Los Angeles

Steven Gontarski

Karyn Lovegrove Gallery

Hey kids, remember Gaëtan Dugas?

Canadian airline steward. Introduced AIDS into North America. Aka “Patient Zero.” The deadly nightshade of such fiction, produced to rationalize and naturalize the world’s terror, darkens the glamour of Steven Gontarski’s sculpture Prophet Zero I (all works 2003). His slim-hipped, pearlescent ephebe wears not a gnarga (a feline mask behind which baroque fags would catcall come-ons to fetching lads) but a medico della peste, a birdlike face cover sported by doctors during the plague years, with a beak filled with spices to purify the air breathed, here tipped with shining warning-red. The sculpture’s “body” isn’t right, it’s superand/or antinatural: Too long, thin legs willow up from strange toeless feet, which are joined to a base made of the same nacreous fiberglass as the figure itself; elegant arms end in witchy digits of all one length; shallow chest, dainty nipples, inny belly button, uncircumcised cock, spume of pubic hair, strangely small buttocks combine into something not simply human. Most of the prophet’s masked head and part of his right hand are formed to appear shrouded by some rich fabric evoking a mourning veil. Not disturbing the shrinelike sanctuary of the solitary prophet, a series of eight handsomely rendered but in the end ho-hum “Prophetic Drawings” in pencil and (save one) gold marker was hung around the gallery’s antechambers: more veilings; grave, Mapplethorpe-y flowers; etc. The most prepossessing depicted a dark pair of skulls, one mirroring the other (skeletal Narcissus reflected in a pool?) behind a scrim of outlined peacock feathers, their “eyes” in two shades of blue.

Gontarski has noted how in “classical sculpture, draping techniques show off the human form and the virtuosity in the artist’s carving.” He adds, “I’m attracted to the notion of a frozen moment, like the fleeting instant when a piece of cloth lands on the body in a particular way.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The fetish shouldn’t be all ersatz old master–y artisanship but the darkness of the meanings produced (fiberglass is, natch, not carved marble; one of the mysteries of the veil is the living hidden underneath; on the cadaverous thinking haunting all of this, see Blanchot).

What’s going on here? In a nutshell: Some kind of neo-Pre-Raphaelitism luxuriating into neo-decadence. (Smile.) Though he works in London, Gontarksi’s American, so I’d propose he’s channeling Cassandran energy from compatriots Elihu Vedder and funerary sculptor extraordinaire Augustus Saint-Gaudens (in his spooky “Clover” Adams mode). Less charitably, he may just be a heavy-metal Mark Kostabi.

Why should anyone care? Well, in the States most of the newest fag art—art deploying a fag sign system—is faux naive, boho, crunchy, Radical Faerie–ish, reeking of patchouli, crystal meth, astro-vividness, and (super yuck) collectivity. Poaching too heavily from the Cockettes and tasting not quite enough of the sublime icing of genius Jack Smith, most of the gay art children, jettisoning vital Cockette craziness, see only their drugged communal party and forget Smith’s venom intelligence, orgiastic vampirism, and glitter-vicious accuracy. As Leigh Bowery demanded, “Where’s the poison?” In other words: too much Ginsberg (love-beads version), almost no Huysmans (luxury, learning, elitism, and ruin). Steward of swish, antinaturalistic funeral rites—alabaster, ebony, and vermeil affect dissolving portraiture into unregulated erotic encounter—Gontarski transforms the gallery into an untimely burial chamber, situated beyond the pleasure principle. Prophesying doubt about everything but looking shiny and terrific, this is a boutique apocalypse.

Bruce Hainley