New York

Doug Ischar, Untitled (San Francisco, 1987), 2012, color photograph, 13 1/2 x 20".

Doug Ischar, Untitled (San Francisco, 1987), 2012, color photograph, 13 1/2 x 20".

Doug Ischar

Golden Gallery

Doug Ischar, Untitled (San Francisco, 1987), 2012, color photograph, 13 1/2 x 20".

Doug Ischar’s presentation of work at Golden Gallery might have appeared, to a visitor first walking in, a modest affair. Indeed, the gallery itself is no more than a slim slice of storefront in SoHo. Yet the seven works assembled in “Sleepless” all deftly challenge any notion of modesty, wholly bucking that word’s association with conventions of decorum and bodily restraint even while utilizing antispectacular formal elements and means. While quiet—clandestine, one might say—Ischar’s work opens to the eye like a clenched orifice to the right touch. If that metaphor sounds more than vaguely lewd, I mean it to: The artist’s approach balances the starkly explicit (realist even) with the deftly metaphoric (poetic even) and in so doing strangely heightens both effects.

For “Sleepless,” Ischar revisited works mainly made in the mid-1990s. Themes—masculinity, gay male desire, the devastation of the AIDS epidemic—run through the show like red threads, yet the various works cannot be reduced to any of them. One of two photographs taken in 1987 and printed this year pictures a municipal sign, presumably posted in particular neighborhoods to dissuade certain behaviors: One stick finger stands, legs slightly askew, while a second kneels in front of him, back turned to us. This dry-as-possible depiction of a blow job is pointedly completed with a ⃠, that graphic symbol we have been cross-culturally trained to read as “not allowed.” Yet, in one slapdash gesture, an anonymous graffitist undercuts the edict, if only by pointing out that this ostensibly regulatory image itself illustrates the very activity it aims to outlaw: OH WOW, exclaims the receiver; the giver, mouth full, purrs—MMMMMMMMM.

If there is humor in this work, there is eerie pathos too, born of the feeling today, twenty-five years later, that such an image marks the end of an era. That said, together the works felt, true to the exhibition’s title, less nostalgic than insomniac. Their author returns to his own past because that history remains present—prescient, too. Several works enact literal eternal returns: In Tag, 1993, a film is thrown (via a micro-projector) onto the front of a black Lacoste polo shirt. There, on what would normally press into the tender flesh of its wearer, appropriated and looped footage shows a man submerged in water wrestling an alligator, then brandishing and planting a knife into its body. The scene, repeating again and again, comes to look less like a battle than a dance. In Lapse, 1995, a tiny video glints off the surface of a belt buckle. There, the endless loop depicts a close-up of a man’s face (taken from low-budget porn), whose twitches and grimaces can equally be read as pleasure or pain, the two extremes eventually rendered indistinguishable.

Ischar’s ability to look so closely at things that they seem to become other things seems effortless, though consequential—he renders the micro macro, and vice versa. Sentry, 1993/2012, includes a pair of small security monitors, each playing looped scenes. On one, black-and-white-footage from the 1943 spy flick Destination Tokyo gives the view from a submarine’s periscope as it bobs just above, then below, the water, surveying the distant shore. On the second, close-ups of blurry objects—nipple clamps, poppers, pills, etc.—pass in and out of sight. These items are the contents of a sex chest belonging to one of Ischar’s friends and ex-lovers who, dying, asked the artist to remove them from his apartment. This banal secret (the contents of a sex chest more or less generic, after all) is also strangely epic, and starkly poignant. Yet here, as in works like the video Draw, 1997—a shot of a cigarette floating in water, inverted so the dark, tobacco-stained water it emits mimics impossibly slow swirls of smoke—there are things in and of themselves, and then there is what we make of them.

Johanna Burton