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CHICAGO — It was 1950, and the men were hot, greased up, and posing as if they were the original “David.” Then they were photographed and choreographed by Chuck Renslow, who founded Kris Studios for male physique photography, at a time when gay male sexuality operated underground. Nearly 65 years later, the images and actions of that world still inspire. In Jillian Soto and Joseph Hutto’s performance “3X5,” which debuted at the Extinct Entities‘ Pictures and Palaces showcase on January 17, the two artists — Soto, who identifies as a transperson, and Hutto, a gender fluid male dancer — set out to consider these photographs as a way to connect with contemporary queer identities.
For the performance, Soto and Hutto worked together to create their own individual series of movements. They performed physical acts that could be read as sexual, if the viewer wanted to see them that way; otherwise they were just two men sliding on tube socks, flexing on top of a toppled-over red leather chair (which was eventually propped back up), dancing alone under red lights, and standing back-to-back under a bright spotlight. Gentle “puff-puff” breathing noises, coupled with the scampering of feet from one place on the wooden floor to another, were the only audible human sounds. This is a timeless dance.
Because the original Kris Studios photographs never show any touching or fondling, anything explicitly sexual was implied through fantasy. This is a vastly different portrayal of gay male masculinity than one sees only a few decades later in films such as LA Plays Itself (1972). The movie shows a similar admiration of the male form, but the bodies are slim and lanky and sex happens everywhere. Soto and Hutto’s performance reengages with photographs from the 1950s, a time when one was instructed to look, not touch.
Kris Studios also produced Kris Magazine, and the centerfold images that Soto and Hutto re-create through the performance are a hyper-masculine version of vintage Playboy centerfolds of women. But, unlike Playboy, Kris was said to be for “artists and ‘admirers’ of the male physique,” according to Soto. In addition to using the photographic source material, Hutto and Soto watched VHS tapes made by Kris Films.
“We watched a lot of the films to understand the sense of never touching, never consummating the relationship that began at the beginning of the narrative,” Soto told Hyperallergic.
“We both have an appreciation for these images, or a sense of nostalgia around them, or some kind of nice association with them, but distance,” says Hutto. “We are drawn to these images — they feel homey, but different aesthetically. And as dance makers we are not in that world of photography.”
That distance is marked not only by time, but by (dis)identifications as well.
“For me, I am a trans person and always negotiating the desire for and lust after attraction for — and the desire to be, to embody those bodies,” says Soto. “So there is a constant getting close and getting back and going close. I think when we desire something or someone — I mean, real people in real life — where your desire is reflected back at you, or given what you want, or the attraction is mutual, that in and of itself is a dance.”
For Hutto, the relationship to the work is less about embodiment and more about examining desire and queer histories.
“I am enamored with it, but that is not me — that’s not what I am about,” says Hutto. “So I desire this thing, I am fascinated with it, but I am not that thing.”
In the performance, Hutto and Soto literally do a dance. They negotiate the spaces around each others’ bodies, careful not to intrude or trespass and definitely not attempting to commune or connect. In separate but contingent realms, they carve out space to consider their own bodies. When the dance ends, the two exit together but apart.
“It wasn’t about any kind of communion between the two of us,” says Hutto. “It was a personal meditation that we were each going through.”
Jillian Soto and Joseph Hutto’s “3X5” premiered on January 17 at the Extinct Entities festival at Links Hall (3111 N Western Avenue, Chicago).