Nigel Nolan, "Seb's hair" (courtesy the artist)

Nigel Nolan, “Seb’s hair” (courtesy the artist)

“Is this relationship built on trust?” Nigel Nolan asks in a caption directed at FeD, one of his “Argentine boys for sale.” The relationship in question is structured on commodity exchange: FeD’s image in exchange for a cut of the sales from it. Argentine Boys for Sale, a 500-page ebook with accompanying soundtrack by Xiu Xiu, documents a three-year-long project in which Nolan shared a home with five young men in Buenos Aires. Nolan painted and photographed these “boys,” posted their portraits to his blog, and invited visitors to sponsor them by buying their images, with the promise that ten percent of each sale would go to the subject, who would later tell the buyer how he spent the money. The book collects these and other images, tying them together with short captions and explanatory notes as well as email correspondences and lists of what the models bought.

Screenshot from Nigel Nolan's "Argentine Boys for Sale" (click to enlarge)

Screenshot from Nigel Nolan’s “Argentine Boys for Sale” (click to enlarge)

The relationship, then, is built on trade more than trust, with Nolan playing artist as pimp. The potentially exploitative qualities of the project are amplified by its porn-y visuals. His portraits could be said to work in a parapornographic mode, adopting an aesthetics of excess that’s pornographic in its too-much-ness. Nolan photographs his beautiful boys against sumptuously violent wall paintings he’s done that depict larger-than-life male figures assaulting one another, bodies pummeling other bodies ecstatically. Posed before this frothy excess, Nolan’s subjects seem small, strange, weirdly 3D.

It’s as though their hyperreal bodies have emerged from the art on the wall. A portrait of Joel from three years ago is captioned “when Joel was just a painting.” Now he’s real, or a photograph, an image for sale. This blurring of the line (or so-called) between art and reality seems precisely the point: art exceeding reality. Yet, even as Nolan’s paintings threaten to absorb or overwhelm the reality of the “boys,” the broader project strongly rejects the separation of image from context. Under a different portrait of Joel, Nolan writes, “JOEL, remember 5 years ago, when i sold that painting? those 5 extractions and five replacements?” Nolan repeatedly calls attention to the lived experiences of his subjects, particularly poverty and drug addiction; he also draws connections between his own transactions and those occurring outside his home in Constitución, Buenos Aires. Out-the-window snapshots are scattered throughout the book, captioned “PAPER TRADE,” “TAXI BOY TRADE,” “FRIDGE TRADE,” “FRESH PACO TRADE,” and so on.

Screenshot from Nigel Nolan's "Argentine Boys for Sale"

Screenshot from Nigel Nolan’s “Argentine Boys for Sale”

The lines between art and life get murkier still when an American art collector (identified as “Katherine”) negotiates with Nolan for an exchange with Seb, whom she has met IRL while visiting Buenos Aires. Over a series of emails, the negotiations become increasingly tense; at one point Nolan offers to hand Seb over to her: “if you really love SEB,” he writes, “and are willing to work hard to change his life, I will pass him to you…it will become your job, not mine. This will allow me to work with another argentine boy…it is the only way I can give you a night with SEB for free.” After more back-and-forth, Katherine backs out of the project, saying she doesn’t view relationships as transactional: “what happens romantically between two people is not a contract.”

There is a hostility towards Katherine in these exchanges that reveals Nolan’s attitude regarding his buyers, whom he depicts as a group of hulking grey figures in suits, coldly watching the boys before them tear each other from limb to limb. Although where and how he picked up his boys is unclear, Nolan’s allegiance is clearly to them. Fairly early in the project, Daniel passes away, presumably due to substance abuse. In response to this loss, Nolan paints over the blood-red walls, shifting the dominant color of the living space to a grieving blue.

Nigel Nolan, "JOEL: tux" (image courtesy the artist)

Nigel Nolan, “JOEL: tux” (image courtesy the artist)

The accompanying original score by Xiu Xiu is a 20-minute spasm of doom that grounds the project in its anxieties. Or maybe that’s my own anxiety reflected back at me. Are these relationships — between artist, model, patron, viewer — built on trust? In the age of online crowdfunding for art, the transactional arena has shifted significantly. Whereas artists like Amanda Palmer emphasize trust and “fair” exchange, Nolan’s project emphasizes neither, but rather the exchange itself, in all its complexities and unfairnesses.

Argentine Boys for Sale is for sale on the artist’s website.

Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories, forthcoming from Emergency Press, and most recently the chapbook Twins (Birds of Lace, 2012).