New York

Johnny Alterman and Jeff Gates

Photograph Gallery/Robert Samuel Gallery

The art of the fin de siècle is marked by a tendency for the artist to withdraw from the world. Romanticism was degenerating into narcissism; the artist became a self-regarding esthete, a sensibility too fine for the vulgar age in which he or she lived. Since few people like to live in utter solitude, though, male artists whether heterosexual or homosexual usually tried to take with them in their retreat a companion, a lover, a soul mate to help while away the hours. Having rejected or shut themselves off from all other subject matter, artists concentrated on these companions as their only subjects. Sometimes a single lover/subject couldn’t provide diversion enough. A whole harem was brought in. The ivory tower became a bower of bliss.

This mixture of the esthetic, the ascetic, and the erotic was most fashionable at the moment when photographers first began thinking of their work as art. The result was that a great many of them, particularly among members of the Photo-Secession, made imagery of this sort. As photography-historian Jonathan Green has pointed out, the central figure in Photo-Secession work became a latter-day Blessed Damozel, a female figure, usually nude, who was both Eve and the Virgin Mary at the same time. She appears quintessentially in the work of George Seeley, and undergoes various transformations from Clarence White’s studies of Miss Thompson to Alfred Stieglitz’s of Georgia O’Keeffe. The relationship between photographer and model in these situations has always seemed to me to have faintly—perhaps I should say, innocently—sadistic overtones. The model becomes a love slave for the sake of art, an artistic subject that is, ambiguously, an erotic object as well. He or she submits to the will of the artist/master.

Although the fin de siècle artist is passé now, a great deal of photography that appears in the galleries still suggests the same eroto-esthetic relationship between photographers and their subjects. The photographs of both Johnny Alterman and Jeff Gates do. In Alterman’s work an assortment of nude women assume an assortment of improbable poses. The mixture of art with illicit sex is explicit in Alterman’s title for the series, “Falling Women.” On the one hand, these are presumably fallen women. A tattooed hip here, a shaved vagina there, and certain other details give these women an aura of kinkiness. (Some of his models are in fact prostitutes.) On the other hand they are also, in the photographs, falling women—women made to pose in various sprawled, prone, extended positions. This is where Alterman has his way with his subjects, getting many of them to assume essentially the same bizarre posture. With necks twisted around into the lower-left corner of the frame, several look as if they were falling headlong right out of the picture. Whatever appeal this pose may have to Alterman as sexual fantasy, its success as an artistic style seems to me limited.

The central image among the 13 Alterman showed is one called Savannah’s Place, #1. It’s a picture of a bony woman in an awkward position on a hard rock, a picture which incorporates perfectly the struggle between estheticism and hedonism in this kind of photography. The former is represented by the subject’s upper extremities, the latter by her lower extremities. Her long, wavy, Pre-Raphaelite hair is fanned out on the rock. Her right hand is thrown back languorously, while her left hand shields her eyes as if she had a headache. The effect is that of a model in a Sealy Posturepedic ad. But from .the waist down she’s a whole different woman. She’s in a position so contorted that it seems to belong to another body. Where the upper body has a studied look of hurt, a self-consciously pained expression, the lower body has the clumsiness of someone abandoning herself to passion, or taking an unceremonious fall. By bending her unmercifully to his will, Alterman has managed to find both Yin and Yang, Blessed Damozel and Damned Damozel, in one woman.

Jeff Gates’ photographic series, entitled “Breast Plates,” seems to me to have equally erotic implications. The pictures are solarized black and white prints of men removing their undershirts in front of a gridlike background—a tile wall, perhaps. The solarization abstracts the torsos in these photographs. It makes a hairy nipple look like a black hole in space, thus giving the nipple a cosmic significance it might otherwise lack. The special effect is necessary in order to give the pictures a patina of art, to ennoble the sordid, sinister, rather raunchy image underneath. Why are these men taking off their undershirts? Are they being forced to undress? The scored background suggests a police lineup, or maybe the kind of bathroom or kitchen that gets converted into a torture chamber.There’s an atmosphere of violence. As the series goes on, some of the men begin ripping their shirts from their bodies.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.