Les Fleurs du Mâle
The surveillance state is everywhere. Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon – the need for society to constantly observe and normalize any difference – is firmly in place with our prison system. Currently the United States has the world’s highest documented incarceration rates with one in three black men jailed at some point in their lives.
I am both repulsed and fascinated by our society’s ability to dehumanize entire populations enough to lock them away, and see the parallels of blacks with non-western gays around the world and our own history of gay persecution. Because it is nearly impossible to photograph inside a prison, I instead built my own - one that echoes French playwright and author Jean Genet’s singular film, “Un Chant d’Amour,” and his book “The Thief’s Journal.”
An openly queer author in the 1940s, Genet was imprisoned multiple times for petty crimes and indecency. By refusing to be “reformed” and choosing to revel in his powerlessness, he took ownership of his own life and subverted the dominant power structure. While Genet’s work is over half a century old, the core themes of male intimacy, violence, and the state’s abuse of power are as relevant as ever.
Les Fleurs du Mâle honors Genet’s desire to raise up the underclass by honoring these prisoners who transcend their own humiliations in small, important, even beautiful and fragile ways—the sharing of cigarette smoke through prison walls or the halo of flowers on a prisoner’s head, for instance. It illustrates that desire, in the end, is stronger than the need to control desire; these prisoners know how to take their pleasures, despite the threats and actions made by the state.
I come back to Genet in my work because he was the progenitor of the modern queer movement – the absolute negation of what straight society said was permissible. This work shines a light on the power that desire has over us, regardless of how society would integrate us and groom us to be “desire-less.”
Jose Esteban Munoz, in Cruising Utopia, writes “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”
Wild Boys exists in an alternate universe that, while actively hostile, is a place where queers have agency. The tribalism, rituals, and anachronistic imagery throughout the work have their basis in texts by William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Hakim Bey. In this imperfect Utopia, intimate acts frequently transcend space and time and sometimes lead to death. These metaphors reference not only the stories of my youth but the current world we live in; a place where queerness is still “other” and must be defended if we are to do more than survive.
Wild Boys exists in this universe to open a narrow gap in a mechanized society, granting my peers a ritualized space to be fully alive and engaged, and to give a glimpse to outside viewers what always exists on a subconscious level. The narrative can only be understood in part, each image its own scene from a book still being written sometime in the past and somewhere in the future.
Beaster and Bear
This project is an ongoing collaboration with the photographer Adrain Chesser. Through the exploration of our trickster alter egos, Beaster and Bear, we are in the process of creating complex narratives that explore the politics of gay culture, spirituality, and man’s relationship to nature.
When asked what I do as an artist, I like to say that I put people in unusual predicaments and photograph the outcome. Much of my work focuses on my subject’s spontaneous reactions to the unexpected. I’m most interested in the dynamic between the person and the situation.
With Milky, the camera documented the immediate emotional reactions of 60 individuals being doused with cold milk. In the series the only constant is the milk; what is unknown is how the person will react.
In the images, the materiality of milk can act as a metaphor for the nature of sexuality — something that is fluid, tangible, yet ephemeral. Those who appear in Milky are my friends, lovers, and complete strangers who just happen to be coated in the fluids of another animal. By taking a familiar substance and perverting it, I talk about some of the emotions that sexual desire conjures: pleasure, danger, and detachment.
In Bound, rope symbolizes the mental, physical and spiritual ties that bind. Materially, the subjects are bound to self, others, and inseparably the unknown. The tied ropes are constricting or loose, a representation of the various connections and disconnections between friends, lovers and strangers. Ropes around the subjects' heads act as a metaphor for how we're wrapped up inside our perceptions and simultaneously, by emphasizing yet obscuring the face, the viewer is encouraged to consider other aspects of the body.
In many respects this work is informed by the theatrical, but here the darkened stage is replaced by utter blackness. The series aims to plot emotional points between figures that stand effortlessly in the void to those that are contorted in space. Some subjects appear completely at ease with those existential limits - their environment cradles them. Others seem to struggle with their conflicting fate. It raises the question: How comfortable are we when supported by the knowledge that, while some things are indeed know-able, the unknown remains both tangible and inevitable?
Social conditioning teaches that public displays of intimacy are shameful and are made even more taboo when only men are involved.
The images in Reclamations consequently become acts of agency: to examine my own internalized homophobia and fear of intimacy in public spaces, and to create rituals that further the goal of normalizing gay behavior. I used the subjects’ workplace or found a public space as a backdrop for our fictive narratives. After determining what subjects were comfortable doing in front of the camera, we push it a bit further. In this liminal state, my subjects’ transgressive actions made mundane locales into sexually charged spaces.
Mythologies around the world include stories where a trickster figure interacts with dirt - usually to the amusement and disgust of the trickster's audience. These characters - Raven, Coyote, Legba, and Krishna - all use dirt to expose that culture's particular taboos and ultimately breaks new ground for what is acceptable.
What is dirt but matter out of place? A fried egg on a plate is food, but egg on someone's face is not. What is completely acceptable in one instance becomes filthy and unsettling in another context. Defining what is dirty in a society by default defines that which is taboo.
As American society has moved towards conservatism over the last decade, homosexuality has been represented as a threat to the institutions of marriage and culture. My dirt wedding was created in part to dismantle the rhetoric around marriage while simultaneously using humor and confusion to represent gay culture with a trickster's sensibilities.
Unable to marry another man, I instead married a pile of dirt in front of 60 people and re-enacted the trickster ritual of presenting something disgusting as acceptable. By inviting the guests to participate in the absurd celebration, the ceremony was brought to completion.