(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Photo-text work, viewed by some as passé in recent years, is actually making a come back and revising some of the vernacular coined within the gay subculture. By scrambling codes originally enlisted to perform its heady narrative tricks, the new inter-textual versions of photo-text art critique the presumptive straight male authoritative voice of late modernist conceptualism. Think, pleasure politics goes to semiotics camp.
Texts as art objects, used as links to an audience’s personal associations, in conjunction with photography’s peculiar, index-like relationship to reality, appears in two shows during Pride Week: For Your Pleasure and On a Queer Day You Can See Forever. Both of these exhibitions featured recent experiments in redefining our lingo and viewership filtered through the gay gaze.
In an Advocate interview last June, lesbian playwright Camille Roy talked about perception strategies and naming:
Queer’ is a good word because it is still corrupt. When it is no longer corrupt, it will no longer be interesting. Corruption informs; it sneaks past the rules set around sex and pleasure, (where) diversity can masturbate itself.
Third Person Singular
Wayne Smith’s work in For Your Pleasure functions as a body, a collection, an archive and reference system. His Boyfriender series of over 100 plagues of computer-generated 3.5” x 5” photographs included the word “He” followed by a short descriptive phrase (“He called from work just to say ‘hi’; He needs a lot of fireworks”) and other mundane bits eavesdropped conversations between gay men. These multiples create an infinitely proliferating “He”-is-everywhere personal pronoun scenario.
Smith’s most recent and absolutely stunning work, however, is a painting/text piece. In a “found” Sunday-painting style picture (similar to Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store appropriations), decorative landscapes become weighted and silenced under glass, framed an inch off of the painting’s surface. A faint but crisp, sand-blasted phrase on the glass, “Guys are waiting,’ thus acts as an erie linguistic overcast across a kitschy mountain range.
Ambient lighting and shifting perceptions shuttled the work from its status as object into the broader realm of de-materialization. Smith’s terse introspections on passing time, and the false polarizations between nature and culture, were counterbalanced in the show by the more outgoing works of Rex Ray. Even Ray’s photograms, a medium technically associated with subtlety of tone and surrealist ambiguity, threw brusque sex paraphernalia in your face.
Eli Pulsinelli’s body of work, “Domesticity Beckons,” in the Queer Day show explored an old topic with a similarly queer twist in strategy. Here human-sized images of female body parts with tiny photos of kitchen appliances on top ran parallel to images of sign-language hand gestures captioning each panel beneath. Some of these mappings revealed underlying ambiguous violence in the designation of gender, or taming bodies to any given field of activity.
For example, “Intestines” included a large image of a soft belly with a tiny ice tray on top and a little finger signing for the letter “I” below. “Orifice” showed a butt hole, can opener and a fist-shaped letter “O.” Pulsinelli’s viewpoint, like Smith’s, provokes a partial, destabilized and conditional process of reading. Their work also shakes up the subtexts and contexts of things that at first appear to be given and natural.
Susan Mable Maney’s work specifically mocks the normative, spoon-fed reading lessons from childhood in her pithy send-ups of Dick and Jane, as an “other” kind of Nancy Drew, much in the vein of her previous work, the “Not-So-Nice Nurse” story-boarded quilts. Deborah Bright, on the other hand, splices images of herself (presumably with computer technology) into movies stills. Here she poses as the missing seductress in film noir love triangles, picking up where Maney leaves off in outlawed libidinous lesbian translations. Together, their work subverts the dominant culture’s insidious scripting.
Anthony Aziz pushes this kind of re-writing into the realm of S/M, to examine the relationship between speech, erotic anticipation, and the act of reading. “It Makes Me Feel Good When You Say That” presented nine elegant metal lithographic book plates done in hazy color calibrations, with greeting card Victorian poetry inscribed upon ‘60s style raunchy male porn. The dainty pink ribbons binding the three-ring punch holes amplifies the sense that feelings, like speech, are free to those who own the press. Under scrutiny, as lingo gets more reflexive and conditional, perception then appears to be limitless.