PRINT May 2006


Christian Holstad

IN HIS ESSAY “On the Shortness of Life,” the Roman stoic Seneca writes: “We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us. . . . But we can choose whose children we would like to be.” To any individual who does not identify with dominant culture, Seneca’s pronouncement is particularly instructive. Reinvented genealogies are part and parcel of the personal lives of different-drummer children, who often align themselves with others according to political perspective, cultural subgenre, or—to cite that lodestone taken up by artist Christian Holstad in “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” an exhibition that was on view last month in New York—sexuality.

Occupying the bleak innards of a former Middle Eastern deli called Prince’s (renamed Leather Beach by Holstad), the installation was designed to trace an alternative lineage—in particular, that of the generations of “leathermen” who once populated the city’s midtown area. (Before the homosexual hysteria of the AIDS-riddled ’80s and, during the decade following, the city’s famous—and infamous—creation of a marketable tourist area there, midtown was a gay bastion full of hustlers, drag queens, sex shops, and discos.) Holstad blacked out the deli’s windows, giving the building the appearance of a sex shop; he also stripped the deli’s interior and restocked it with totems of ’70s gay s/m culture, sporadically mixing in samplings from ’60s hippie bohemianism and, of course, the effluvia of a run-down corner store. Here we found the leather-daddy icons of the past: leather chaps, canvas-and-leather arm gloves, gas masks fashioned from briefs (made by 2(x)ist, Holstad’s nod to the gay brand-marker of the present) fitted with an aluminum can over the mouth. But most of the fetishized items on display were fabricated by the artist out of cloth, as if he were literally stitching together his leatherman lineage. Among the standard trappings of a New York deli—glue traps littered the floor and a stack of Oldenburgesque fabric carrots sat in an open refrigeration case—were strewn such hippie relics as gaudy yarned bunting, bottles of organic medicinals, and a backpack (albeit one made of a Louis Vuitton–like patterned fabric). In one of the most memorable pieces on display, Sissy Bar, 2005–2006, wheatgrass had been turned through a crank and dropped like manure to the floor.

To some viewers, it might well have seemed as though this bundling together of society’s peripheral zones—combined with the democratic prurience of the street—was haphazard, a kind of crass mix-and-match artistry. But others no doubt immediately recognized a thread connecting seemingly divergent cultures. For each object here evoked the pursuit of naturalism; a spiritual and sexual transcendence of straight, codified order; and overt sexual liberation as a refusal of constrictive societal conventions. Thus, Holstad’s installation concerned previous aspirations to an emancipated future—the natural man posited as the hairy gay bear, the itinerant love child, the toughie on the street corner. It is imperative to note that the artist was never a member of any of these fallen utopian subcultures: He chose these past movements as his own pedigree precisely the way Seneca dictates—by deliberate claim, not absolute birthright.

Holstad’s artistic career has often centered on the public spectacle and campy aestheticizing of sexual dissonance. Leather Beach and its contents recall a 2005 project in which the artist set up a glittery jukebox in a McDonald’s in downtown Manhattan, inviting patrons to choose from one hundred tracks by musicians ranging from Grace Jones to Yoko Ono—thereby infiltrating one of America’s iconic capitalist enterprises with his self-portrait in music. But it is in Holstad’s 2002–2003 series of collages that sex becomes a signature site of rupture and reclamation. After first arranging found photographs of young men engaging in oral or anal sex, the artist covers these images of male bodies with bright decorative patterns taken from decor publications. Thus the gross particulars of a pornographic activity are incorporated into wondrous, dazzling designs: On the one hand, Holstad aestheticizes the homosexual act, making its image one of rarefied and universal beauty; on the other hand, such a romantic covering-up is like polybagging a porn magazine, stimulating the imagination by frustrating it.

Similarly, in the installation at Leather Beach, rough-sex signifiers were reworked—somehow drawn close even as they were held at an aesthetic distance—by the artist’s own hand in canvas, yarn, and thread. Indeed, with each object, the artist seemed to reassess the legacy of these past movements not by looking at their power in the ’70s but by assessing their value today, considering in particular their historical evolution from loaded icons of subcultural dissonance to contemporary commodities. They are things that can be bought, but not necessarily believed in. For this reason, Holstad never evacuated the site’s commercial detritus—display counters, register, and his own addition of two buzzing fluorescent lights—from his visual vocabulary. Part theater, part clothing outlet, the installation featured works, hanging like so many wares on industrial chains, that would have seemed right at home in a West Village sex shop were it not for their neutralizing sea-foam blue color. These suspended articles were in turn not so much shocking in their sexual possibility as in how they floated like empty human forms—suggesting deviance minus the physical reality of a body.

Where have Holstad’s chosen ancestors gone? The artist seemed to have found one in Larry Townsend, author of The Leatherman’s Handbook, first published in 1972, the year of Holstad’s birth. In the opening chapter, which was distributed as a pamphlet at Leather Beach, Townsend provides an analysis of master-slave behavior first by working through its historical origins (“binding a captive on the battlefield and claiming him as one’s property—sexual or otherwise—was common enough in most early civilizations”) before, in typical ’70s rhetoric, writing: “If you are going to enjoy it, and your partner’s going to enjoy it, and no one else is going to see it or be hurt by it, what difference should anyone else’s hang-up make to you?” Love, here, means never having to say you’re sorry, whether to your partner—since in the voluntary master-slave dynamic, individuals are willing participants—or to wider, straight culture. If it feels good, do it. And if the leather hoods and whip burns socially codify you as a homosexual, all the better. But the question that Holstad’s project underscored is whether those codes have lost their deviant power some thirty years later. More provocatively, the artist seemed to ask in turn: What happened to the spiritual and physical liberation once accessed through these forms?

In Susan Sontag’s 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” the critic implies that the eroticizing of fascist bondage as a codified natural, spiritual force is ultimately a theatricalization of sex; that is, it’s rehearsed. “The rituals of domination and enslavement being more and more practiced . . . are perhaps only a logical extension of an affluent society’s tendency to turn every part of people’s lives into a taste, a choice: to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style,” she concludes. Holstad’s installation, resembling a clothing store in so many ways, recalled this question of style—but left viewers with a particularly deadly aftertaste. A sound track in the store comprised what seemed a concert of locusts (small, pencil-widdled locusts were, in fact, to be found on the clothes on display), evocative of an oncoming plague. And here was yet another sign of terrible pain: Walking through a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, viewers stepped down a small flight of stairs to the basement, past a toilet marked off by red-velvet ropes lying on the floor. Incredibly loud industrial music by the band Painslut emanated from the end of the hall, where, inside a freezer, black sand covered the floor beneath a bright tanning bed—its cover thrown open to shine the light of a terrifying sunset on those icons of liberation found in the store upstairs. One may immediately think of how tanning beds have been used by men with HIV to give them a natural glow to hide their anemic conditions. In fact, taken in the context of Sontag’s earlier commentary, the bed also underscored the question of where and how “life” meets “style”: Essentially, Holstad provided us with an aesthetic coffin. As a publisher’s stamp on the back page of Townsend’s handbook reads: “We also note the book was written before the onset of our current health crisis.”

Interestingly, an unintended, and unrelated, corollary to Holstad’s show also opened in March in New York’s Chinatown, at Asia Song Society, a gallery run by Javier Peres (of the Los Angeles–based gallery Peres Projects) and artist Terence Koh. Taiwanese artist Li Ping recognized another site of gay sexual liberation from the more recent past: He faithfully reconstructed the infamous back room of an East Village gay bar, the Cock, which in the late ’90s and earlier this decade was known for being a no-holds-barred site of sexual indulgences. After the original Cock closed last summer, its owners opened a second Cock in the same neighborhood, eerily decorating the bar to look exactly like the original—minus the back room. To make his version, Ping transformed the storefront gallery space into a pitch black room and, for the opening, hired naked male strippers, who could be seen only in the fleeting flashes of light from the street. The black void offered a strangely inverse counterpart to Holstad’s blinding sunset. Three decades after the publication of Townsend’s book, homosexual liberation is not spelled out in clear subcultural signifiers; there are no chaps, no metal-toe boots, no vinyl zip masks. Rather, the sexual feast is in the endless anonymity, all bodies without faces, individuality reduced entirely to communal flesh. One could argue that the lack of props was meant to suggest that the gay movement has become mainstream, no longer requiring its token signs of resistance. Liberation here is in the endless sexual energy without compromise, but in an all-black room, anonymity is also a refusal of any position, any revolt, or any meaningful, if naive, dream of a utopian potential.

Ping’s show was pointedly titled “Future Cock,” a questionably hopeful projection of a future much like a sunset at Leather Beach, although, due to New York’s continual cleanup, this back room, too, was merely a visitation of the past. Both artists searched for the tatters of present gay identity by digging into the past. In both cases, they unearthed the overwhelming disappearance of the distinctive values, codes, and even architectural safe havens that defined precedent gay life. In the case of the former, there is a melancholic feeling of loss; in the latter, a lockdown on even drowning happily in a sexual abyss. For any marginalized group, the first step to unity lies in reclaiming its heritage the way these two artists have done—in true Senecan form. But to perpetually hold the backward glance is to slip into a nostalgia for beliefs and tactics long out of date. Today’s pressing matter for gay culture may indeed stem from the question of how to define one’s sexuality as a resistant force against the dominant culture, when that culture has removed or appropriated homosexual markers without absorbing their meanings. The second step is in perceiving the failures of its fathers, as Holstad has done so adeptly, and finding new locations, signifiers, and strategies for subversion. This revolution may not exist in the shock of the sexual experience. Its seeds may have to be planted in stages—outside of the dungeon or the back room—in the certain light of day.

Christopher Bollen is a New York–based critic and editor of V Magazine.