In early September, Clifford Owens’s new show was being installed at the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, where Owens had just finished a residency. He had been at the gallery since August 1, making works on paper featuring Vaseline and coffee grinds and working on a few short videos. “Residencies and studios are great,” said Owens, who doesn’t have a studio, as the videos’ sound levels were being tested. “It’s almost like punk rock, you know? You get ideas and you just execute. Boom! With great intensity.”
Owens knows a thing or two about intensity. In 2012, as part of a performance-art compendium Owens staged as MoMA PS1 titled “Anthology,” Kara Walker agreed to let him use a written score of hers that involved the performer French kissing an audience member and then demanding sex. Owens was meant to be the performer, but, after being concerned about how far he would take it, Walker rescinded the performance. Then, in another surprise move, Walker not only let the score happen but performed it with Owens.
The power of his new works is more subtle. This is partially due to the mystery of their abstract forms—they don’t give any easy answers—and partially due to something about their creation that he didn’t want to divulge. “In fact, some of them are a little naughty,” he said, “but I won’t tell you which.”
Owens’s materials are derived from his past performances. The Vaseline comes from Owens’s work for “Flux This!,” a series of Fluxus–inspired performances organized by William Pope.L and done at the Museum of Modern Art in 2011. Owens chose to redo a Tristan Tzara score that asks the performer to rub his or her head with Vaseline in front of a microphone and record the sound. The coffee grinds come from Owens’s version of Benjamin Patterson’s Seminar 1, in which the audience separates across a room based on their answers to various questions, their movements tracked by coffee spread on the floor.
The subject of these drawings, however, couldn’t be more different from what Patterson and Tzara were going for. One of them, Owens said, is about “how do you love a black man?” Another, he added, was about “sucking dick and swallowing or spitting, something like that.” Despite that, Owens said that he doesn’t think of the work as being particularly sexual.
However, he does see many connections between the drawings and his body. “They are all made with my body,” he said, “things from the mouth, my lips, the hands, the knees, the balls of my feet, my elbows, my forearm. So there are parts of the body that I use to apply the Vaseline to the paper. In that sense, they really are quite gestural. The body is present in its absence.”
Owens also considers there to be something photographic about this transference between his body, these abstract Vaseline-coffee forms, and the paper. “I applied Vaseline to the body, and then I applied the body to the paper, then I apply that coffee, move it around a bit, shake it off,” he said, noting that “the Vaseline is like the latent image, and the coffee is the alchemy that produces the image.”
Owens told me he gets “prickly” about the way people describe his photography in relation to his performances, and with good reason—most people don’t realize that what Owens is doing isn’t simply documentation. In 2008, he performed Photographs with an Audience, in which he guided audience members toward certain interactions, briefly paused the performance, and had pictures taken. The photographs are harshly lit and, in some strange way, very cinematic. Minus the audience members sitting in the front, you could easily mistake them for stills from an experimental film.
Owens’s Invisible-Exports show features just one photograph (more were planned), but it functions similarly to those 2008 pictures—it’s a photograph of a performance that’s also about performance. Taken in 2013, in the backyard of Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Owens appears lying on his back in a garden, with his penis tucked between his legs. What gender is Owens here? What is Owens’s personality? What does the gesture say? No audience is present, but it’s very clearly still a performance for the camera.
“I often say that we understand the history of performance art through the history of photography,” Owens said, “and how photography is, in some sense, a formalism of performance art. And this is before Cindy Sherman or [Ana] Mendieta and all these other people. How about Julia Margaret Cameron?” He also mentioned John Singer Sargent and Auguste Sander as early adopters of that mentality.
Why was there just this one photograph hung alongside 14 works on paper? “They’re disparate works, but I wanted the author to be present,” Owens said.
He pointed to a drawing, and then to his own image in the photograph across the room. “Tonalities there, and tonalities of my skin in the photograph,” he said as he motioned around the room. “The earth, natural…” He paused and seemed to drift off. But then he seemed to return mentally, and, referring to the coffee grinds, added, “I found out Café Bustelo is a lot of, like, chemicals and stuff—but still, coffee’s natural.”