Simmons, William J., Toyin Ojih Odutola, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, and Devan Owens. “The Presumption of Light.” In Toyin Ojih Odutola: The Treatment. New York: Jack Shainman Gallery, 2018.attachment_1.pdf
Murphy, Michael ed., William J. Simmons; Susan K. Thomas. “LGBTQ Fine Arts and Literature.” In Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture. Routledge, 2018.
Simmons: How might we characterize a queer iconography in this exhibition? There are some very clear references, such as Sublime Bottom I, 0C180M0Y, and Sublime Bottom II, 150C40M0Y. But there are also some more subtle references, such as your homage to—or co-opting of—both Yves Klein’s masculinist spectacle Anthropometries, and Robert Rauschenberg’s Autobiography(1968). I’m also reminded of Chicago Imagist Roger Brown’s Peach Light (1983), a surreal illustration of the soft pink and orange light used in gay bars in the ’80s to mask the skin afflictions caused by HIV/AIDS.
Sherry: There is so much queer iconography in this show! The title itself is a play on James Bidgood’s 1971 masterpiece Pink Narcissus, a film that helped shape the way I view the world. I also was thinking about Robert Rauschenberg’s collaboration with Susan Weil in Untitled (Double Rauschenberg) and Female Figure (both ca. 1950), which used exposed blueprint paper. (I wasn’t thinking of Roger Brown’s Peach Light, but what an amazing piece of art, and I love that you are reminded of it!)
I was also thinking of a Robert Gober piece I remember seeing at his 2015 MoMA retrospectiveThe Heart Is Not a Metaphor. That entire show was profound, but this one piece, in which he combined his face with his dogs in a self-portrait mask, really resonated with me, maybe because pets for queer people really become our family, our children, which I find poignant. So, I attempted to merge my own body in one piece from Pink Genesis, with Wizard, my dog, titled Metamorphosis (Self portrait with Wizard), 150C40M0Y (2017).
Alex Prager’s willingness to provide something for everyone makes her one of the most generous contemporary artists. She combines technical skill and compositional precision with the beautiful thematics of film noir or melodrama. Perhaps above all Prager uses photography and film to excavate the inner lives of individuals – some of whom we recognize, but most are anonymous faces in the crowd. Nowhere is this more potent than in Prager’s commission for Times Square’s Midnight Moment, in which her short film Applause plays every night at 11:57 PM during the month of June. A sea of people clap across the enormous electronic billboards, and one is filled with exhilaration and fear. Every time we get up in the morning and step outside, after all, we are performing for somebody – why not get the recognition we deserve? Or is there freedom in anonymity?
FLAUNT: LET’S BEGIN WITH YOUR ROOTS IN PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM, ESPECIALLY YOUR INTEREST IN PEOPLE AND PERFORMANCE.
Alex Prager: Street photography is what got me started. My work is hyper-realistically staged, and every detail is extremely controlled. I truly began using the essence of street photography – capturing what makes people and characters unique. I have always been fascinated with that – the odd and the awkward moments. Back when I first started, it was just me and my camera walking the streets looking for anything honest and real.
I feel very connected to street photographers in the way that we work, even though our processes are different. They don't have all the weeks or months of planning shots, setting up huge 18K lights, bringing in ample amounts of costumes and the extensive hair and makeup that goes hand-in-hand with my shoots. While they find their perspective in those characters already on the streets I create mine. Someone like Bruce Gilden might have an instinctual angle that he goes down to when he sees a character coming, but ultimately we're all just looking for the right moment – I look for this within a controlled environment. There is of course a lot of planning that goes into a street photographer’s shots too. The street photographers that I love are masters at what they do, creating a raw feeling that captures a moment, without needing a lot of time to find these constructed moments.
THAT MAKES ME THINK THAT YOUR WORK REQUIRES US TO THINK ABOUT WHAT STREET PHOTOGRAPHY MEANS MORE THAN WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.
Yeah. I certainly think about it differently than when I first started. I imagined it would be these magical moments being captured by photographers who relentlessly ran out on the streets with their cameras and just looked for shots. There's a lot more at play with these photographers. They also have very specific styles. Enrique Metinides began as a crime scene photographer and, like Weegee, he would find the angle that created a better story – he was a storyteller.
With my work, you can view it as hyper-constructed and detailed. But I only control it all the way up until I get ready and everyone is on set and waiting for it to start. Then, within that, I find the street moments where nothing is planned. You can't really control people. You can put a layer of costume on them, but once you begin, they have their own emotional baggage and they have their aspirations of why they came to set that day, sometimes jealousy. A lot of them know each other! All kinds of weird, interesting stories start to float to the surface, and that's not me. Those are always the best moments that come through.
IF YOU WERE TO PUT TOGETHER A SHOW OF YOUR FAVORITE ARTISTS WHO YOU WANTED TO SEE ALONGSIDE YOUR WORK, WHO WOULD YOU INCLUDE?
I have my favorites like William Eggleston, Weegee, Brassai, Metinides, Arbus, Parr. I would also have to include filmmakers because it's all one and the same for me. Hitchcock is obviously a huge inspiration for me, for my still and moving images. There’s also Fellini, Scorsese, and Cassavetes – all of these filmmakers from the '60s and '70s. The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes – two of my favorite films. The Red Shoes had an influence on my film La Grande Sortie. The show would have to be about characters, people, and stories. The way that we seem in real life isn't necessarily who we actually are – the costumes that people wear in real life, the makeup that women wear, the layers of clothing that men put on. What's real and what's created. We are all telling our own stories. I think putting photographers and filmmakers together is a more realistic way of looking at the world.
My relationship to film has evolved since I became a photographer. Growing up in Los Angeles, the film industry was around me all the time. When I approached my first film, Despair, I was looking at it more as a series of still images. When I showed my series The Big Valley, a lot of people that came up to me were asking what happened to the woman in the photograph just before, or what was going to happen to her after. I thought that was strange because people knew they were constructed, still images. So, I thought it'd be fun to give them a surreal look into the before and after. That was how Despair was made. Then I did the series for The New York Times with all the actors and, slowly, I started looking at film as a very different medium. It's invigorating for me because I've always loved a challenge and making any kind of film can be difficult so when something seems impossible it’s the best feeling when you figure it out. It’s one huge expansive motion into the unknown – nothing is more exciting.
DO YOU ENJOY THAT COLLABORATIVE ASPECT OF FILM THAT TAKES PHOTOGRAPHY OUT OF THE INDIVIDUAL AND INTO THE COLLECTIVE?
Yes, I just love it! Having an idea that feels too big for me to do on my own, and finding the right team to work with me to be able to realize my vision doesn’t compare to anything else. Being afraid or taking on a challenge is something I will always embrace. To follow in Steve McQueen's footsteps. He took the medium of film and didn't try and extend what he was already saying through art, it’s a completely different way of communicating. Something he said rang true for me “For me, art is poetry, and film is a yarn—a novel, if you like.” There's so much in that that I relate to because his films are telling a very specific narrative story. Ultimately two hours is a long time for an audience to sit in a dark room and watch what you made on screen, so you have to take that into consideration and be responsible for what you're showing them. It's very inspiring.
The original version of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is lost, and it now only exists as copies and as a photograph by Alfred Steiglitz. In this way, as art historians like David Joselit have argued, the avant-garde is based entirely on a copy. I might extend this to suggest that the avant-garde is therefore a cliché; art history and cultural studies are melodramas wherein everyone is typecast. We know what to expect.
We cry when we are supposed to, and we scream despite already knowing that the monster is lurking under the bed. However, when the lights come on, we are left shaken, even though we predicted every twist and turn before the opening credits.
Duchamp, I do not think, wanted to or imagined that he would change the landscape of modern art, and the same is true for David Lynch when he co-created Twin Peaks with Mark Frost over twenty-five years ago. The original TV series, in conjunction with Lynch’s films, created a visual, thematic, and sonic repertoire so unconventional that of course everyone had to copy it. However, what was unique about Twin Peaks was that it was, in fact, a collection of every possible cliché; it was as if, in the spirit of Duchamp and the submission of a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists, Lynch wanted to give the finger to mainstream television. Twin Peaks played back — in a brilliant surrealism, or perhaps hyperrealism, only barely removed from real life — the enticing shames of popular culture, especially regarding the abuse of women onscreen.
So how do you copy what is already a copy? In the two-part premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return,aired last Sunday on Showtime, Lynch is unafraid to imitate himself. There is another death and another series of mysterious clues, but gone is much of the teary-eyed teenage drama (which I loved), and in its place is a distillation of everything “Lynchian.” We are now treated to long stays in the Black Lodge’s Red Room for instance — more perhaps in this two-hour premiere than in the entirety of the original series. This is extremely gratifying in some ways, but I wonder how this will develop vis-à-vis arguments that Lynch has become too self-referential.
On the contrary, I see a more personal and ultimately effective kind of copying here. Several scenes in the premiere are distinctly reminiscent of David Lynch’s paintings and early films while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It will be thrilling to see Lynch doing his best impression of himself, or perhaps what one imagines fans want from him. This, I think, is the essence of Lynch’s continued criticality and historical importance — to show us what we want and render our desires both glamorous and repulsive.
Each Sunday during its run, since 2012, I watched Girls by myself, beginning in a college dorm and then in several dinky New York apartments. Girls has been a private phenomenon that defined the better half of my twenties, and this Sunday it came to a sobering and surprising end.
The finale is so intimate as to seem small, but it is as epic and poignant as the last episode of The X-Files. Indeed, Girls always made ostensibly insignificant emotions seem vast, affording viewers the chance to experience being at once individually validated and invisibly adrift in a sea of other people’s feelings — both real and projected.
My evolution alongside the series began in part as a comical venture. It provided an arena wherein I could laugh at the foibles I saw so forcefully in myself, which was followed inevitably by a healthy dose of self-hatred as a result of my identification with the characters. It allowed me to indulge my aspirational tendencies and fall in love with what I wanted more than anything — a glamorous emotional legibility.
When Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) began to exhibit signs of anxiety and depression, everything changed. What was once a self-deprecating diversion became deadly serious, and my solo viewing of Girls became claustrophobic as the series progressed. It instilled the fear that my “artistic” self-regard, my masochistic inhabitation of my own thoughts, is destructively bereft of meaning, that it is all a cliché. As I found myself empathizing with the vain but sincere Marnie (Allison Williams), or harboring jealousy toward Hannah’s growing success as a writer, I worried that I was at best morally bankrupt and at worst the millennial stereotype at the center of so many Girls think pieces.
At the outset of the final season, I asked both my best friend and my beleaguered therapist why I found the show so moving, and neither could provide an answer. In approximating my own answer, I understand that I cannot speak to the social truths of the series. Girls was not created for me — a gay man with no lived experience of the rightfully female-centered issues Dunham explores with regard to gender, sexuality, illness, professional advancement and violence. I can only offer a provisional and personal guess about the show’s significance.
It comes down to the ability of Girls to depict and imagine loneliness in a way that no other television show has. Girls presents a beautiful and heart-wrenching parade of broken dreams, false starts, and small triumphs that are at once distant and as close as your own skin. In this way, Girls invited you not to identify with its stories, but rather to position yourself in proximity to them with an unflinching abandon.