Art

Trying on Gender with Self-Portraits and Props

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Jürgen Klauke, “Transformer” (1973) Color Lambda print print, 70.5 x 41.25 in, frame: 70.75 x 41.5 in, edition of 3 plus 2 AP (#3) (all images courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York)

Jürgen Klauke’s prop-filled, leather-punctuated photographs can stop you in your tracks. Dressed in red leather pants with fabric penises attached to his chest, or a black mesh unitard with a ram’s skull and horns as accessories, Klauke toes the line of being present as artist and absent as fictive character. His photographs are not wholly self-portraits; his own body is as much a malleable prop as his costumes, but to say Klauke’s own selfhood is missing would minimize the personal exploration in his performance and play.

In Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s, his recent exhibition at Koenig & Clinton, and his first solo show in New York, all but one of the nine pieces on view consisted of multiple photographs organized into grids or lines, each following a left-to-right or top-to-bottom sequence. Equally photographer and performance artist, Klauke is interested in the longer narratives and broader themes made possible by a series of images. Objects and striking articles of clothing — a diaper-like cloth vagina, for example — repeat and reappear, sometimes hard to recognize as they are reappropriated. His titles, like “Veiling,” “Masculin/Feminin” (Masculine/Feminine), “Transformer,” and “Illusion,” add another layer of narrative, illuminating a sense of self-questioning in Klauke’s creative process that is perhaps less obvious in the final product.

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Jürgen Klauke, “Verschleierung (Veiling)” (1973), black and white Lambda prints, 12 part sequence, prints: 23.75 x 18.5 in each, frames: 24 x 18.75 in, each Edition of 3 plus 2 AP (#3) (photo by Jeffrey Sturges, New York) (click to enlarge)

While Klauke’s experimentation with dress and gender representation is playful and colorful, the work is not lost to sensationalism. “Veiling” (1973), for example, is a 12-photograph grid that presents a pseudo-formalized study of Klauke draped in a large piece of black mesh fabric. As the frames progress, he experiments with movement, swinging his arms and spinning to obstruct or reveal his body. The piece is not so much a study of shape, as a statement on the plasticity of the cloth as it shifts across Klauke’s physical form. Rather than formal compositions, the photos create gendered atmospheres. In one image, the veil falls in gentle folds over Klauke’s raised arms, which he bends at the elbows like a pin-up girl, but in another creates a stark box of fabric around his tense hands stretched forward in salute. In one frame, he is caught mid-action, one arm swung above his head as he turns toward the camera, his face frozen in the beginning of a smile.

This instant, where Klauke is caught between poses and his presence as an artist becomes apparent, is mirrored in the triptych “Transformer” (1973), in which Klauke sits in a red velvet armchair, in red leather platform boots, pants, and jacket with a thick red fur trim. His chest is bare, save for a belt of peach-colored cloth with two gray stuffed fabric penises strapped across his chest. While the photographs on either end show Klauke in commanding and seductive poses, the middle image catches him while he hikes up the penis apparatus across his chest, mouth slightly open and face blank. The artist is here, and the camera is as much a mirror in which Klauke can play and observe as it is a recording device.

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‘Jürgen Klauke: Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s,’ installation view at Koenig & Clinton, New York (photo by Jeffrey Sturges)

Other works appear to be more vulnerable explorations of identity. In the triptych “Illusion” (1972), Klauke wraps his body around the side of a standing mirror, creating with its shadows and crevices the semblance of a vagina. While in the first image his torso is upright, and the large rubber nipples strapped to his chest are visible, in the following frames he bends forward, as if he needs to visually confirm the possibility of an alternate physicality.

The breadth of Klauke’s photographs, and the casual indecisive moments they capture, reveal an elastic sense of identity. Not solely self-reflexive, there are rock and cult influences in his work and demeanor that suggest the punk offspring of Claude Cahun and Matthew Barney. (In the 1970s he was part of a catalogue that included texts on and by Brian Eno, Mick Jagger, the New York Dolls, and David Bowie.)

Seeing these series separated from their cultural references allows for a more nuanced narrative, where a half-smile, a wardrobe adjustment, or a break in character holds a new weight. These startling breaks classify Klauke’s work not only as a form of social critique or dramatic subversion of norms, but also as a queer artist’s search for different versions — and moments — of fulfillment.

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Jürgen Klauke, “Illusion” (1972), black and white Lambda prints, triptych prints: 23.75 x 18 in each, frames: 24.25 x 18.5 in. each edition of 3 plus 2 AP (AP 1)

Jürgen Klauke, Transformer: Photoworks from the 1970s was on view at Koenig & Clinton (459 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) January 21–February 27. 

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