Stuart Sandford, “Sebastian” (2012–14), cast polished bronze from a digital source, 50 x 25 x 13 cm (courtesy the artist)

LONDON — In the Natural History, Pliny the Elder discusses the origins of sculpture by telling the story of Butades of Corinth, the first Greek modeler of clay. According to the story, Butades’s daughter, deeply in love with a young man about to leave, drew upon the wall the outline of his shadow. The father then used the outline to model a statue of the youth, creating a substitute of the loved one and inventing sculpture.

Classical Latin literature may not be the first topic to come to your mind when visiting Teen Dreams, Stuart Sandford’s homoerotic show at the Invisible Line Gallery. Sandford’s work has been exhibited widely and his images published in gay cult magazine BUTT (which in the pages featured photographs by a then young and unknown Wolfgang Tillmans), but this is his first solo show in the UK.

London has been experiencing a new batch of explicitly homosexual content. Last year’s show Keep Your Timber Limber at the Institute of Contemporary Art featured daring works on paper addressing the topic. Among those were some drawings by Tom of Finland, one of the most influential creators of gay erotic images. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Sandford is currently artist-in-residence at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Echo Park, LA.

Teen Dreams, produced in conjunction with Fringe! Film and Arts Festival, features a collection of recent works the artist developed during his residency there. Sandford often uses found images, from YouTube videos to selfies of young men available on the internet. In particular, he seems to have a soft spot for 1980s teen fan magazines. The C-type print series Noah (2014) and Teen Dreams (2009–14) — the former based on portraits of American actor Noah Hathaway — show decontextualized images of ’80s teen idols put in sequence to acknowledge hidden homoerotic inclinations.

Stuart Sandford, ‘Noah’ (2014), suite of twenty-four framed 6 x 4 in C-type prints (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The strategy of appropriation has been used extensively by gay artists for diverse reasons, often as a means of connecting with the established art system. These artists may seek social acceptance, they may want to conceal homoerotic contents — or they may use appropriation as a way of mining and subverting the heteronormative art world from within.

Initially it seems that Sandford keeps his work within the context of homosexual desire, mirroring the dynamics of a certain gay scene. But as “David (diptych)” (2014), a Polaroid diptych depicting the butt and genitals of a young man, makes clear, there’s more going on. The longer you look at the images, the more you realize that many of the features now often associated with homosexual desire — vanity, eternal youth, sculpted bodies — are also at the roots of the Western artistic tradition.

Stuart Sandford, “Teen Dreams (Chad)” and “Teen Dreams (Jay)” (2009–14) C-type print, 40 x 30 in (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

After all, when he tells his story, Pliny feels the need to emphasize that Butades’s daughter was deeply in love with her young man and trying to eternalize him in art. The Greek myth of Pygmalion — the sculptor who fell in love with one of his works — further illustrates the connection between art and desire. So, the celebration of male youth that’s featured in Sandford’s works gradually moves from the vague category of “gay art” to a wider context.

Looking at “Sebastian” (2012–TBA), I couldn’t stop thinking about the classical representation of masculine beauty. To realize this small sculpture, Sandford contacted Sebastian Sauvé, one of the world’s leading male models, to pose for him. The artist used advanced high-resolution 3D-scanning technology to map Sauvé’s body, immortalized while taking a selfie. The individual 3D scans were then combined into a digital model for 3D printing. The result, cast in bronze, mashes up the classical canon of beauty with the cult of selfies and representations of homosexual desire.

Stuart Sandford, “Sebastian” (2012–14), cast polished bronze from a digital source, 50 x 25 x 13 cm (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The artist told me he’s currently working on another sculpture using the same technique. The commission came from a New York gallerist who sent his young, handsome lover to Sandford’s studio in LA to get a 3D scan of his body, which will be translated into an intimate sculpture.

If Butades were alive today, he would probably do something similar.

Stuart Stanford: Teen Dreams continues at the Invisible Line Gallery (87 Dalston Lane, London) through November 16.

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Francesco Dama

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.