New York

“The Moderns”

Feature Inc.

A perplexing, disconcerting, very pretty thing is the body, and I have been trying to think about bodily beauty as a form of intelligence. The truism about beautiful men and women not being very smart is only interesting as comedy; if thinking through the body is to have any finesse, then those for whom the body is their constant inquiry deserve recognition for the cognitive skill of their dazzling flesh. A taut bod in bed is a kind of thinking. Skin is, muscle remembers, and there is no certainty. If you see someone like Travis in Markus Morianz’s photo, travis, 1995, start with, What’s it like to be you? The answer may be verbal, a sentence with its own remarkable thrust, or performative, a stroking of cock, a flexed tummy, but either answer may alter any preconceived notions of esthetics forever. It is easy to forget that depicting sexiness and come-hither qualities is a complicated process: what is represented—the body or the body as stand-in for our lusty projections—is mysterious, haunting, and in many senses no longer there.

Tony Payne’s show of 16 artists, “The Moderns,” demonstrated how thrilling it can be to be confused, excited, and irritated—the ferocious gamut of desire’s intelligence. Surveying the modern landscape of queer, Payne assembled a snazzy group of works to investigate where in an object or viewer queerness resides. Through canny juxtapositions, these works tested the abstractness of the representational as well as the erotic, visceral push of the abstract. Chris Wilder’s lovely shimmering small snakeskin cowboy, 1993, a bit of silver vinyl snakeskin, picked up the glint of the skin of Robert Mapplethorpe’s two men dancing, 1984, next to it, but also shone throughout the show: in the enjoy-coke joke of John Boskovich’s untitled (etched mirror), 1993; in the fading silver, forlorn sign-lettering of Jack Pierson’s why, 1995; and in the long dangerous connotative elegance of the spinal-tap needle supporting Payne’s own haunting and kooky (crisco) kisses, 1995, a work in the process of becoming present by embracing the body’s silent void. The queer qualities of silver as a matter of reflection might be traced back to Andy Warhol’s “final painting,” Silver Cloud, 1966—the shiny self, airy, ambiguous, drifting away.

Fittingly, Payne used a small part of Gertrude Stein’s “A Portrait of Picasso” for the show’s epigraph. It is Stein and no other who adumbrated long ago the difficulty of all that is to be done: “something that was coming out of this one that was a solid thing, a charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing, a disconcerting thing, a simple thing, a clear thing, a complicated thing, an interesting thing, a disturbing thing, a repellent thing, a very pretty thing.”

What kind of thing are you looking at when you face the humpy bodies in Proctor/Renaldi’s super 8’s, 1995, pornolike strips of film, or in Boneboyz’s puppy, 1995, where the pup is a swarthy, dog-collared unknown? Inundated by photographic images, it is easy to grow lax in contemplating how photography does what it does, how it sparks fantasy and why—which is to say, how desire makes seeing a way of feeling. Similar questions could be posed about color, say, Tom Bonauro’s sumptuous shades of lavender, tangerine, lime, which seem to glow from within in his untitled, 1995, a four-panel grid of cactus prints—muscle man, spiral, tornado, microbes.

“The Moderns” confronted perception, perhaps most suggestively in Lauren Lesko’s gorgeous but disconcerting object Hole, 1995—all the orifices as one, a subtle echo of the circular geometry of Meret Oppenheim’s furred teacup. Not wanting to finger it would be a shame. The still mink of invitation humming around this stunning pucker retains the mystery of all I’ve ever wanted. While I’m not sure that the war on desire and sexuality will ever cease, since love like living is often an aggressive act, it is important to hang something there and watch it, watch it until sight becomes something else altogether.

Bruce Hainley