Intimacy is a lush blanket woven from many threads: experience, genetics, impulse, desire, consent, luck. Love may be a universal theme, but it’s exceedingly difficult to precisely define. There are no easy conclusions where love is concerned, and we have trouble recognizing its presence in others — especially when it comes to valuing queer relationships.
An unexpected gem of a show, Intimacy at Chelsea’s Yossi Milo Galley is a gift from curator Stephen Truax. The exhibition unites a diverse assembly of artists tracing the outline of affection from the 1980s to present day. Representing a multiplicity of artistic mediums and styles, Traux approaches his topic from virtually every angle while resisting the curatorial pitfall of meticulously categorizing (and thus anesthetizing) eroticism in art — a strategy that rarely works.
Truax undoes the heterosexual conceit of intimacy by beginning his exhibition with a melange of queer works that gently depict the male nude body. The most effective entrance into this cluster of alluring images is Bryson Rand’s coy “Peter at My Kitchen Table (Brooklyn)” (2018), a black-and-white photograph of artist Peter Clough half-naked. Clough’s presence is simultaneously debonaire and derelict, visualizing the squalor-meets-cute aesthetic of many Brooklyn-based artists today. TM Davy emphasizes Rand’s romanticism with two portraits of an unclothed paramour named Liam, who is tenderly awash in blushed hues of red and pink.
Intimacy juxtaposes younger artists like Rand and Davy with more august queers, including Nicole Eisenman and Patrick Angus, both known for their frank depictions of homoeroticism. Honestly, the works on display by the latter two artists are only so-so, but their inclusion is more about presence than performance. As elderstatespeople of the queer historical canon, their work signposts the shrouded misery of the AIDS crisis. After all, Eisenman was a witness to it and Angus was a victim. Younger queer artists such as Rand and Davy must inevitably contend with that legacy in their own work.
Nearby, a quartet of images is overpowered by a 1975 self-portrait by photographer Peter Hujar, who seductively sinks into his mattress while making bedroom eyes at the camera. Unfortunately, the more subtle surrounding works by Patrick Angus, George Dureau, and Wolfgang Tillmans suffer by comparison. Trapped in the range of Hujar’s smoldering gaze, the surrounding three works are too easily forgotten — although I immediately wanted to love Truax’s mishmash of artistic epochs and angles, his curatorial experimentation has drawbacks, made apparent when Hujar can hog the limelight from Tillmans.
This technique has more success in the gallery’s back room where Truax weighs another Hujar (a 1978 portrait of Manny Vasquez) against works by David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Stephen Irwin. There are some newcomers here — including Rand and photographer Elle Pérez — but they seem to hold their own, with provocative works that counterbalance the older generation’s sexually charged output. (Rand, for example, exhibits a pornographic photo of intertwined phalluses and feet.)
Arguably, though, the exhibition’s best works are not situated in these constellations of queer artists. Truax has sequestered his stars to their own little orbits on the remaining gallery walls. My eye naturally wandered to a perennial favorite of mine, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a photographer who has the ability to layer seduction with socio-historical critique. Sepuya understands that intimacy is manufactured through cultural and visual contexts. By centering his camera inside a spatially manipulated collage of bodies, he only teases the presence of flesh, of touch. That skill is clearly exhibited in “Mirror Study (_Q5A2097)” (2016), while another work on display is a much more traditional portrait, literally called “A Portrait (_DSC8333)” (2016). Here, Sepuya is unafraid to deploy photographical charisma, swaddling his half-naked subject in a black curtain with his own two hands.
But there are other hidden treasures that demand recognition. Katherine Bradford’s “Face to Face” (2018) humorously fuses color field theory with the censoring of two male nudes. Elliot Jerome Brown Jr. captivates with his arresting “Devin in Red Socks” (2016), another censorious photo where the subject’s body is blocked by something — here, a towel. Hugh Steers’ “Two Men and a Woman” (1992) evokes tears with its poignant AIDS-era image of an ill man receiving a sponge bath from his friend and lover. Nan Goldin even makes an appearance with two photographs. Her best is “Joey and Andres in bed, Berlin” (1992), which capture two lovers in a pre-coital twist.
I was preoccupied, though, with Davy’s “Candela (Paul)” (2013). Hung by its lonesome in a corner of the gallery, this small and simple painting almost felt like an afterthought. We are all moths drawn to the flames of desire; Davy depicts a man standing behind a burning candle, transfixed by its light. And maybe that’s all intimacy needs — spark.