Stephen Milner: A Spiritual Good Time
Rather than awkwardly side-step surfing’s image as an exotic activity dripping with ocean water and sex appeal, Milner leans into it.
San DiegoSWISH Projects
August 10 – September 1, 2019
Stephen Milner’s appropriated images culled from surf and gay porn magazines pre-dating 1990 re-code the concept of boys club from frat house basement to queer-inclusive activity meet-up. Despite its easygoing image, surfing usually requires navigating a floating crowd of men giving their best performance of hypermasculinity. Dominance in the most competitive lineups is like dominance in high school locker rooms: determined by a combination of actual athleticism and theatrical aggression. Milner’s sun-drenched, salt-washed fantasy world appropriates surfing’s superficial reputation to offer an alternative reality where the sensitive, transcendental potential of wave-sliding is reached not in spite of but through the eroticism latent in the swollen muscles and back slapping of America’s (narrow) socially-endorsed rituals of masculine bonding.
A Spiritual Good Time, drawn from Milner’s MFA thesis show at the University of Oregon and the exhibition at SWISH Projects focuses on his photographs, with a lone sculpture (a conch shell sporting a hefty piercing, 2018) giving the photographs a humorous edge. Milner’s treatment of found imagery builds on the work of Pacifico Silano, and carries it further by working with the cultural heritage of American surfers.
Rather than awkwardly side-step surfing’s image as an exotic activity dripping with ocean water and sex appeal, Milner leans into it. Blurry silhouettes foreground a well-groomed reef break warmed in evening light; tan legs recline against the dashboard of the surfer’s ever-present car; exposed and moistened skin is everywhere; suns are exclusively crepuscular. This overtroped vocabulary provides Milner with a stable and recognizable foundation from which he can subvert the camera man’s gaze. In Locals Only (2019), an actor leans his head back against the naked thighs of the men around him, eyes closed. Separated from the context of a porn set, the image feels more like a genderflipped crop of Cezanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses (1905) than a sex tape.
Not all of the works are subtle. An image from what appears to be a wetsuit ad, showing a body from knee to belly button, centers on the model’s bulge pushing through skin-tight neoprene. Wetsuit advertising reappears in Piping Hot Crew (2019), depicting three men modeling a line of spring suits. The image is cropped just above their smiling mouths, showing them in a three-quarter pose, shoulder to chest, in front of an American flag. The motifs assume a second life as porn site search terms, “all-American,” “wetsuit,” and in these images Milner seems to be more focused on celebrating male-on-male gaze than critiquing the misogynistic industry that sells self-worth through Americanness, whiteness, patriarchal heterosexuality for profit. But then, Milner’s careful eye is a joy to look through, and reframing marketing images as homoerotic gold is good fun.
Neither women nor trans or non-binary folks appear in Milner’s images (two sole Hawaiians disrupt the otherwise uniform whiteness), but (for once) this is part of the work’s strength. The narrow demographic allows Milner to critique toxic enactments of masculine performance where it begins—where mostly White people grouped as men interact. The inherent sentimentality of surf editorials flushes with an erotic charge, the pornographic images take on a tenderness and intimacy. With the contexts stripped away, Milner creates his own soft universe where men support each other and flirt and lay around, taking it easy.
You don’t need to surf to read the erotic confusion in A Spiritual Good Time, but for people who do Getting Along Fine (2019) is especially poignant. Two men, their faces blurred by the enlargement process, take off on a left-hand wave, side by side, their bodies facing each other. Both surfers stretch their back arms for balance, appearing to hold the other’s hand, it almost looks like they’re sharing the wave. In reality the image is depicting one man asserting his dominance over another, taking a wave from a person who by all rights should have it to their self. Most surfers will recognize not only the situation, but also the feeling of getting “burned” like that, having their right to participate stripped away.
Toggling between interpretations of violence and camaraderie—like a lenticular image that changes as you move past it—gives Milner’s work a powerful ambivalence; neither is necessarily the correct reading, both can be true. One interpretation embodies the typical reality of interacting with men, the other offers an alternative, and in doing so provides two suggestions of where—sex and recreation—to start the work that will allow us to leave the worst parts of masculinity behind.