New York

Clifford Prince King, Jug of Change, 2019, ink-jet print, 36 × 24".

Clifford Prince King, Jug of Change, 2019, ink-jet print, 36 × 24".

Clifford Prince King

Clifford Prince King is a photographer who documents black gay male desire. Given that artists such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Marlon Riggs are among his canonical forebears, his approach might seem a daunting gambit for any young artist to pursue. But as the six works featured in his online exhibition at Launch F18 attested, King very much has his own voice, which both harmonizes with and distinguishes itself from this esteemed lineage.

In Jug of Change, 2019, a nude man sits in a swivel chair, his foot extended onto beige, wall-to-wall carpeting. The upper half of his head is wrapped in a black do-rag, and his hand covers his face. Is he ashamed of his nakedness? Perhaps he’s unhappy, or trying to conceal his identity, or simply deep in thought? His flaccid cock and balls are at the center of the photo and immediately draw the eye’s attention; one might hastily conclude the girthy appendage is the “jug” to which the title refers. Then the eye journeys west, parallel to the cock—and just behind his knee we locate an actual upturned water jug, its spout aiming north in contrast to the penis pointing south. The container is partially filled with loose change and smears of dollar bills. Behind the figure is a full-length mirror that reveals the room’s other side. There’s nothing much to see—the crestfallen subject’s body blocks out most of the reflection, save for some white curtains around whose edges silvery twilight peeks. Visible behind the right side of his downcast head and taut, muscular shoulder is a sliver of another disrobed man, just standing there. Whether he is the dejected man’s friend or lover is unclear, but one thing is certain: He is a vital presence who heightens the image’s narrative ambiguity.

At times, King’s photographs call to mind the erotic compositions of the late Ren Hang or the empathic snapshots of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. Yet King’s images feel neither completely posed nor captured purely by accident. And they tell us neither more nor less than what we need to know—hence their mystery and poetry.

Just the Two of Us, 2019, brings us into a domestic setting similar to that of Jug—this time we’re in the kitchen. Two young men, presumably boyfriends, stand in the middle of a linoleum floor. They are shirtless and holding one another, as if they’re in the middle of a slow dance. The shorter one, wearing nothing but a gold chain, a ring, and purple shorts, presses his face against his partner’s cheek. The other man, just a few inches taller, is dressed in baggy jeans—red plaid boxers climb up from his denim waistband, partially concealing his lithe torso. Contrasted with their bland, suburban-looking environment, their embrace frees us from the oppression of the banal: We get a sense of touch as release.

Elsewhere, King drifts into the straightforward intimacy of portraiture: Take Malcolm, 2018, which depicts the titular subject sitting before a luminous golden backdrop. His arms are wrapped around his knees, drawing them up closely to his chest. He’s clad in a transparent do-rag, underpants, and a pair of athletic socks emblazoned with a backward Nike logo. Granny’s Units, 2019, features a trio of wigs on mannequin heads, all facing away from the viewer. They sit on a glass-topped wooden table alongside a brush and a crown-shaped air freshener. This image, too, is a portrait, though one that seems to be taking an oblique approach to rendering its subject. Like a great minimalist storyteller, King derives maximum narrative impact from the smallest gestures and assemblages—hidden ironies mold their pathos. A sense of formal refinement serves as an affective complement to the intimacies the artist so delicately evokes. To the canon of black queer brilliance, King adds the potent splendor of understatement.