Who can tell a love story?

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Who can tell a love story?

“Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy” deserves another name: love stories. The romance-focused group show at the International Center of Photography (ICP) features work by Nobuyoshi Araki, Nan Goldin, Hervé Guibert, Sally Mann and 12 other photographers. It calls itself a “mixtape”, to quote the exhibition text. But really, Love Songs is more of a literary read. Most of the photographic series are narrative. Some use large blocks of text as part of the artwork itself. The photographs depict separation, illness, separation and death, with each series having a clear beginning, middle and end, or a subtle sense of the unsolvable. Meanwhile, works by queer artists hang in the background, a loose accompaniment to relentless tales of honest relationships.

René Groebli, The Eye of Love, 1952. Courtesy: © René Groebli and Galerie Esther Woerdehoff

The wall texts rarely tell us how the pieces in Love Songs were made, about technical achievements or innovations. They ignore the difficult history of confessional and erotic photography, the reluctance of the art world to take these genres seriously. The biographical details and emotional poignancy become tough. Curating encourages us to look at what happened and how it might have made an artist feel, but compositional feats are still required. Another Love Story (2021) by Carla Giraldo Volle tells the painful discovery that her boyfriend has been leading a double life with another partner. She interweaves stage snapshots, laid out like evidence boards on the wall, with pages of scenes written in script format. René Groebli’s L’oeil de l’amour (1952), a series of silver gelatin prints, inscribes the photographer’s honeymoon with warmth and a surprising, subtle sexuality. Working on a similar scale, using the same ubiquitous chemicals, Araki’s phenomenal Sentimental Journey (1971) is another honeymoon chronicle. The artist’s Winter Journey (1989–90), on the opposite wall, provides a crushing epilogue, documenting his wife’s death from cancer. Quirky photographers like Clifford Prince King, Lin Jipeng, and Collier Shore linger on the edges of these love stories, singing in soft tones about far less story-driven experiences of romance.

Sherry Hovsepian, Euclidean Space, 2022
Sherry Hovsepian, Euclidean space2022 Courtesy: © Sheree Hovsepian and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Queer artists are hardly free of grief, illness, cheating or marriage. Heterosexual, of course, is not necessarily normative. Araki’s most famous photographs depict women subjugated in Kinbaku-bi, or rope bondage, but the curators chose work for this exhibition that examines vanilla, married life, the obvious value judgment of what constitutes intimacy. Meanwhile, queer art serves as a trick-mirror alternative to the crystal-clear reflections of marriage and dating. Some might say this weird work is more avant-garde – but that’s not exactly the case. Nan Goldin’s iconic slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Addiction (1973–86) and Clifford Prince King’s larger paintings and portraits, made in 2018 and 2019, are no less figurative than the most conservative inclusions in the show. The difference is that they depict open communities and that they feel anonymous to the viewer, the subjects escaping the show’s lazy contextualization. Writer, theorist and photographer Hervé Guibert’s images of his partner, Thierry Junot, are superbly composed, but the curatorial frame makes them seem tender, like tokenized erect penises in a building full of half-naked women presented in the male gaze.

Leigh Ledare, diptych from the series
Leigh Ledare, diptych from the ‘Double Bind’ series, 2010. Courtesy: © Leigh Ledare

Still, Love Songs respects queerness as an alternative, not something to be assimilated. The art of Goldin, Guibert, and Prince King does not want to be understood as part of a straightforward narrative or “big life event.” None of the artists are going on a honeymoon. Labels on the wall inform us that Prince King photographed gay black men in his apartment soon after moving to Los Angeles, and that Goldin’s photos are a diary of her “surrogate family” of friends. The contents of this diary are never revealed. These images are allowed to be fragmentary, closed—they are not frames in an endless biopic about monogamy. Amidst all the laid-back monologues about straight artists hooking up and bonding, queer artists shiver like teenagers, lonely and socially awkward, at a party they wish they didn’t have to attend. This binary provokes a question: Is queer art inherently guarded and mysterious, allergic to narrative, to telling a frank, representational story of infatuation and tenderness?

Clifford Prince King, Lovers in the Field, 2019.
Clifford Prince King, Lovers in the field2019. Courtesy: © Clifford Prince King and STARS, Los Angeles

There have certainly been compelling reasons for queer artists to conceal their lust, love, and relationships in the past, namely the criminalization of homosexuality and so-called “cross-dressing.” Symbolism often serves as a shroud. Artist Marsden Hartley, in his classic canvas Painting, number 5 (1914–15), used flags and medals to secretly explore her attraction to a German officer during the First World War. Times have changed and stealth has transformed. Discretion remains a must for many, but stealth also develops a more reflective aesthetic history. London-based artists Gilbert and George have been a thing since the two fell in love as art students in 1967. They hardly have any closures in life. Appearing together in photo-based collages, installations and performances, their blank, malleable personas advocate for their relationship. Viewers can project what they wish onto their white visions, usually ideas of Britishness, bad taste and the status quo.

Among today’s younger artists, Jennifer Packer paints friends and potential lovers while also referencing a range of past masters, in part as a means of disguising her subjects and her relationships with them. She often paints flowers – is this a symbol of female sexuality? Mourning gestures for dead black people, as she says in interviews? Acknowledgments of ancestry by oppressed women artists? Her ambiguous concoctions reject attempts to read her art easily. Formalism becomes the shield she holds over her biography: Hiding in plain sight is how a work determines its final form, and so secrecy begets form.

Collier Schorr, Angel Zinovieff (felt, fingers, socks), 2021
Collier Shore, Angel Zinoviev (felt, fingers, socks)2021. Courtesy: © Collier Schorr and 303 Gallery, New York

South African-born photographer Gary Schneider often photographs his partner, dancer and actor John Erdman. For Schneider, too, the slim form is inseparable from his method: he often uses long exposures to capture his subject, meaning the portraits change as his significant other squirms under the lens. Sometimes she draws her lover with a flashlight. The involuntary dance of the photographic process, the reality of a living, breathing person who cannot help but move ever so slightly, distorts the result. Intimacy, camouflage and form swirl around, adjusting to one another just as a flashlight traces the contours of a body.

Schneider’s practice is not included in Love Songs. The exhibition ignores the marriage of form and content and the ways in which queerness obliges artists to rethink this union. (The show seems to believe that the word song will cover everything it didn’t intend.) ICP only gets technical once: Sally Mann, in her brilliant “Proud Flesh” (2003–09), photographs her husband as he is wasted by muscle late-onset dystrophy. Text on the wall reveals her use of an antique camera that required a 19th-century collodion wet plate process that smudges and obliterates its figure.

Sally Mann, Hephaestus, 2008
Sally Mann, Hephaestus2008. Courtesy: © Sally Mann and Gagosian

Form darkens, but it can also illuminate. In A Sentimental Journey, Araki seems to be telling the same story as Gröbli in L’oeil de l’amour. Yet their choices are different, their courage individual. Gröbli’s sultry shadow play and Araki’s frank use of daylight are different decisions about how to render the sensual that pushed the boundaries in their eras, however much this boldness was made possible by their status as men in heterosexual marriages. Similarly, the brazen photographs of classic lesbian photographers such as Laura Aguilar, Joan E. Biren, and Catherine Opie, and more recently the salacious, sex-positive videos and photocopies of Brontese Purnell, suggest just how wide the spectrum of possibilities for straight art can be. These very different gay artists think narratively. Their impact is harsh. However, none of them are featured in Love Songs, their desire and affection not sung in a group exhibition that claims to speak for lovers around the world.

Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy is on view at the International Center of Photography, New York, through September 11

Main Image: Clifford Prince King, Conditions2018. Courtesy: © Clifford Prince King and STARS, Los Angeles

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