My 1980s and Other Essays: Eric’s Stubble, by Wayne Koestenbaum
I live with Eric. No, I live with a photograph of Eric, taken by Paul Mpagi Sepuya,whose work is easy to love and difficult to theorize. I bought Eric’s image at Envoy Gallery in 2007 because I felt sexual desire for what the photograph seemed to represent. Eric has conspicuous stubble; his gray-green eyes refute the stubble or establish a dialectical relation with it. Eric’s eyebrows are thick, dark; his hairstyle — bangs? — recalls a Roman or Sicilian wall painting. His skin tone is pale, call it olive. His stubble is verdigris. Compared to the stubble, the skin retreats into pallor, hunger, vagueness. Eric is the type of guy I tend to classify as “Levantine,” which means, in my anachronistic imagination, a crypto- Jewish amalgam of Egyptian, Turkish, Greek, Italian, and a few other tinctures.
We shouldn’t classify guys; typology is a cruel exercise. Paul’s photographs refuse to classify the men he captures. And yet the ghost of categorization (August Sander and his ilk) hovers over any photograph that isolates its human object.
A Sepuya backdrop is typically a blank wall, a neutral surface, gray-white, like the color Titian Buff in the Old Holland line of acrylic paints. Sepuya’s monochrome backgrounds remind me of Robert Ryman, or of the possibility that Ryman’s work espouses — the hope that within so-called “white” there exist infinite gradations of difference and chromatic subtlety. Sepuya’s uniform Titian Buff allows skin tones to register with a lyrical, alarming specificity, a specificity that blissfully evades the kinds of categorization that my earlier reference to “Levantine” tactlessly embodies.
Earlier I said that I bought the photograph of Eric because I felt sexual desire for him. “Sexual desire” is a careless shorthand that Sepuya’s work slowly and methodically dissects. It would be more accurate to call my desire “never-ending anticipation.” Eric’s image allows me to occupy an interim state that resists conclusion. The engine — desire-laden anticipation — keeps humming; ongoingness begins to serve as consolation. Sepuya’s photographs specialize in soliciting this form of anticipation, of endlessly postponed coalescence. I don’t mind waiting; prolongation allows me to look carefully at Eric’s stubble, or at the spaces between the individual grains of embryonic hair, not yet a beard. I can examine the individual blades of stubble on Eric’s face because
Sepuya’s camera has availed itself of fastidious, intensive focus. Sharp focus is Sepuya’s territory; focus almost floats free of its subjects on occasions, and becomes a theme in itself. Sepuya’s focus lacks hyperbole. His images don’t exaggerate the endowments of his sitters; the cool and nearly shadowless clarity with which we can see their faces and bodies doesn’t rhyme with kindness or warmth. Focus seems, instead, an ethical issue — an Apollonian refusal to distort, to modify, to sully. Paradoxically, Sepuya’s photographs are at once aloof and passionate: his sharp focus suggests disinterestedness, but the near-nudity of his subjects — or their tropism toward undress — implies sex’s prelude, even if the encounter never arrives. We don’t count on consummation. As artists and viewers, we depend, instead, on sex’s imminence, its foreshadowing. Eric is my first love. My second love, nearly eclipsing the first, is Victor.
Victor has wild hair, teased into a black halo. The circle of hair, outrageously large, contrasts with his bookish — or revolutionary — eyeglasses, which recall the nerd glasses I wore in 1972. His glasses seem sweetly nebbishy, serious, unapologetic, and headed toward radical liberation. In one photograph, Victor kneels, feet underneath buttocks, in S/M stirrups, ready for action. Glasses still on, he stares at the camera with confident yet prim expressionlessness. Victor has ostentatious stubble. To say I feel sexual desire for Victor would be a gross understatement. Wishing to foreswear the phrase “sexual desire” (because of its incompleteness, its haziness, and its talent for question-begging), I’ll say, instead, that Victor provokes in me a hunger for narrative.
Looking at Sepuya’s photographs of Victor, I start to spin stories and inferences. One myth concerns his hair. In this legend, which may be accurate, his hair is a Jewfro as well as an Afro. Adorably, it occupies the median position: Jewfro, Afro, seamlessly melded. Another story, perhaps also true, takes place on West 27th Street. I’m walking east; Victor, walking west, wears a colorful, boldly-patterned suit. My suit, too, exceeds the limits of conventional taste. Victor and I lock eyes, or he intuits that I recognize him from Sepuya’s photograph and that we are long-lost doppelgängers. Later, at home, I browse through Craigslist’s “missed connections” to see if Victor has posted an ad to find me. I consider this present essay a pretext to meet Victor, to convince him of my enraptured regard.
What consumes me with curiosity is Victor’s sly contrapposto, as if he were deliberately quoting a Renaissance or Greco-Roman precedent. His hand, pivoting at the wrist, establishes ironic feyness as a signature of power and self-control. Opened on the folding chair is a zine, red-covered, called FIRE!! I won’t make the mistake of asserting that my desire for Victor is this photograph’s exclusive meaning. And I won’t oversimplify desire; what I’m calling “desire-for-Victor” is a hodgepodge of contradictory convictions: (1) I look like Victor; (2) I don’t look like Victor; (3) I used to look like Victor; (4) no one recognized that I used to look like Victor; (5) it’s too late to find Victor; (6) I need to change my life so that I can find Victor or make a career out of pursuing him; (7) I need to become a more serious artist so that I can use my desire for Victor in productive ways; (8) I need to compose a blazon for Victor; (9) I need to read more philosophy so I can grasp Victor’s profundity.It’s not just Victor’s body that I love. I worship his attitude, his audacity, his compactness. Even nude (with socks, glasses, leather stirrups) he radiates style.
His body sets up a relation of concord and dissonance with the Titian Buff wall behind him. He befriends the Titian Buff; he upstages it. Against the wall’s supposed neutrality, Victor’s pallor registers with a legible but unclassifiable precision. What events led him to Paul’s studio? Sepuya’s close-grained technique effaces these stories but also opens them up for examination. I begin to imagine the friendship — the complicity, the correspondence — that underwrote this meeting, now frozen in a photograph whose power resides in the messages it can’t specify.
I haven’t spoken clearly enough about Victor’s buttocks, or about the hair on his chest, abdomen, and legs. That information might not interest a reader of an essay about Sepuya’s photography. Or else that information might be essential. It might fall under the purview of sharp focus, a philosophical theme, connected to the mind’s woefully finite capacity to pay unstinting attention to a single object. I pay close attention to Victor’s buttocks and hair. I’d like to use Sepuya’s photographs of Victor — and my relation to them — to argue for a contemplative practice of concentrating on details, radiant or unshining, that we must never take at face value but must plunge into decoding, even if the process of decipherment isolates us from consensual, commonsensical idioms.
Sepuya’s subjects are not hunks. Distance from pulchritude constitutes their profundity. Sepuya’s stylized, minimalist portraits—emotive yet even-tempered—participate in a new, anti-hunk genre of homoerotic photography, most often found in zines. BUTT magazine didn’t begin the trend, but it is a stellar locale for this type of guy—whose look suggests several eras. Pre-clone? Post-clone? Post-post-clone? Never forget how historically specific the nude always is.
I reserved an hour this afternoon to write a paragraph about Daniel. My wish to write about Daniel — or the image that Sepuya calls “Daniel” — has everything to do with the hair that covers most of his chest and that leads, without a gap, to his underarms. The fact that the hair almost stops at the collar bone but continues northward testifies (in my unrepentant imagination) to Daniel’s gentleness. His pallor, too, attests, within my non-logical imaginaire, to a peacenik’s vulnerability. He sits on a rudimentary chair but tries to squeeze most of his body onto it, more of his body than the chair can contain. I’ve singled him out from among Sepuya’s subjects because Daniel’s look appeals to me, but also because the photograph renders me vulnerable — more endangered than the person it portrays. Daniel, by exposing his body — and Paul, by exposing Daniel’s body — have exposed me, have forced upon me a capitulation I often undergo when I see a male nude. I find myself inwardly surrendering to his body, especially if he is merely a photograph and not an actual presence. I surrender to Paul’s photograph of Daniel because almost nothing clutters this image — no apparatus of framing, dramatic lighting, décor, only Daniel’s grey socks, a silvery chair, and a Sepuya print curling on the threshold where wall meets floor. In another photograph, Daniel raises his left arm, as if merely to ensure that the viewer can see his underarm hair, a thick vertical line, like a miniature Barnett Newman “zip.” If I were paranoid, I’d say that my longing for Daniel, as I behold this photograph, attacks me: I’m its victim. However, I aggressively solicit the posture of longing. I manufacture desire for Daniel. I am legible to myself only as “the writer who feels guilty for wanting to know Daniel.”
The word “guilty” in the previous sentence demands explanation. Why should I feel remorse for admitting that Sepuya’s photograph of Daniel makes me desire its subject? (I don’t mean to harp on desire. Instead, I want to emphasize anticipation, stillness, paralysis: the frozenness of waiting for Daniel to acknowledge me, a response that can never be forthcoming, although I eagerly await it.) Guilt is a consequence of trying to write about realistic photography, and of making the mistake of entering into the stories that the images suggest, rather than focusing exclusively on formal elements. Or maybe guilt is the necessary after-effect of any attempt to do justice, in words, to pictures that excite me, even if the state toward which they impel me is shocked immobility, a quivering stasis, rather than a pleasurable satiety. Eric, Victor, Daniel: these are the men I owe to Paul. Eric, Victor, and Daniel arouse complications in my system, which is mostly linguistic — a ferryway littered with kelp, foam, myths, microbes, and other debris, some in sharp focus, some terminally blurry. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, to his credit, is never blurry. But icy clarity is not the only reason his work inflames the willing imagination.
Originally published in “Studio Work”, 2012. Re-published in “My 1980s”, 2013.