Tommy Kha, “Return to Sender, Brittany Brown” (2010) C-prints, edition of 5; 4×6 inches (all images courtesy LMAK Gallery, NY)

I recently saw a tweet that conveyed that straight men who had difficulty grokking consent within sexual encounters typically get a clearer conception of the idea when they are in a gay bar. The photography of Tommy Kha at LMAK Gallery has a similar concision and comedy in his rumination of the ways and means of consent. Within myriad four-by-six-inch photographs displayed in rows around the gallery, the composition is mostly the same: Kha (who identifies as Asian and gay) being kissed by someone else while he maintains an expressionless composure. There is no physical reciprocation by him; his body dialect reads as passive, almost vacant, like a pleasure bot being taken for a test run by potential clients.

Tommy Kha, “Return to Sender, Ben Siler” (2010) C-prints, edition of 5; 4×6 inches

Tommy Kha, “Return to Sender, Mike” (2010) C-prints, edition of 5; 4×6 inches

Kha’s hands are folded together in front of him or hanging listless at his sides as women or men grab the front of his shirt or take his face in their hands, or pick up his leg and lean him over, or completely straddle him. In two images, men cradle him aloft like a newlywed being carried over a threshold. The scenes at first seem hilarious and then curious and then poignant as I notice the tenderness of some gestures, the diffidence in others, and the smothering desire in still others.

Tommy Kha, “Return to Sender, Yang ” (2010) C-prints, edition of 5; 4×6 inches

The exhibition makes me think deeply about what it means to recognize another’s autonomy, their self-governance. As sexual beings we play across the demarcations between the “I” and the “you”: giving, withholding, teasing, overwhelming, enveloping, rejecting, and yielding. Certainly language (verbal and signed) mediates consent. But the body has its own coded signaling too, and it’s the other crucial component of consent. Outside of the romantic encounter I typically can read intention, purpose, and desire in others. Kha’s work here makes me see that only self-serving rationalizations or a refusal to recognize their humanity prevent me from understanding these things in a kiss.

Tommy Kha, “Return to Sender, Kelley ” (2010) C-prints, edition of 5; 4×6 inches

Return to Sender continues at LMAK gallery (298 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 20. 

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...