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First, he divides the room in half. Well, the truth is I can’t tell if it’s that neat a split. He asks those who trust him to stand on his left, closer to the gallery’s entrance, and those who don’t trust him to stand on his right, further inside the gallery, next to the front desk. I decide to trust him, because we met at a dinner once and had a brief but meaningful conversation; when I ran into him again at an open studios event, he struck me as unpretentious, genuine, and emotionally open. But then he looks around, surveys the split, and undoes the partitioning, telling everyone to follow him to the back room — he was just toying with us. Along with everyone else, I follow Clifford Owens to the other room in the cavernous Fergus McCaffrey gallery for what’s later described to me as a “private event” — not technically part of the exhibition Remains, but nevertheless an introduction to it. The six-week showcase of performance art curated by Tif Robinette officially starts a week later. I will attend the opening, but the work I’ll see there isn’t as compelling as what I experience with Owens.
In the back room, we’re told there will be no photography of the performance, and to put on black sleep masks we were handed upon entrance. I dutifully do. (I can only assume we all did, because I didn’t peek.) I hesitate for a moment, but the thing is that I do trust Owens. From our previous conversations, I don’t sense any guile in him — mischief, yes, but not dishonesty. Still, before I drop into darkness, I notice about 10 jars of Vaseline stacked in a neat pyramid against the wall. This doesn’t look good. I choose not to sit, like many of the others, on the periphery of a large rectangle of paper in the center of the room. Instead, I stand against the wall with my arms folded across my chest, breathe slowly, and listen like a thief.
I hear gurgling and spitting sounds and then what sounds like retching. I hear jars being opened, and the spitting slows down. Owens, whose voice is the only one I hear during the performance, yells, “keep going.” He has the easy command of someone who’s used to being in charge. I hear cans being thrown against a wall, banging like they’re hollow and empty. I smell coffee; it’s strong and soothing. At least I recognize this. I’m still against the wall, anxious but waiting. I still see only black. I feel a hand brush my arm in passing — a soft, caressing gesture. I am not alone. Owens says something to indicate that we can take off the masks. In front of me is a large, white paper that’s been covered in abstract, haphazard patterns of coffee grounds, held to the sheet underneath by what might be human saliva mixed with Vaseline.
We’re asked to go upstairs. Owens stays in control. Again, we stand on the periphery of a space defined by a huge swath of paper. People on the High Line, which is visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows, are gawking at us. Owen points this out gleefully. He is naked and in his element. His knees slope backward in the way that I remember my mother’s knees doing when I was a child. It’s a stance that is relaxed and patient. He has two white men assisting him, also naked and likely in their 20s or 30s. There’s another collection of Vaseline jars, stacked against the walls again in a neat minimalist pyramid. Owens begins opening them, scooping out huge chunks of jelly, and slapping them onto the paper in a process that makes sense to him. He continues to do so until he’s satisfied. Then he asks both assistants to pick up his legs, and, as he rests on his elbows, the helpers manipulate him like a wheelbarrow along the paper strewn with petroleum jelly. He spreads it out with his hands. He yells, “left, right, keep going, stop.” He slowly smears a pattern, until out comes the Café Bustelo. Owens and the other men open several cans and empty them onto the Vaseline–coated paper. Owens picks up one end and has his assistants grasp the other corners, in order to shift the grounds around until they settle where they need to be.
Owens has made artworks like this before — that is, with Vaseline and coffee grounds leaving traces of his body’s passage through time, space, and materials. When I return for the opening reception of Remains, I see one of the paintings hanging on the wall in the stairwell. I admit, I find myself disappointed. It seems so inert and uninteresting in contrast to the process of its creation. There’s something profound about a naked, male black body being moved to and fro by two white men while still maintaining control. It tosses my understanding of power dynamics in the air to clang against the ceiling of aesthetic experimentation. To be naked is not necessarily to be vulnerable, and to be looked at is not necessarily to be exoticized. Owens has found a small seam of deviant love where his body becomes an instrument that propels others not to fear the black body, but to regard it as something that will reward their trust (though it might do all kinds of things to you while you’re enveloped in darkness). Owens briefly makes it okay to touch a black, male body in public — under the key proviso that such a body gives you permission to touch it — and to guide and be guided by it.
Remains continues at Fergus McCaffrey (514 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 11.