Critics’ Picks

Jess T. Dugan, Self-portrait (blue room), 2021, inkjet print, 40 x 30".

Jess T. Dugan, Self-portrait (blue room), 2021, inkjet print, 40 x 30".

St. Louis

Jess T. Dugan

Saint Louis Art Museum
One Fine Arts Drive Forest Park
September 17, 2021–February 20, 2022

There is no place here that does not see you. Of the twenty photographs that comprise Jess T. Dugan’s quietly remarkable solo exhibition, only four are unpeopled. The remaining images circle the gallery at eye level, populating the space with portraits seeking a palpable connection. In Collin (red room), 2020, a young man stands in a crimson interior, his hands loosely holding a towel knotted just below his pelvic line. Looking at the viewer, he wears an expression that is both imploring and casual; his bare torso is both luminous and familiar. Nearby, Self-portrait (blue room), 2021, shows the artist in a dark sweatshirt and jeans. Eyes closed, their face is turned upward, yet their pose—arms behind them, chest pushed forward—is confidently open. The two works parallel one another and invite the viewer to find similar likenesses within themselves.

This tension between interiority and exteriority extends throughout the show. Dugan, who has been using portraiture as a means for indexing their own queer and nonbinary identity since their teens, understands the power of representation as well as its burdens. As a continuation of a series they’ve been producing since 2011, the work in this exhibition—nearly all of which was made during quarantine—frequently shifts away from more physically legible markers of gender and sexuality to those located in gaze and gesture.

Dugan’s subjects, who are predominantly from Saint Louis and are the artist’s friends, were captured in parks around the city. The move into nature was a practical choice, imposed by the pandemic, that eventually became pivotal. In these pictures, couples recline and entwine their bodies in beds of clover and violets, the light of dusk or dawn rendering their gentle engagement warm, golden. The romantic ephemerality suggested in these sensually plainspoken images situates them in a grand painterly and poetic tradition; Dugan compels us to seize the day against the dying of the light, to change one’s life and live authentically before it all ends. The artist’s frank and fluid approach to representing queer affection makes space for a more complex and beautiful human experience, at odds with the erasures and reductions of our banal binaristic culture.