a charge and it made me nervous, but like you both said there was a therapeutic air. As my senses sharpened there was a familiarity. I think that’s history, a lot of energy, queer escape and presence has been spent there. I recognized these feelings were similar to my experiences in rural Michigan cruising areas. Marshall’s Beach was more open, more matured, more celebratory. I feel a beautiful lineage and wisdom there. I started shooting there in 2004, archiving the spaces for myself. In 2006 I started to shoot the spaces where things “happened.” Sometimes intimate exchanges would take place and I’d see that and politely photograph the space and sometimes artifacts. I was always trying to connect the dots: The energy and history of each carved out space felt like spiritual ruins. Spaces where you know something special happened and had been designed by action but was also always eroding and changing.

Nic approached me about the show and I was a little nervous as these spaces are very sacred to me, (as they are for many) and I had been holding onto the photos privately. Margaret said she’d like to see them large—there is a need for the viewer to experience the spaces almost as a participant, to encounter the origin of necessity of these spaces, and their impermanence. I wanted to evoke the beauty and magic of these spaces, the history of what’s formed them and the reality that like ruins they are fading, but they stand as monuments to their purpose and the intimate experiences shared.

Johnny Ray Huston: Nic, you mentioned the word “drifting.” Over the course of months, your pieces and EROS/ON’s show statement have made me contemplate the idea and reality of being “unmoored.” But seeing your active engagement with the not-uncomplicated installation process, I also got a keen sense of the specific precision of your intent, and how, say, the synthetic rope in Rides (#1-5) can possess visceral qualities or connotations. There’s also something provocative and almost irreverent about inflatable tubes in a gallery space—encountering them in Rides and Sickwell/Planchette, the viewer is uprooted from casual, passive spectatorship. They’re part of an overall vision that is layered, that isn’t fixed, and that calls for active engagement and open-ended imagining. Would you agree?

Nicolaus Chaffin: Definitely. I approached my works in EROS/ONwith a desire to pervert tactile sensibilities and complicate the relationship of viewer and art object. I was able to be with these works during their making in a way that is withheld from the viewer in exhibition—this tension is not unlike teasing or tempting. The works are as exposed, open and inviting as text in one sense and frustrating in their unspecified functionality in another. The reaction to the use of inner tubes is interesting. There’s an inherent connection to time and place when you see them, and it’s not within a gallery. “Utility” disrupts the entertainment expectations of experiencing these works as art. Without the dazzle where does the value reside? The inner tubes ache in a sense, waxed and slightly over inflated, they press against their bindings waiting to drift motorless. In Rides their orifices are plugged with plywood, which in turn is inlayed with wooden tiles; individuals and groups, together and apart. I’m glad you made note of the synthetic rope, for me it points to some competing ideas: Things of this world vs. those of this earth.

Johnny Ray Huston: Nic, Danny, while you are working in different mediums, I see a kinship and connectedness in what you’ve made. It has an enigmatic, suggestive quality. Nic, the sculptural works aren’t absolutely fixed—the title Sickwell/Planchette conjures more than one vivid use-value, and the imposing boldness of the piece could be connected to writing on a surface or traversing a sea. Danny, the unpopulated aspect of your photos possesses a paradox, in that the viewer immediately wonders and even imagines what has happened at the sites you’ve depicted, and also speculates about the space just outside the frame. In prints such as Spiral, discarded condom wrappers and cigarette stubs offer clues, but there’s a deeper mystery to the arrangement of other objects and the interplay between “natural” and “manmade” patterns in the landscape. Do you two agree about any of this, and how did you conceive the interplay between your art?

Nicolaus Chaffin: Absolutely. There is a lot of absence in EROS/ON, in all of the works in many ways. Perhaps more obviously the absence of bodies is felt and witnessed in my Sands/ Sea Glass installation and in all of Danny’s photos there is a sense of temporality, signifiers of loss, fading, and future fog.

The works interplay in many ways for me: from the looming presence of sexuality and exchange through human interaction and repetitive/obsessive labor such as sanding, collecting, arranging, wood cutting and building. In my work there is a dominance of the laboring body as a vessel. But in both there is a ghostly sexual presence where figure once was or should be, motivated by desires to build and roam. In Danny’s work I see the figure in phantom form, as cruiser, as photographer, and as viewer—all drifting, waiting around, for the right moment, like passing clouds. And in my works the figure is futurance, me pacing around the work, sweating onto it, touching it, and the projection of function and the desire to engage with the object. Perceivable functionality creates a holographic figure in place. At the opening of BAN7 people couldn’t keep their hands off of the sculptural works. It was intense for me how familiarity and approachability took the reigns.

Someone recently mentioned that while walking through our gallery they began to consider
the definitive lines in which nature is held/bound/restricted throughout the works in the show. My work has wood milled into tiles arranged very specifically and inlayed into more wood and then bound inside inner tubes. Sand is held in a multi-walled glass box with framed and sanded glass above it. Danny’s photos take nature and frame it behind glass. The photos themselves are examples of humans using logs, rocks, and soil to shape space in and away from natural formation.

Johnny, your work too has a way of addressing nature in a bound and restricted sense—almost as though the body becomes a contained landscape which has weather patterns, cycles of heat and cold, light and dark. Being midwestern, do you think the lack of seasons in Northern California, the evenness of it, has influenced your work? I am really moved by how your writing is in some ways in opposition to “structure” of evenness and allows feeling to become the natural force of movement. You took opportunity in your presentation of your work for the show to “deconstruct” and include a passage of Irwin Swirnoff’s work within The Single and the LP. We are all dear friends with Irwin so for me there is an intuitive sense of why. Love and guts. What was your motivation for this?

Daniel Case: When I read your inclusion of Irwin’s song it made me cry. It chills me in its elegance as metaphor across what all of us experience and work on, a giving and protecting of our bodies that have suffered punches and seek love.

Johnny Ray Huston: The first time I saw Irwin screen and perform He Said,I had to fight to contain the intensity of my emotions. I admire and relate to Irwin’s art, his musical spirit, and his passion. I feel deeply bonded to him through shared experiences. His friendship has helped me stay alive.

The lack of seasons in Northern California plays tricks with time. Years can blur into one another. But being HIV positive adds an undertow to the evenness of seasons in the Bay Area. My writing The Single and the LP takes its title from a film of Curt McDowell’s. The numbered passages are like nine tracks on an LP, though I didn’t go so far as creating song titles and A-side and B- side. This format freed me to cover a lot of territory, shift tonally, and jump subjects with an eye and ear for overall flow. The single might well be Irwin’s He Said, my voice harmonizing with his words.

The writing project that began with this show is a first-person homage to Boyd McDonald’s Straight to Hell zines and anthologies (and to a lesser degree, to Renaud Camus’ book Tricks). The first story for it that I’ve written, A, is born in part from the often hollow yet addictive contemporary experience of navigating gay apps, but it opens up to include public sex. To an almost uncanny degree, the events themselves and my experience of them were a readymade story. And A himself, besides being attractive and in some ways moving to me, was unexpectedly heartening in that he proved—without us ever discussing it—that some guys in their early 20s are matter-of-factly living in opposition to the ongoing erasure of public spaces gay men and queers have claimed as sites of sexual exploration and freedom. An erasure that goes hand in hand with apps and websites becoming troubling arbiters of gay sexuality and identity.

Michigan Boys, an individual limited-edition poem for the show, shines a light on an enduring gay friendship, paying tribute and pledging allegiance to it from the perspective of an outsider. For me, poetry can be simultaneously candid and secretive while distilling something to its essence. Poetry has a huge place in my personal history—my real-life education—and yet I don’t write poems often. So when I do—for me, at least—the very act is significant.

Curt McDowell’s inclusion in EROS/ON connects to all of this. Like Boyd McDonald, he is a hero to me because of his visionary honesty. The chance to celebrate him in the context of both of your art, this show and Visual AIDS makes life worth living. Over the years, my love for the likes of McDonald, McDowell, Cookie Mueller, the filmmaker Jack Smith, and the poet John Wieners has grown deeper than I can express.

Nic, Sands/Sea Glass brought up a few associations. The actual framing of sand on the sides of the piece reminded me of a Wham-O toy from my 70s childhood called Magic Window, which had a potent sense of wonder and complexity in addition to possessing a simple, direct beauty. In marked contrast, the circular pattern of erosion on glass up above felt almost like gazing through an otherworldly or eerily barren mortal portal—”future fog,” as you put it. This is an ongoing participatory piece with strong elements of eros and erosion. Nic, can you talk a bit about your experience of it, as well as those who've been involved in the making of it?

Nicolaus Chaffin: In this I utilize sand collected from the bodies of beach goers at nude beaches (New York, California) to create sanding gloves and paper to eventually sand away the transparency
and luster of this 3⁄4” thick 100+ lb piece of glass. Creating an atmospheric skyscape which is suspended above what looks like a slice of beach that you can walk around and look through. The collection of sand includes sand collected from my body by others as well. The efforts of hand sanding the glass create the static drawing.

I began this years ago when I was challenging paralytic shyness and confronting my anxiety of connectivity, intimacy and visibility in a very literal way. Going to where people are in open relaxed states, and asking to touch each other carries with it a kind of nostalgic approachability, an aesthetic that I’m sure hits a tone of idealistic art making—sort of “utopian,” mostly absurd.

The interactions range wildly with participants and their expectations of interaction. From 
porn stars on Fire Island to solo beach goers with prisms hanging from their sun shades on Marshall’s. Some people really get into it and dive into the sand, and others get just a foot sandy when they really don’t want to. Some people witness the exchange and volunteer. It’s always a careful and respectful exchange to share space, time, and physical contact with people.

Johnny Ray Huston: Danny I’m struck by your references to “magic” and to “spiritual ruins.” Fog creeps into one corner of Cross. Looking at your photos, I found myself returning over and over to evidence of interaction between people and shifting landscape or terrain. To the degree that an arrangement of rocks or wood can seem vulnerable and practical (as in Soft Bed), or ceremonial in an almost foreboding “What happened here?” way. For me it pings off the spirit-board or talking-board aspects of Nic’s work. Is it going too far to say EROS/ON is ritualistic, in terms of art-making process and subject matter?

Daniel Case: For me I feel these spaces to be very ritualistic, and I wanted to capture as much of that as possible. I did add peeks of light here and there to contribute to inherent magic present. In many ways I liken the ritual aspect of the spaces in the show and others I’ve experienced to hunting and gathering, and how in rural places historically (and definitely before the internet and apps) people of the gay were starving and needed intimate hunting grounds. And if we were a roving foraging group, which in many ways we are, we’d return to the space where bounty or hunt was successful. And our group would return to this space in cycles and feel a lifelong connection to this space that provided nourishment. For our group this ground would become a magical place, and the hunt and embrace a ritual.

Johnny Ray Huston: I want to talk about size in the sole way it matters: scale. Danny, you mentioned that Margaret had suggested the near-life-size dimensions of your prints. It’s an example of what makes Margaret so rare—not only is she committed to queer and Bay Area art with astute passion,
 she also brings an artist’s insight, inventiveness, and intuition to showing work. Two things that stand out to me are the subtlety and thoughtfulness of your framing, and the layered attention to natural light that’s present within the photos and also in their overall relationship to each other. Was it revelatory to see your photos together this way?

Daniel Case: The whole experience has been revelatory, if not fear inducing. I’m so thankful that Margaret saw these large. I personally have never desired to print this large, and honestly had always visualized these images in books or more intimate. Margaret really translated her impressions here, and I’m so grateful she did. Nic and I discussed the framing and we agreed it should be clean, but thoughtful, as to not distract, but frame the space(s) separately yet together. I use or reflect as much natural light as possible because I want the spaces preserved in the time of access. I add only hints of light on occasion to relay a heat, or energy footprint. Seeing them together, in this space has opened a new dialogue for me, and sharing this experience with you “Michigan Boys” (Midwest for Curt), has inspired and directed my intention.

Johnny Ray Huston: One of the best aspects about being asked by Margaret to take part in EROS/ON is that the show forges connections across generations and geography. We’re all Midwestern boys who went West while maintaining ties to the places where we grew up—Curt in Indiana; Nic, Danny, and I in Michigan. We’ve experienced this similar trajectory across areas and eras—our sense of time and space has gaps, but it also overlaps.

Curt died around the same time I was coming out, in 1987, but because he is such a powerful and vital force, there were moments—particularly on the night Melinda and Margaret showed his films—where it felt like he was there with us. It was a rare thing to be able to walk from the YBCA theater with Melinda down the hallway to the gallery and be with you guys and your art. Melinda’s open love for her brother, and her candid perspective on his life makes me examine and question my idea of myself—past, present, and future. It’s like receiving a gift that I need.

Daniel Case: The play of past and present and the overlapping kinship among artists is really special to me. Your letter to Curt speaks on the idea of two traversing kin, and I feel is symbolically representative of the artists’ relationships and work in the show; this past/ present embrace. The passage where you speak of the year after Curt died when you were living in an attic apartment in Detroit and went to St. Andrews, and as happens to magical boys in Michigan you were bashed, and wanted your car to find this gift to humanity under it, really resonated with me (forgive my paraphrasing). Not just because I’ve lived this, in Detroit as well but the conversation with Curt’s timeline and the embrace of his parallel life and work, and the desire to be close to the freedom he was sharing.

I also notice the funerary feel of many of Nic’s pieces speak on this embrace of what’s passed or passing, and how we gather these items close to our bodies to appreciate and worship our predecessors and champions. When I shot “Circle” and “Cross” I shot them at night because I wanted there to be a passing of day, to feel like what occurred has passed, but to offer an altar by document.

Nicolaus Chaffin: Your reading and the screening was an incredible duet! That night closed the circuit of the show for me and everything lit up. The slideshow of Curt’s work—his collages, drawings and paintings prior to viewing his films brought it to a human level, a heartbeat and history level. Your reading placed it on the tongue and in the heart. The gallery sat doors wide...

At the screening at YBCA Margaret pointed out an image of Curt that reminded her of me. I blushed because it struck so familiar. The image was of Curt standing nude facing a hand-made Ouija board—it was in his posture and gaze. When I first met Melinda I had just gotten
 off a plane from NY and was on my way to go-go dance for the first time. When Melinda caught wind of this her eyes sparkled! She really wanted to go and tuck some dollars! Seeing the raucousness of her and Curt’s world on film highlighted a very important tempo change between now and then. As an older brother I appreciate her preservation of his work and efforts to protect its presentation. I’m excited for the 40th anniversary DVD release of Thundercrack in 2015 and am hoping I’ll have gotten tipped by Melinda before then.

Johnny Ray Huston: Nic, you refer to the figure being “futurance” in your work, while Danny mentions your art’s “funerary” quality. This dynamic is compelling because it’s present in the way we move through each day as questing beings, living but mortal. And it’s very strong—fantastical?—in what you’ve made, to a degree that I want to conclude by asking directly about the genesis on one object: the partly-charred pencil—or mast-like totem in Sickwell/Planchette. Can you 
share the process of finding the material and forming it, and positioning it in relation to the piece that it is part of, and also the other works in the room? Within the context of the overall regionally-based group show that is Bay Area Now I found this particular object to be freeing. Like a pivot point that remakes the floor into ocean or a place for inscription, and in a way recasts one’s surroundings.

Nicolaus Chaffin: This tension is an important dynamic for me—it’s an interjection, or rather an inclusion in a geological sense. The charred post behaves totemically as violent threat against the surface, while also stabilizing the whole of the object. It punctures the room, acts load-bearing, points to the sky, and offers hot, dry, parched desires for liquid, or surface to give its possessions in written message. Answers from future activity.

This was charred on the beach at night in a very California moment: Some good friends and my fella and I drove it to the beach where we ate delivery pizza in the back of the van, had some thermos hot toddies and borrowed the renegade fire of some folks. The four of us went to the water, got naked and sandy and watched surfers with headlamps flicker out and park rangers search out beach fires of drift wood with flashlights and extinguish them one at a time. It marked the end of us all living together and the final element of the work for the show.

Daniel Case (b. 1979) works in the mediums of digital and film photography, as well as book-making. Case has a practice in unconventional portrait photography that often involves barter, Internet personals ads, and on-location shoots combining photographic services for the queer community with intimate examinations of interiors. His work pushes boundaries of documentary, portraiture, landscape photography, and conceptual archiving. Case studied at the San Francisco Art Institute where he received his BFA in 2009. Case has called San Francisco his home for the past 15 years. decase.tumblr.com

Nicolaus Chaffin (b. 1978; lives and works in San Francisco since 2006) is a multi-disciplinary artist who received his BFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2004). Chaffin's work draws upon queer history’s socially selective visibilities as well as upon observations of pleasure as locations of both problematic residence and emotional sanctuary. His multi-disciplinary practice spans various modes and combinations of portraiture, archive, performance, sculpture, and illustration—addressing anxieties concerning queer erasure, object as witness, and visceral evidence of embodiment. nchaffin.tumblr.com

Johnny Ray Huston has written about film, music, and visual art for 25 years at various newspapers, magazines, and websites, including 14-years as Arts Editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian when it was an independent publication. He has written for publications such as Cinema Scope, Interview, and Little Joe No.4, a magazine about queers and cinema, mostly. He has co-created movies and co-curated film programs shown at Artists’ Television Access, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and written and shown his collage work at [ 2nd floor projects ] in San Francisco. Recent projects include curating exhibitions at Alley Cat Books Gallery, and collaborating with Skye Thorstenson on the video Morgies. Huston is currently managing editor at Eat Drink Films. Huston's contribution to EROS/ON, "The Single and the LP," can be downloaded at the bottom of the page.

Curt McDowell (1945–1987) was a filmmaker, actor, visual artist, and writer. He arrived in San Francisco in the mid-1960s to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in the painting department and quickly changed course to become a filmmaker to work with George Kuchar, within a period that witnessed the Summer of Love, gay liberation, and the onset of AIDS, to which he succumbed at the age of 42. The author of numerous films that recast the American dream of plenty in pansexual terms, McDowell, like so many artists of his generation, indulged in the era's carnal abundance, and his appetites and experiences are reflected in the work. McDowell is represented by [ 2nd floor projects ], San Francisco.

Download: Johnny Ray Huston, The Single and the LP