Los Angeles

Gary Boas

“Gary Boas does not consider himself an artist, although he might be a kind of outsider artist. He calls what he does a hobby.” New York Times critic Ken Johnson’s account doesn’t begin to grapple with the problem of why one would want to consider Boas’s photographs under the sign of art. The fact that Boas distances himself from the job title “artist”—as well as Johnson’s useless invocation of “outsider artist” highlights what’s at stake: that photography at its best may not be quite the same thing as art. From the time of Atget’s self-designation as a maker and seller of “documents photographiques,” photographers have tenaciously and repeatedly discomfited the notion of art by negating and degrading it, finding new potential in the dumbest, most mechanical aspects of the medium, in radical reductivist procedures that Jeff Wall has referred to as “amatuerization.”

So Boas is a photographer. What and how his pictures mean has to do with how they negotiate certain genres: His candid shots of celebrities reconfigure the glamour of the star portrait, the “document,” and the paparazzi snap; the more than 150 images (mostly four-by-sixes) on view here for the first time similarly reconsider the beefcake photo, the porn shot, and the model’s portfolio. Curated by Cheryl Dunn, this show focused on strippers, muscleboys, and male hustlers. Although the images document, precisely, throwbacks—mullets, late-’80s/early-’90s workout tights in glaring combos of black with aqua and magenta striping, knee-high tube socks—they have nothing to do with nostalgia, being rarely only sweet. In the best of the work, something is off: Many of the stud wannabes look unsure, betraying almost self-consciousness at being photographed (an adolescence of feeling looked at that is rarely coterminous with biological age). Boas’s pictures succeed by wronging, even deranging, what the less obsessive viewer might mistake them for—Herb Ritts muscle shots; Mario Testino’s “test” photos; stills from the industry-standard gay pornos of Falcon or Chi Chi LaRue, etc.—failing only when they become indistinguishable from these.

Built like a brick shithouse, the subject in John Christopher, 1992, stands in the middle of, well, nowhere, a burnout field with a shack of some sort in the distance. His frayed jean cutoffs are too short, his musculature magnificent but too top-heavy. The body has been built to be looked at, and then when it is, it seems an elaborate device to hide something, even if what it is flummoxes a cowed JC. In Johnny Grieco, 1997, a hunk poses in a backyard, tilting an empty wheelbarrow up as if to boast how much cum he could dump; yet if this is a porn shoot, the scenario of cocky farmerboy fails, not just because of Grieco’s long blond hair or his boots (black, not farmer brown), but because the wheelbarrow overwhelms everything. Its emptiness points to masculinity’s uncanny equivalent, despite Grieco’s gloriously buff bod. And yet Boas’s photos are never simply forlorn. In Mark Hughes, 1996, the weird double exposures of a tan, musclebound, white thong–bulging creature juxtapose his ghostly head near his package; they at once celebrate and discombobulate what are thought to be identifiable, even quantifiable, structures—masculinity, stardom, success.

Most of these men exude the awkward boy-next-door eroticism of countless lookers ready to strut and strip in the outback of celebrity. Boas has an eye for the moment in all its disorienting actuality, the wrongness of his signifiers signifying the incongruity of what he sees. This is most bluntly apparent when beefcake is set against other people who are both thrilled and at a loss in the spotlight: Miss America contestants, a teen Donny Osmond, and Boas’s nanny, a rotund beloved bearing Christmas gifts. What makes Boas’s subjects sex bombs? Perhaps paradoxically, it is a masculinity that has as much to do with femininity, fat, sweetness, and the someone/no one detonation of fame and desire as with musculature.

Bruce Hainley