Detours is an ongoing series in which a New York–based artist gives us a tour of a show of their choosing. In honor of his show of non-commercial photography at PARTICIPANT INC, Josef Astor visits Stux + Haller Gallery’s Kathleen Cullen–curated group show “Viewer Discretion…,” which focuses on erotic art that deals with hidden desires. “Displaced Persons” remains on view at PARTICIPANT INC through July 12. “Viewer Discretion…” remains on view at Stux + Haller Gallery through July 17.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Josef Astor and I were at Stux + Haller, standing in front of at a set of four Hans Bellmer photographs, each no larger than five inches wide. One featured a doll, twisted and hanging in a tree, something of a signature of Bellmer’s; another showed a woman facing away from the camera, her hand planted firmly inside herself. “The fact that they’re fetish-y makes them feel pervy. You’ve got to go up and inspect the thing,” Astor said. “These I don’t associate with Bellmer at all.”
I told Astor that the doll one looked a lot like his own 1995 photograph of the choreographer Mark Morris, which is part of a show of Astor’s non-commercial photography called “Displaced Persons,” on view now at PARTICIPANT INC. The black-and-white picture shows Morris, half-naked and slung over and barely recognizable as a human form. Was that a coincidence?
“You know, I’ve always had this in the back of my memory bank,” Astor said. “When I was doing these pictures, those influences were definitely there—I went to art school and stuff. But I would say that they were repressed in the back of my mind. Of course, there’s nothing like having them merge through your process when you’re least aware of it.”
The four photographs, are included in a show called “Viewer Discretion…” at Stux + Haller, which also includes Betty Tompkins’ so-called “Fuck” paintings, and collaborations between Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois depicting a variety of salacious images. As we walked through the show, Astor kept refering to what he called “the life,” a lifestyle of complete sexual freedom, and usually a few fetishes, too. Bellmer’s photographs are not quite authentic examples of this–they’re staged, and not representative of the real thing, Astor said. So, in order to really catch a glimpse of the life, we headed over to three black-and-white photographs by Pierre Molinier. In one, donning stockings and stilettos, the artist bends over a fancy chair. It looks like a still from what would have happened if Robert Mapplethorpe directed 50 Shades of Grey. In another, he poses with two sexually explicit paintings.
“He lived the life of fetishism and surreal role-play that the Surrealists dreamed about and painted,” Astor said of Molinier, who was known for his graphic, unstaged shots of bondage. He was also interested in androgyny. “He said that he was attempting to regain a primordial, platonic perfection of an androgynous creature,” Astor said. “I thought that was fascinating. [The photographs] obviously inspired me in a self-reflexive way–looking at yourself and your body image, that kind of thing.”
Astor then ran down some stats about his subjects in the “Displaced Persons” at Participant. “It’s not that we’re taking a score,” he said, “but I think there’s two, three transsexuals, then some body modificators and some cross-dressers. You know, I’m not making a tally, but I did see that as an ideal.” He said that a transexual named Page was “a big muse of mine. I photographed her many, many, many times. She was an artist in her own right, but she, just like Molinier, lived the life.”
Astor admired the way that Molinier’s subjects existed in real life just as they did in front of the camera. “That’s where the shock and impact comes in,” Astor said with excitement, noting that Molinier took pictures “when the camera didn’t lie.”
Astor is not, however, opposed to lying to the camera. The Morris photograph is shot against a staged backdrop; many of Astor’s other photos make use of rear projections and technically precise color processing. And no, Astor doesn’t live the life himself. (“Unless I have this other thing that I’m not aware of, where they have to send me to a shrink and have me hypnotized, and then I realize, OK, I am wearing fishnets. But you know, it’s not the case,” Astor said.) To give an example of staged photography that he admires, Astor showed me Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Gerald Hughes (a.k.a. Savage Fantasy), about 25 Years Old, Southern California, $50 (1990–92).
Known for his oversize prints, diCorcia’s photographs look like film stills. This one features an African-American man in underwear walking into a hotel room. We see his reflection in a mirror as a television plays. The blue and amber lighting is cinematic, but, as Astor pointed out to me, it’s easy to mistake it for an unstaged image.
“I like it because it seems like the meeting point between reportage and staged photography,” Astor said. “The use of these different color temperatures also—the blue TV light and the orange bathroom’s end-of-the-day lighting. I think that the kind of thing that he does is best realized with secrets, and I noticed that his color palette was the secret.”
DiCorcia’s color palettes are highly stylized and, as Astor told me, not unlike his own. “It wasn’t a conscious effort, but I wanted to make sure the color wasn’t appropriate or balanced. It was always a shift,” he said. “In fact, some of the pictures were also cross-processed to mess with the normal color even further.”
It seemed as if this were the end of the tour until Astor noticed Cary Liebowitz’s Top Secret (Calendar) (ca. 1989), a set of 12 calendars open to the September page, each with the artist posing in the buff, and sometimes with an erection. “It’s probably more consistent with the Molinier pictures, where he is that subject and he is that guy,” Astor said. “He was supposed to be the ultimate loser guy. There wasn’t supposed to be any fame at all.” Was there any connection to Astor’s work? “I don’t know that there’s any correlation at all, other than that I think he’s absolutely terrific and that I own one of his ‘Oprah for President’ mugs.” (These are exactly what they sound like.)
But then Astor began to reconsider what he had just said. Maybe there was more of a connection than he had initially thought. “It is striking, especially going back 30 years to photographs I’ve done, to see what I was influenced by that I wasn’t realizing at the time,” Astor said. “I’m not saying Cary Liebowitz was working inside me. Not at all. I guess that comes out of the fact that I have a lot influences, but, at the time, I would have to confess that most of them, I wasn’t aware of. The things that I feel are strongest or have the most longevity are the ones that run longest and are more subliminal.”