The male gaze is back again, beaming soulfully from dozens of portraits in a provocative little photo show at Franklin Art Works in south Minneapolis.
Feminists got pretty exercised a few decades back about the way men had been staring at women for centuries, treating them as objects of desire, subjects of conquest, trophies for the bed. After countless consciousness-raising sessions, most guys have cleaned up their acts. Or at least learned to feign interest in additional female attributes.
Still, the sexually provocative act of looking has not vanished. In the Franklin show, New York photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya presents color photos of friends -- mostly attractive young men -- gazing directly at the camera. Some are clothed, some are not, but all seem to possess a strange vulnerability, their almost expressionless faces appear unguarded, their candor an invitation to intimacy -- or a confirmation of it.
In previous interviews Sepuya has referred to himself and his pals as "the Gay Powers," and he came to prominence in 2001 as the photographer/publisher of Shoot, a gay-themed 'zine. The New York Times once dubbed his art "beefcake with Nina Simone." He insists that his pictures are "not made to titillate," and told Interview magazine in 2009 that "if physical attraction is involved in all relationships, I just put it in the front. But it's not the subject."
Photographed in a bland white room at the Studio Museum in Harlem (where Sepuya was artist in residence for the past year), the images are calculated in their neutrality and lack of drama. Suffused with pale, even light, they present their subjects as transparently as possible, offering nothing to interfere with the gaze or distract from the intimacy between camera and subject, viewer and viewed. The subjects' lack of affect seems odd at first, self-consciously banal and irritatingly "arty."
But that's wrong. What makes Sepuya's pictures so unsettling is that they are in fact utterly artless. They have no (obvious) drama, poses, attitudes, expressions or other pictorial theater. Without such professional tricks, Sepuya's portraits and male nudes are the antithesis of their genre in which a fig leaf of "art" is the typical coverup for homoerotic frisson. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe's film-noir lighting, oiled muscles and neoclassical poses. Sepuya offers homoeroticism for a post-Mapplethorpe era in which it is more a fact of life than a forbidden fruit.
Still, the casual intimacy of the photos can be unnerving.
Next door in its cinematique, Franklin is showing continuously the video "Sugar Water" by Eric Baudelaire, a Paris-based American. It is a curiously mesmerizing 72-minute event set in a fictive Paris Metro station, Pte. Erewhon (an anagram for Nowhere). As putative subway riders stroll past, a blue-clad workman methodically pastes up a series of billboard-sized images of a bucolic Paris street on which a car bursts into flame, burns out and is covered over once again by blue paint. Hypnotically fascinating, it's a quiet meditation on the violent spectacle and helpless passivity of modern life.
Artniks will appreciate the spectacular panels of Yves Klein blue, framed in baroque Klein gold, with which the workman periodically obliterates the carnage. So would the late Klein, a Frenchman who pioneered this sort of dadaist performance in the 1950s and whose antic spirit seems incarnate here.