Stephen Barker

Bernard Toale Gallery

Beginning with “Night Swimming,” 1999, a series of grainy photographs documenting the murky corners of Manhattan’s gay sex clubs, Stephen Barker has focused his camera on the eroticism of anonymous desire. His latest project, “The Archivist’s Wig,” 2007–2008, a layered combination of found and fabricated photographs, wallpaper, and sculpture, takes as its subject the life and times of the notorious gay cold war double agent Guy Burgess (1911–1963), a British diplomat turned Soviet spy and defector. An array of ink-jet prints made from scanned negatives of Barker’s own new still lifes and beefcake shots, shown alongside cold war–era porn, relevant news clippings, and declassified FBI records, loosely narrate Burgess’s political and sexual crimes.

The files acquired by Barker were made after Burgess’s 1951 defection; Barker also borrowed images of the exteriors of ’50s gay bars from the National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in New York, and uncovered a trove of old film canisters and worn books in the dusty attic of a gay porn store. The artist has coupled images of these artifacts with items from his personal collection of vintage erotica and cyberporn to create an installation that simulates a climate of homophobia and anticommunist paranoia.

“The Archivist’s Wig” was arranged as an integrated grouping of prints mounted on or leaned against bare or papered gallery walls. The repeated designs of Barker’s wallpaper, which include images of circumspect and redacted FBI files and gay haunts, along with gay porn, seem to reference the repetitive nature of Burgess’s behavior. The installation was crowned with “Influence of the Planets,” 2007, a series of twelve larger-than-life-size headshots of expressionless trophy men. In each slightly off-kilter image, two or more negatives have been superimposed using Photoshop. In Untitled (Eddie), 2007, a handsome black man exhibits extreme wall eyes; the subject of Daniel (from behind), 2007, is two-faced, like Janus.

In “Nine Bachelors: Guy Burgess in America,” 2007, sharply focused photographs of the tattooed backs of naked men posed gracefully on pillows are coupled with news clippings and declassified documents. The latter transcribe long-shrouded FBI interviews with various hitchhikers with whom Burgess caroused during the period from 1947 to 1951, conducted by agents seeking evidence of his treachery. The anonymous nudes—identifiable only through their first names and tattoos, which vary from simple inscriptions to an elaborate portrait of Christ crowned with thorns—serve as stand-ins for Burgess’s hitchhikers. Untitled (Ray), 2007, depicts a man who sports a tattoo of a devil knocking down bowling pins with a skull, coupled with the bold inscription GUY BURGESS STRIPPED BARE (here, as elsewhere, Barker tips his hat to Duchamp).

Hitchhiker, 2007, may be a cracked-glass-and-chrome take on the Large Glass, but it is also an actual window from a 1941 Lincoln Continental, the same model Burgess used to pick up his “bachelors.” From 50cc, 2007, presents pairs of blown-glass vitrines on wooden tables, half covered in beeswax. Based on Duchamp’s Air de Paris (50cc of Paris Air), 1919, in which the medicinal serum in a vial was replaced with air and the container then sealed, these elongated vitrines are containers for vintage porn; their mirrored bottoms reflect the old Kodak prints affixed to their tops. Barker’s obsessions with the sociology and psychology of the darker aspects of the gay male gaze make for an intriguing investigation of a moment when homosexual pleasure and political subterfuge were conjoined.

Francine Koslow Miller