On ViewYossi Milo Gallery
June 28 – August 24, 2018
The portraits featured in Intimacy, are, first and foremost, of subjects framed by their environments. Curated by Stephen Truax, the show—which features artists ranging in era from the 1980s to present day, including Peter Hujar, Nan Goldin, Hugh Steers, in dialogue with a swath of contemporary artists such as Elle Pérez, Elliot Jerome Brown Jr., and Paul Mpagi Sepuya—explores how queer intimacy and relationships are carved out in and shaped by space, tucked away within the privacy of domestic spheres, or hidden in plain sight behind scaffolding, park brush, and the veil of anonymity. But coursing through the show is another thread, one that quietly questions and tests the relationship between subject and artist, and what it means to make a portrait of the other. The show juggles what that intimacy means when captured in different contexts and the ways in which artists are able to understand, communicate, and share that intimacy with both their subjects and the viewer.
On the show’s first wall is a group of sketches, photographs and drawings, framed and assembled like a collection of family photos; the subjects, often pictured nude or partially clothed, are pictured in the private spaces of homes. Many of the portraits are titled after their subjects, and read like captions in a family album—Portrait of Rob Stuart (1990), Lena in Maine (2017), Liam with a Book (2018), Thomas, London, 1992 (2015), Peter at My Kitchen Table (Brooklyn) (2018), (by Patrick Angus, Nicole Eisenman, TM Davy, Lyle Ashton Harris and Bryson Rand, respectively).
These portraits are the touching documents of lived relationships—records and sketches that belie an existing, intimate relationship between subject and artist. The subjects, for the most part, are active participants in the portraits, aware that they are being sketched or photographed. In some cases, the subject directly engages with the artist, looking straight at the camera, as in Bryson Rand’s photograph Peter at My Kitchen Table (Brooklyn) (2018). In others, the subject’s awareness of the photograph is only alluded to—the subject in Wolfgang Tillmans’s photograph Palmtrees Caprisun (2014) does not look directly at the camera, but stills himself for the portrait, posing as Tillmans takes the picture.
As the exhibition progresses, the portraits explore a different relationship between artist and subject—one in which the artist takes on a more voyeuristic role, observing (if not intruding) and photographing the intimate moments of others on the sly. In the gallery hall leading to the second room are four black-and-white photographs by Kohei Yoshiyuki from his series “The Park” (1979), all taken at night with infrared film and a filtered flash. As a result, the subjects in the images appear a ghostly green, pale against the dark surrounding brush. In Untitled, Plate 49, single men lean against trees, while others wander through, all observing each other. The three other plates in the exhibition each depict couples embracing, fellating each other, faces hidden in mid embrace.
It’s unclear whether Yoshiyuki’s subjects are aware they are being photographed. But as curator Vince Aletti wrote in the introduction to an exhibition of the photographer’s broader series in 2007, “Even before Yoshiyuki happened upon them, the anonymous, oblivious young couples in these photographs were not alone.” As a photographer, Yoshiyuki aligned himself with the many voyeurs who came to watch (and sometimes touch) the couples, gay and straight, necking in the park’s bushes. As viewers, Aletti notes, “we’re no longer innocent observers. Leaning in for a closer look, we’ve joined the lurking voyeurs,” just as Yoshiyuki has.
Elliot Jerome Brown’s photograph are a compelling counterpoint to Yoshiyuki’s voyeuristic series. In Brown’s Devin in Red Socks (2016), the subject of the portrait faces away from the camera and holds up a white towel high above his head like a curtain, obscuring both his face and trunk. What we can see are the subject’s hands, one of his outstretched arms, and his legs, standing with a dancer’s grace. It’s an elegant composition—the limbs all lead the gaze to the bright white cloth, which itself both hides and alludes to the center of the subject’s body behind it.
The cloth acts as the image’s central narrative and visual lynchpin, much like in “Covering Sarah,” a series of series of lithographic prints by South African artist Senzeni Mthawakazi Marasela. In her prints (which aren’t included in the exhibition), Marasela subverts the notorious image of Sarah Baartman’s (otherwise known as “Hottentot Venus”) vulnerable, naked body that was exposed in freak shows for the profit of her “employers” and the enjoyment and titillation of paying crowds across Europe by drawing in the figure of another woman into the picture.
This new woman, herself clothed in a long black dress, holds up a large swath of cloth beside Baartman, as if about to cover her with it, while looking the viewer straight on, challenging us to stare at someone in such a vulnerable and exposed state. In a subsequent print, Baartman is pictured in covered in the cloth, centered in the middle of the frame like a woman rescued from sea.
Both images contend with the violence that a portrait can inflict upon its subject, particularly for those subjects whose images and portraits are so often used without their consent and bartered for consumption: If the cloth in Marasela’s image serves to restore Baartman's autonomy and privacy, after having been stripped and exposed for the viewer’s curiosity and titillation, the cloth in Brown’s photograph protects the subject from being exposed to the viewer’s (and artist’s) potentially exploitative gaze in the gallery space. And, in both cases, the artists themselves take on an active role in relation to their subject, either by proxy (the woman whom Marasela carves in as a companion for Baartman), or by their physical presence (where Brown’s camera sits between the viewer and the subject), offering to protect the latter from the threats of the outside world.
In conjunction with Brown’s work, the show also feature artists who hint at the cost of this privacy when afforded by wealth and privilege without, or instead of, the presence and support of a community at large. In Sholem Krishtalka’s triptych Forest (2017 – 2018), four people sit on a bank of grass, their bare, pink bodies surrounded by lush trees and green brush. We can only see them from afar—their backs are turned to us and their faces hidden—the centermost figure staring in the same direction as we are, into the darkness of the trees ahead.
In the first room are two paintings by Katherine Bradford of yet more pink figures—in Face to Face (2018),two figures are painted in profile, staring at each other on the shore of a beach. Their features are only alluded to with subtle shifts in pink paint color. In the background, there’s a slight shift in color that marks a horizon line between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. Both paintings are depicted from the artist’s omniscient perspective, and the subjects appear like the characters in a dream, situated in lush natural landscapes, free to practice their desires away from prying eyes and protected from the violence of the human world.
And yet the paintings are still imbued with a certain sense of loneliness. The Encounter (2018), Bradford’s second work included in the show, is perhaps the starkest exploration of this paradox, where two pink figures wade toward each other, surrounded by a dark, purplish night, bereft of other figures around them, hopeful and uncertain in the face of a newly appeared other. Ultimately, Bradford and Krishtalka’s paintings grapple with exclusion and alienation when disguised in the genteel tropes of polite society—that though escape to nature can provide protection from the violence, exclusion and alienation of the human world, it also isolate individuals from peers and community in the process, trapping the lucky few who are able to afford it in a fantasy of freedom.
On the experience of posing for a portrait by Lucian Freud, the art critic Martin Gayford describes the uncanny, almost arousing experience of sitting for Lucian Freud as the artist painted his portrait:
It is as if even at a deep instinctive level, you realize that—as in a doctor’s surgery or a hairdresser’s shop—it is not you that is under scrutiny, at any particular moment, but only an aspect of you. . . . The overall effect is more disconnecting than disconcerting. You are unusually conscious of the surface of yourself—the skin, the flesh, and consequently of what is inside the bubble: a mass of buzzing thoughts and sensations. It raises the question that occurs to everybody in childhood, and at intervals thereafter. What is this thing called “me”?
Gayford spent a year posing for Freud and recorded the experience in a series of diary entries (published in 2006 under the title Man With a Blue Scarf, which is the also title Freud gave to Gayford’s portrait). It’s worth noting that this portrait in particular—and the peculiar, arousing, existential experience that emerged from it—was made in the context of mutual trust between subject and artist, who were also friends before they embarked on the project together.
The works featured in Intimacy all pose this same question—“What is this thing called ‘me’?”—and further explore what “this thing called ‘me’” means in communion with others, whether during the process of creating a portrait, making breakfast, or making love.
Millie Christie-Dervaux is a writer, photographer, and editor based in New York.