Los Angeles

Dean Sameshima

Low

Dean Sameshima eyes skinny boys with wan complexions and an air of Anglophilia. Such boys are everywhere, but Sameshima studies them in their native environment, LA clubs and bars like Bang, Cafe Bleu, and Akbar. Prefatory study for such outings would be a crash course in British fashion magazines (i-D, The Face, Dazed and Confused) and certain designers (Raf Simons in particular, but also Jean Colona and Hedi Slimane), whose talents are attuned to the slim-hipped protopunk and -goth. Through the lens of fashion, Sameshima proffers a trenchant commentary on photography and its documentary claims, appropriation, the readymade, and homosexual desire. His economical photos demonstrate the real’s production of unrealities as outpacing any moody staging.

Sameshima takes surreptitious pictures of club boys until they either notice him or disappear from view. In the five-photo work Bang (July 3, 2000), 2000, a guy dances in the foreground of a small crowd. The blue tank he sports is sweat-stained; his rainbow pride belt allows his jeans to ride his thin hips. In the background is a guy in a red shirt, with a chewier physique; you get the sense that he wouldn’t be caught dead in a pride belt. In the first three frames Redshirt dances behind Blueshirt; in the fourth frame, the only vertical shot in the sequence, he has advanced and taken over the frame—leather studded bracelet on his wrist, his face intense, and his pose (hand at crotch as if about to grab himself) weirdly repeated by some tattooed guy behind him in a Def Leppard tee. In the final shot Redshirt has dipped back into the dancing crowd and Blueshirt is nowhere to be seen.

Not unlike Kleist’s marionette theater in Paul de Man’s disturbing Rhetoric of Romanticism analysis, this is the realm of the mechanical and its inhuman grace—the animate and human superseded by the inanimate and typological. The aesthetic’s machinations (bracelets, haircuts, dance moves) cool the guys’ being to a presence signified only by the not-there, long-gone looks in their eyes. In part, Sameshima’s project is a meditation and commentary on Richard Prince’s early rephotographs, like Untitled (Three Men Looking in the Same Direction), 1978. In that image, looking the same way is both an action and an ontological condition. For Sameshima, it is the existence of these gorgeous guys that both makes them unreal (they are the embodiment of desire) and tests his own reality in proximity to them (they are devastating), Paradoxically, the photographs, each digitally dated in red, become a way to trace their reality. But if Sameshima has allowed desire to animate the stillness of the photograph, other works destabilize this reading. Installed next to Bang, Cafe Bleu (April 6, 2000), 2000, focused on a different blue shirt and red shut, drawing the eye to color as a device structuring this project—how color operates within the frame and how it is connected to desire, as on a peacock’s tail. In another series, it is green (pants) and white (tie) that recur. In these photographs, color means as much as (if not more than) masculinity.

One part of the exhibition was hung on an edition of vivid green wallpaper, If there’s a heaven above (ceiling of men’s room, Rooster Fish, Venice., CA, 2000), 2001, printed from photos of the cut-and-paste collages that line the bathroom in one of Venice’s few gay bars: dippings from porn and exercise magazines, the somatotypical antitheses of the skinny boys in Sameshima’s framed photographs. A few of the cutouts have fallen off and the semenlike stain of the glue ghosts the shape of a body: These men are figments of the imagination but also the vestiges of the muscular frames that blossomed in ’50s physical-culture magazines (a kind of protoporn) and returned with a steroid-fueled vengeance in the ’80s, sublimation of the wasting body of AIDS. Hung on this “wallpaper” were other kinds of documents: views of a desolate aquarium, more boys—both rephotographs (a sinewy Asian, a nameless hottie, a fashion model named Brian, whose greasy hair and sad eyes make him a muse for the artist) and photographs (Marcus, shirtless and happy odalisque). Formally, all Sameshima’s images are studies in the physicality of the gaze (particularly, of the gays)—but by juxtaposing and equating photograph and rephotograph, stranger and friend, he demonstrates the medium’s ability to make any body a readymade.

Bruce Hainley