featured gallery for March 2016

Almost Beautiful Enough

Patrick Angus’s My Heart Goes Bang Bang Bang Bang is a painting of spectatorship: a boy, naked, dancing on stage before a small crowd of men. Their collective gaze is focused on the boy’s body, on his presentation of himself and his sexuality, the only real movement in frame. The audience is still, fixed at a distance from their object of desire. According to his friend Robert Patrick, Angus was very much a part of this distanced spectatorship, understanding himself to be “grotesquely unattractive” and thusly feeling alienated from the possibility of a “good” homosexual life. This feeling is palpable in Angus’ many paintings of porn theaters and bath houses – there is always an object of desire, an audience, and a distance between them.

I am often struck by that sense of distance in male nude portraiture. So often the invocation of beauty, musculature, and endowment stir up a troubled kind of longing. There is a tendency towards classical poses, displaying an archetypal body removed of specificity or abnormality. Of course there is a rich queer visual tradition of this kind of portraiture, from homoerotic Greek and Roman sculpture to thinly disguised physique magazines. And it has been important, no doubt, to stake claim to representations of gay sexuality in spite of discrimination, censorship, and the panic of the AIDS epidemic. Growing up online, though, where nude pictures are ubiquitous and operate more as currency for sex or as avatars of the real thing, I’ve begun to wonder what else a body can do. What can a photograph do besides represent a beautiful body?

In curating this gallery, I was drawn towards work that investigates the aesthetic, sexual, and social potential of the body rather than simply deploying embodiments of beauty or desire. Jimmy DeSana, Steven Arnold, Ray Cook, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode embrace the body as a sculptural material, disfiguring their models while acknowledging the mutability that enables their sexuality. Fredrick Weston, David Wojnarowicz, and Michael Boroskey adorn bodies with symbols and signifiers: a black body contends with chains and a hood of the Klan, Arthur Rimbaud’s troubled youth is resurrected on the subway, and Boroskey playfully considers himself as St. Sebastian.

The body’s potential for illness, of course, resonates throughout the Artist Registry. Edward Cervantes self-portraits echo Patrick Angus’ torment: Finally Almost Skinny Enough (And Soon To Be Diagnosed) depicts the artist supine, somewhere between alluring and wistful. In another, Polka Dots (And Scabies), Cervantes again invokes illness and sexuality in the same gesture. The politics of representation at stake here have some heft—one might argue that depictions of HIV+ people as disfigured or sickly only perpetuates stigma and inaccurate depictions of the disease. But I’m drawn to this work, as well as the work of Jerome Caja, Hugh Steers, John Lathram III, and Brian Carpenter, because they all probe at illness and sexuality with an honest messiness.

By bringing these works together, I hope to gesture towards a few of the directions that portraiture, especially nude male portraiture, can head without valorizing non-specific bodies. Simple beauty is hard to argue with, but sometimes it is just that—basic.