PRINT January 2001

Vince Aletti

I MISSED THE PERFORMANCE THAT ENDED WITH Hiroshi Sunairi pissing into a prop toilet at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in January 1999. I skipped the songs and outbursts at the February 2000 opening of his P.S. 1 studio space. I never listened to any of his cassette tapes. I did see his spread in the April 1999 issue of Playguy, in which the naked “young artist” (he claimed to be nineteen when he was in fact twenty-seven) photographed himself in the shower with a plump hard-on, though that’s probably beside the point, too.

But not entirely, because Sunairi’s photographs—or, more accurately, his photo collages and constructions—are the point. Like the Playguy pictures, which were sliced up and recycled into his artwork, the subject of virtually all of Sunairi’s photos is a version of himself: not the Japanese-born artist who’s been living in the United States (currently in New York) since he came here to study at the age of eighteen, but a pretty, pouting fantasy of teenage horniness. His pictures aren’t about self-portraiture any more than Claude Cahun’s or Cindy Sherman’s are; they’re performances no less theatrical for being conducted in private. Captured in a moment of swoony (if pointedly self-conscious) erotic display, Sunairi is both available and aloof. He offers his delicate, almost feminine boyishness along with a handful of pink cock, a puckered asshole, a spurt of cum.

This humid mix of innocence and perversity is whipped into an ejaculatory froth for Sunairi’s neopsychedelic collages and installations. Tightly wound and explosive, these pieces are rarely confined to a conventional frame or a recognizable shape (although an installation in Frankfurt last fall featured a series of coiled and sinuous snakelike forms). Instead, they proliferate across entire walls like a hungry, self-replicating organism. Though some pieces appear shredded, with dangling bits and ragged edges, their construction belies their looseness: The work’s delirious eccentricity is grounded in meticulously layered cut-and-paste, every piece of which began as a photograph. So Sunairi is both subject and subtext: His face emerges from ribboning swatches of his flesh or bubbles sampling the pattern of his T-shirt. The texture, drape, color, and print of his clothes—all fetishized, almost fragrant with body heat—provide most of the collages’ purely abstract elements and recall Wolfgang Tillmans’s photos of shucked-off jeans and rumpled jerseys. But Sunairi never allows individual images to become too significant, too weighty. He uses photos over and over in a shifting kaleidoscope of brightly colored shards that looks as if Jess had taken his scissors to vintage Jimmy de Sana or Dubuffet had had his way with Jack Smith.

Sunairi’s artist’s statements read like William Burroughs’s cut-up texts, but, like the collages, their attempt to turn narcissism into myth is perversely charming. Though he’s already designated most of his recent work “early Hiroshi,” Sunairi teases the idea of the serious artist by dropping his pants and keeping things sexy, funny, gorgeous—and, incidentally, smart.

An inveterate image junkie, Village Voice art editor and longtime photography critic VINCE ALETTI issues frequent dispatches on new photography, from advertising to editorial to art. Aletti’s encyclopedic range recently yielded a pair of shows—“Male,” 1998, and “Female,” 1999. A follow-up to Aperture’s issue-length look at the sexes and their vicissitudes, “Male/Female” (coedited by Aletti), the salon-style compendia of some 200 images packed the walls of New York’s Wessel + O’Connor Gallery.