The six artists in “Photo Realness: The Queer Aesthetics of Photography” are not all, or not strictly, photographers. Yet each artist exploits the dynamism of the photographic medium to slightly different ends. With an emphasis on portraiture, “Photo Realness” explores the performativity of photography, which in the age of social media, we can understand as the playfulness of photography, the ease with which this ubiquitous medium allows for the public projection of a private self. In the 21st century, photography has transformed from its analog roots as a tool for more or less private documentation, to a medium for instantaneous projection, potentially broadcasting on a global scale. Through social media, we erect digital façades of selfhood, stability, success, and sexual desirability. At the same time, photography helps queers do what queers do best: play with the boundaries of gender and sexuality, testing and expanding them beyond norms and expectations, showing us new ways to live more openly, more expansively, more queerly.
Performance artist, filmmaker, and producer Zackary Drucker’s photographs of drag legend Flawless Sabrina participate in a long tradition of intimate reportage, and are reminiscent of such photographic legends as Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, and Claude Cahun. For two years in the aughts, Drucker lovingly documented her interactions with her spiritual “grandmother” in the apartment on 73rd Street in Manhattan where Sabrina lived for over 45 years. Both the photographs and the setting—the apartment itself is a time capsule of four decades of queer history—attest to a profound cross-generational friendship of queer kindred spirits, and the inspiring example of a life well and fabulously lived.
The recent portraits of Portland-based artist Alec Marchant have a similar quality of playful performativity, as if artist and friends are simply playing dress-up for the camera, inventively experimenting with settings, poses and costuming. A multi-disciplinary artist, Marchant experiments with sculpture, handicraft, and textiles to create his “photographic theater.” Taken together, Marchant’s images read as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of fashion photography, attuned as they are to the visual tricks of the trade: the isolation of the figures in the mis-en-scène, the stark, dramatic lighting, and the implication of a narrative which is always teasingly inaccessible.
Clifford Prince King does not think of himself as a portrait photographer, he describes his process as “capturing a moment in time…in which I’m the viewer as much as anyone else.” He is known for moody and emotionally nuanced images of Black gay men—friends, lovers, acquaintances, strangers—grouped in tableaus that somehow seem both spontaneous and posed. The two images included in “Photo Realness” are among his most formal compositions, large in format and clearly posed, they call back beyond photography to the aesthetics of oil painting. While witnessing Black queer life in contemporary LA, the dramatic lighting in both “Z” and “Ever New” mimic Baroque tenebrism—the perpetual twilight found in paintings by Caravaggio.
Accommodating history in a different vein, the work of photographer Matt Lipps is an in-depth exploration of the history of analog photography through the use of appropriated imagery and collage. Meticulously excising historical photographs and pop culture imagery from books and magazines, he transforms them into standalone, poseable “paper dolls.” Lipps then plays with these images as objects, arranging, juxtaposing, and rephotographing them, thereby calling up unforeseeable resonances. The results lie somewhere between child’s play, queer pride pageantry, and archival seriousness.
Painter and sculptor Suzanne Wright experiments with large-scale collage, celebrating lesbian sexuality through spectacular imagery and ribald humor. Appropriating images long associated with ultra-masculinity (NASA shuttles, feats of engineering, massive public monuments), Wright fuses them with highly charged erotic imagery to create visions of ecstatic, cybernetic, feminine pleasure. Wright’s technique, which combines digital photography with analog collage, provides almost limitless flexibility of composition and scale. In these works, scale is unfettered and rendered nearly irrelevant: the Washington monument, space shuttles, and Wright’s Brobdingnagian women are all of equal size, importance, and power.
Joe Sinness, whose primary medium is colored pencil, creates photo-realistic drawings so exacting they are easily mistaken for photographs—but only in reproduction. Viewed in person, the photographic sources are imbued with the artist’s exquisite handiwork, attesting to the months and even years invested in drawing a single image. Most of Sinness’s portraits are tailored to the sitter, who provides crucial input in how they are portrayed. At the same time, in his portraiture and other works, Sinness employs an aesthetic of collaged imagery—both original and appropriated—to visually narrate a history of queerness that is both shared and deeply personal, combining mainstream pop culture and a profound, often cryptic, love of camp.
The title “Photo-Realness,” a play on “photorealism,” evokes a now outdated notion, embedded in the history of photography since its origins, that photography is as real as it gets, that photographs are capable, if properly employed, of delivering objective visual truth. By the same logic, a photorealist painting would be seen as the most realistic painting imaginable. “Realness,” meanwhile, is a term that originates from the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ ballroom scene. It is a term which, for better or worse, has mainstreamed over the last three decades (witness the HBO reality competition “Legendary”). In this context, “realness” has everything to do with “passing,” in essence, a seamless and convincing performance of gender identity, sexuality, or class. But in the arts (in literature and film as well as painting and photography) realism has always been what passes for reality, a set of styles among other styles. In this sense, realism, like realness, has always been a matter of passing.
Each of the artists in “Photo-Realness” exhibits a knowing relationship to photographic realism: a recognition that photography is less about truth-telling and more about wish fulfillment, about passing, performing, and above all, play. The camera is a dream-chamber. And, in the words of Flawless Sabrina, related by Zackary Drucker: “Reality is a mass hunch.”
Suzanne Wright, Double Trouble,
Digital photo collage
Copyright © 2023 Schlomer Haus Gallery - All Rights Reserved.
Opening this Friday Nov 3 is Passing through the Soft Storm, by London based abstract-figurative painter Adam Baker, his first solo exhibition in the US. This series of oils is inspired by the notion of travel and the separation of self that comes with voyaging into the unknown.