Vancouver

Douglas Watt, Pumpjack (detail), 2019, mixed media, 39 3⁄8 × 24 3⁄4 × 3 1⁄8".

Douglas Watt, Pumpjack (detail), 2019, mixed media, 39 3⁄8 × 24 3⁄4 × 3 1⁄8".

Douglas Watt

Unit 17

On summer nights, all the windows at the PumpJack Pub open up onto Davie Street. Nostalgic dance remixes flow out into the road, blurring the border between public space and community gay bar. Deeper inside, leather dads and salt-and-pepper bears perch atop heavy bar stools, pints and sodas in hand. Off to the side, a sizable dance floor beckons.

According to Pumpjack (all works cited, 2019), Douglas Watt’s architectural model of that Vancouver venue, off the dance floor are secluded chambers, including trendy event spaces equipped with a flogging station and a partial dungeon with private stalls. Their miniaturized construction here, primarily from cardboard and construction paper, suggested a kitschy sensibility.

Watt’s four other wall-mounted sculptural dioramas on view corresponded to different queer locales across Vancouver. In Clinic, 2019, a faded black-and-white poster depicting an AIDS ribbon hangs by the front entrance and a big bright PrEP poster dominates the waiting area. Signaling two different eras of gay life, these posters and their implications of contrasting conditions hint at an intergenerational divide. Born in 1990, Watt is part of a generation that has only known a world with AIDS. Many of the spaces he visits and re-creates, however, came before, and the spaces as much as their communities retain memories of earlier generations. Indeed, a haunting atmosphere pervades these works, and may also be attributed to Watt’s process: Starting from the perspective of a visitor to each real-life space, be it an empty bathhouse or a vacant leather bar, the artist turns each venue into an object of scientific inquiry, transforming himself into an omniscient agent in complete control. The results memorialize these culturally loaded spaces through a detached remapping of architectural interiorities rather than psychological ones. Signifiers of queerness and gestures toward subcultures come to feel superficial. The viewer’s alienated experience reflects, one imagines, the experience of the artist. Because of his nearly forensic approach—the closer you look, the more specific and detailed each room appears to be, yet each is devoid of people—an odd sense of distance emerges in what might otherwise be read as intimate spaces familiar to the artist.

In fact, Watt’s extreme attention to detail, his inclusion of even the exposed wiring between miniature slats of drywall framing, troubled the impression of verisimilitude by crossing the threshold from real to hyperreal, careening into an uncanny valley. But the only diorama that was unquestionably abstract in its dizzying scale was Le Village (The Village). Organized as a circuit that would be well suited to gay roaches who love to play and fuck to the tunes of Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, and Madonna, it was backed by a black-monochrome ground that conjured less a domicile than a tar-filled trap.

Toward the center of the show, Watt offered softer materials with Stage, an apparition of athletic lockers made out of billowing silk cloth above a fabricated platform. The work faced a wooden bench sheathed in a floor-to-ceiling net pieced together from rubber bands and paper clips (Bench & Net). The impersonality of the office supplies, with their faint scent of newness, contrasted with the kinship implied by the plethora of first names burned into the soap-soaked cedar bench. Presumably indexing the people in Watt’s life, from gallerists to lovers to peers, Bench & Net anchored the show and best exemplified the artist’s complex interpretations of physical and psychic networks.