New York

Stephen Barker

Morris Healy Gallery

The twenty-two untitled photographs in “Selections from Nightswimming, NYC, 1993–4,” the first solo exhibition of Stephen Barker’s work, depict men either having or looking for sex. These dark images—selenium-toned gelatin-silver prints—have a formal beauty that stems from their velvety blackness; this, and their regular spacing around the room, made the show resemble a repetitive installation of dark Minimalist canvases, severe and imposing. So uniformly dark are these pictures that only by lingering and squinting could one eventually begin to make out the human forms captured within them. The grainy outlines have a painterly quality that approximates Alfred Stieglitz’s achievements in photogravure, but the dark sfumato effects come solely from the long exposure time required by the circumstances; the photographer recorded these images in darkened gay sex clubs and porn theaters. The blurriness lends a vintage quality to the prints, heightening a noirish, pre-Stonewall aura of transgression. But the photographs were taken in 1993. The desire they document, in the wake of the AIDS epidemic and the cultural attack on promiscuity, is apparently as furtive and clandestine as ever.

Barker’s images are valuable documents of a kind of sexual behavior that is little known outside its highly charged misrepresentation by the pornography industry. His photographs, on the other hand, arc apparently mere observations of what was going on in his chosen milieu—the toilet stalls of clubs, or the darkened hallways of a bar. The world they describe is difficult to negotiate in the cold, bright light of a gallery. One is interested, yet embarrassed at the interest; and then not so interested, for the images, while about sex, arc not themselves very sexual. Neither the men nor the circumstances are overly attractive.

Some images, certainly, depict explicit acts, like one in which a young man slouches in the seat of a movie theater, his pants at his ankles, flanked by two older men helping him toward his climax. But the bodies in these pictures have the sort of nudity one associates with a Muybridge photograph: pale, often pudgy bodies, dusky genitalia, indifferent expressions and postures, shot from a slight distance and usually at less-than-flattering angles. In lieu of sexual display, the photographs bear witness (in the dark, melancholy way of Robert Frank) to a basic physical act made phantasmagorical by circumstance and environment. Barker’s subjects seem to seek transcendence through these groping acts; but what hope do they have of achieving anything more than a quick orgasm?

The varieties of sexual experience are many, and it would be easy for a moralist to use Barker’s images as evidence of the corruption and futility of promiscuity. But these images are hardly rhetorical; they are mysterious and open-ended—they have value not merely as documentaries but as art. Barker plays with a sensational subject, but his effort, in the end, is tranquil, meditative, charged with a high seriousness that turns one’s expectations upside-down. Each person in these busy, darkened rooms is essentially solitary, using the physical presence of others to achieve a sort of physical and spiritual exhilaration. Barker has pondered this communal and yet isolated experience, observed it with a curious and minute attention, and somehow found in it both beauty and integrity. This is work of great empathy.

Justin Spring