Monday, December 1st, 2003

Let’s Talk about Sex

Reagen Louie: Orientalia- Sex in Asia
Von Lintel Gallery
555 West 25th Street
New York NY 10001
212 242 0599
September 4 to October 4, 2003

Jurgen Teller: Daddy You’re So Cute
Lehmann Maupin
540 West 26th Street
New York NY 10001
September 13 to October 18, 2003

my people were fair and had cum in their hair
(but now they’re content to spray stars from your boughs)
curated by Bob Nickas
527 West 26 Street
New York NY 10001
212 279 9219
18 October through 15 November 2003

Juergen Teller Selbstportrait, Sauna, Bubenreuth, Germany 2002 digital print, 60 x 40 inches, Edition of 5 Courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York
Juergen Teller, Selbstportrait, Sauna, Bubenreuth, Germany 2002 digital print, 60 x 40 inches, Edition of 5 Courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

In two exhibitions encountered at random during recent visits to Chelsea galleries, sex is used as a vehicle for investigating issues of national and racial identity: Jurgen Teller’s beer, pork and penis studies of German-ness as reflected in a series of self-portraits is one, and Reagen Louie’s brothel and sex show encounters with Asian-ness the other. Additionally, a group show at Team Gallery offers a survey of utopian and mystical extensions of the sexual, dating back thirty-five years or so, with male artists looking at male subjects (and a few women) giving and receiving pleasure with a nostalgic abandon. Here, multiple Christ-like figures engage in anal sex, an attractive young man offers himself through an open car window, and another young man pleasures himself with a pumpkin, all in an effort to convey”sexual energy as key to kingdom and entering into a more fluid state between the mind and the body,” as Bob Nickas, the curator of the exhibition, is quoted in the press statement.

In short, what these three shows had in common was a male evocation of a social erotic, a situating of the masculine in relation to a collective identity or transcendent figure (Christ or Shiva, Eastern or Western sexual experience). Images of identity construction on the outer margins were few-no blood or whips or extreme piercings; nothing particularly squeamish or ‘kinky’. Theory was absent as well. No sightings of the fearful objet petit a), but lots of young flesh posed in the landscape of conventional male fantasy: bordellos, parking lots, hotel rooms, restaurants, and beaches. Irony was rampant, but so were various forms of earnestness. Sometimes the two were difficult to distinguish.

Reagan Louie Bath, Bangkok 2000 C-Print mounted on aluminum, 38 x 48 inches Von Lintel Gallery, New York
Reagan Louie, Bath, Bangkok 2000 C-Print mounted on aluminum, 38 x 48 inches Von Lintel Gallery, New York

This blurring of the earnest and the ironic was particularly evident in the work of Reagan Louie. The implication of his images of sex workers is that-surprise!– they are individuals just like you and me. They horse around together, chat over cigarettes or soda, and work. Although they are often photographed nude, the fact that they have sex for money is kept out of view, and the voyeuristic pleasure of exposed flesh is deflected by the lush composition of the images. The seemingly hygienic attractiveness of the women, the tonal warmth and elegant structure of the compositions, and not least the absence of sex make women seem all the more wholesome. Yet isn’t that the core of fantasy in scenarios involving commodified sex? The woman for hire is lovely and sweet, just like the girl next door, and conversely the girl next door is, with the right man or in the right circumstance, sexually voracious or ‘slutty.’ What is fascinating about these photographs is that, even whilefantasy operates within them, the images also appear to be motivated by a desire for kinship or sympathetic bond with the subject, a bond that would turn wanderings in the sex industry into an artistic or spiritual quest, a visual bildungsroman with pasties. A fifth generation Chinese-American, Louie previously explored questions of identity, journeying to China to take the documentary images collected in “Toward a Truer Life” (1991). For this project he undertook a six year odyssey through Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines. So, whereas one might expect images that raise difficult issues of sexual exploitation, racial exoticism, and decadence in the global marketplace, one finds unresolved attempts to find human contact in the most unlikely places.

At Lehman Maupin Gallery Jurgen Teller turns his lens from the celebrities and fashion models of his recent work onto himself. The confessional rigor of this work suggests the paradox that photography with sex as a focus is likely to achieve greater depth with the absence of the other. In place of objectified women, Teller conjures his dead father and a macho culture of German soccer and beer, each a bitterly unresolved attraction and repulsion. “Father and Son” depicts the artist nude on his father’s grave at midnight; a soccer ball serves as an allusion to his father’s dislike of the sport. Elsewhere, Teller lounges in a sauna, his face hidden behind a soccer magazine. With his rear presented to the camera, he exposes himself as ‘arsehole’ (his term) and as an object of desire. Beneath the self-loathing of these images, it is not hard to find a longing for a masculine ideal made problematic by a confluence of German and personal recrimination.

Almost six decades after the end of the Second World War, Germany and ‘the orient’ (a term Louie employs in the title of his show) still conjure sexual mythologies too troubling and complicated to confront directly or dismiss completely. Still, Teller’s pasty, drink-addled figure is the “real” element missing in Louie’s photographs; conversely, the giving and attractive women in Louie’s work are the fantasy missing in Teller’s images.

Walter Pfeiffer, credits to follow
Walter Pfeiffer, credits to follow

After seeing the Louie and Teller shows, one can be thrown by the poetic dreaminess of the organizing theme at Team: “My people were fair and had cum in their hair (but now they’re content to spray stars from your boughs).” Perhaps a new sexual revolution might run like an x-rated production of Midsummer Night’s Dream or a recitation of early Yeats by the cast of a gay porn film, but probably not. The reactions, or lack thereof, of visitors to the gallery indicated that the premise of the show (“Lately, a lot of work by younger artists has brought back ideas revolving around hedonism, liberation and revolution”) provokes the same sort of wary if bemused interest as a pair of outlandish sneakers at Jeffrey. This is because hedonism is already a given of contemporary consumer culture. Self-control is the new lost paradise-lose weight, organize, manage time, manage money, eliminate the menstrual cycle. This is not to suggest that all of the works at Team are glimpses of simple pleasure. Jules de Balincourt’s satirical image of corporate sexual processing (people burn their clothes upon leaving the plant) gave a refreshingly whimsical take on capitalism and sex, and Tim Lokiec’s cartoon grotesque of oral sex was intriguingly fierce and unresolved. Wolfgang Tillmans’s “Do Not Disturb”-an image of a man opening a door just enough to present his genitals- was amusing and disturbing all at once. It would be interesting to see what else lies behind the door-a geisha, a harem, a rucksack for a back to nature stroll, a pile of crumpled beer cans…We’ll see.