Queer-themed art shows are having a moment right now, and we can only expect that trend to continue as we enter a time of uncertainty about the future of LGBTQ rights in this country (and those of all marginalized people, really). An ongoing exhibition called Like Smoke (on view through December 4 at the New York Artists Equity Association on the Lower East Side) feels so right-now in that way. The show mines gay history and examines the ways in which oppression, both past and persistent, still creep into the present. Though it examines the queer body, you won’t see any actual bodies on display. Instead there’s a great gaping black hole, phantoms from the past, and a lingering sense of absence.
The show’s curator, Osman Can Yerebakan, who regularly puts together queer-centric exhibitions (including last year’s Party Out of Bounds, which looked at the role nightlife played in early AIDS activism), was inspired to do something outside the box, feeling somewhat frustrated by the fact that a great deal of art concerned with sexuality objectifies the body, especially the queer body. He wondered what this kind of art would look like without figurative forms.
The result, as Osman explains in an essay he wrote for Like Smoke, is a show concerned with “queer experience beyond the limits of the corporeal.” Each work manages to avoid clichés in an area of art that seems especially prone to them.
Read Osman’s statement, and you’ll find out that the title, Like Smoke, was inspired by Jean Genet, the French multidisciplinary artist, political activist, and gay icon, and the only film he ever made, Un Chant d’Amour. The 26-minute long short, made in 1950, was unabashedly erotic, but most remarkably, it portrayed gay men experiencing pleasure, a subject that was basically unheard of in its time. Of course, it didn’t take long for French authorities to ban Genet’s film.
The funny thing about “Un Chant” is that it embodies not just what Osman’s show is about (absence), but its opposite (the body) too. Two prisoners locked up in adjacent cells are in love, but prevented from consummating their affection by the wall that separates them. Their only consolation is a tiny hole, just large enough for a straw. However, they find something tangible to share: one prisoner blows smoke through the hole and the other inhales, “[letting] his object of affection invade him,” Osman writes. Apparently, it’s enough to get them both off.
Likewise, the art work at Like Smoke is capable of relaying intense feeling, even without the presence of the body. Weirdly, that distance makes it clear just how close sex and death really are, at least when it comes to the approach these artists are taking.
“Denim Selection,” a piece by Pacifico Silano, is a prime example. If you’re at all familiar with gay porn of the ’70s, then chances are you will immediately recognize the subject of Silano’s digital print as Al Parker, even though he’s basically absent from the image. All we get of Parker are his signature denim jacket and tight, unbuttoned jeans. “He was also famous for, you know, his large penis,” Osman pointed out. The rest of him– a tan, ripped, and smooth-bodied beardo– schlong and all, have disappeared.
Silano smartly plucked Parker’s outline from his usual skin mag setting. Often these were rugged landscapes and picturesque nature locales (e.g. climbing a tree for an encounter with a paratrooper). Instead, the background is jet-black nothingness, which only adds to the feeling that you’re looking at a ghost, as if what remains of a man so famous for his flesh is floating in space. Or another dimension altogether. “The people in these magazines, you don’t know where they are,” Osman explained. “You imagine that most of them died from complications from AIDS. You only have these images of their best form, but the reality is totally different.”
There’s no shortage of images of Al Parker’s body, both fan art and the trove of softcore porn and erotic photos he left behind. But seeing the man’s ghost is a sad reminder of the hole he left in the finite universe, and a hint toward his untimely erasure and that of an entire generation of gay men. “You want to know what happened to him actually,” Osman said. “Literally, in this photo, but in life too.”
What happened to Al Parker? As you might have guessed, he passed away, due to complications from AIDS. He was 40 years old. Knowing how things played out, or even guessing, is what makes Silano’s work so melancholy. But even in a vacuum the piece hints toward the fragility of human life, how even our jeans might, certainly our images will, outlive us.
Daniel Fairbanks’s work, “Norman’s Beach Vacation,” is even more about the things we leave behind, and an exploration of how our present time and space can weigh heavily on who we are, a relentless form of pressure that doesn’t let up even if our shape or form doesn’t fit into the prefab pigeonholes that are available to us. It’s hard to imagine the kind of burden that Fairbanks’s grandfather must have felt, emphasis on imagine– as a gay man who was of marrying age (or whatever) during the first chunk of the last century, the options were pretty grim and none of them involved talking about it openly with his family. Incredibly, though, Fairbanks’s discovered a record of his grandfather’s story.
“The artist, he learned that his grandfather was gay, that he had this secret life,” Osman explained. “He found these cassette tapes of his grandfather speaking, confessing in a way. The family doesn’t really talk about it–some people know, some people don’t know.”
He added that, for Fairbanks, the tapes actually left more questions than answers: “What kind of life would his grandfather have if he was born today? Or had been from another part of the world? And what would he do?” Then Fairbanks, who is also gay, turned these dilemmas back on himself: What if he were born in another time or place? The artwork takes something that the grandson has access to– that’s something that his grandfather never had, and a thing that, in a past life, Fairbanks himself would never have had–and imagines an alternative reality: a summer vacation.
The mixed-media installation is a sculptural combination of two objects, an hourglass and a picture frame– obvious symbols of memory, nostalgia, and the passage of time. The constituent parts of the original objects are all there, and yet their respective functions have been cracked open, as if revising his grandfather’s life like this, as if it were a fictional story, is unnatural, impossible, even a bit sacrilegious. Inside the picture frame, which is stuck to the wall at a perpendicular angle, there’s a cone-shaped mass of sand, which slowly diminishes as it drains through two holes and accumulates on the floor below in two “subtle bumps,” as Osman pointed out. It’s both a strange reversal and perversion of the hourglass, but it does share the same barely perceptible movement, and eventually, the frame will be empty. At that point, someone will put it back into the frame, and start the process over again.
“It’s a balance of the past and all those what-ifs, the hows and whys,” Osman said. “It’s a living piece, a cycle, but it’s also the vacation his grandfather never had.” But the work has some reverse connotations to, ones that are the opposite of leisure, happiness, and prosperity. “Sand its also grim, sort of morbid,” he pointed out. “These things that seem so normal for us, they were impossible to even think about for his grandfather.”
Not every piece in Like Smoke is so gloomy– there are some happy endings too. No pun intended, seriously– remember, there’s not a ween nor even a nip in sight. Canadian artist Jade Yumang made his Boyfriend Tee series, two of which are on view at this show, from exactly what it sounds like, his boyfriend’s t-shirts. Several years back, when he moved to New York to get his MFA, Yumang left his relationship behind. “During that time his boyfriend sent him t-shirts that he’d worn so Jade could sleep with his smell,” according to Osman.
Sure, that might sound like creepy relationship stuff, on par with baby talk and pet names (but not quite as bad as referring to your love dog as your “son”). But the textile sculptures bear very little resemblance to the original garments, Jade has transformed them entirely, so they don’t feel like some weird BF shrine. The poly-cotton tees have been stretched over pieces of wood like canvas, slashed, knotted, or sometimes stitched into oblivion, reborn as unrecognizable new forms.
“These are very intimate,” Osman remarked. “But beyond everything, they’re just really pretty, really intricate. It’s all about labor, working on something obsessively, getting rid of all that negativity and, in a way, it’s healing.”
Without all the baggage that comes with body parts and flesh, there can be no objectification, instead there’s just a complex back and forth between the artist and the viewer who’s trying to piece together an imagined-something. Like Smoke actually eliminates the possibility for primitive reactions and, frankly, a lot of the drooling that humans experience when they see flesh. Getting rid of those deep-brain trigger points makes way for more intense, frontal cortex-type thinking and helps free LGBTQ art in general from the same constraints.