It’s spring and the sap is running. In keeping with the season, Jennifer Schwartz Gallery gives us “Lust,” a photography show on view through May 10, that teases out some of the nuances behind our preoccupation with sexual desire. Nineteen photographers offer their interpretations of the titular subject and ask us to consider what makes our libidos tick.
We all recognize that lust, desire and sexual titillation are highly subjective by nature. Lust is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. Erotica has had a rich and varied past and has appealed to a vast spectrum of appetites. Thought-provoking sexual imagery often moves beyond the boundaries of the more pedestrian strains of corporal desire by providing insight into the social parameters of sexuality, its fluidity and its evolution. In this way, it is less about tangible sex than the possibilities of desire.
Although both sexes are represented in these figurative images, some of the work offers more imaginative insight into the psychology of sexuality than others. “David” by Jesse and Jason Pearson is one such image. In the past, the Pearsons have compared their artistic process to hunting, allowing them “to shoot whatever image they desire of their subjects.” The color photograph of a shirtless man lying prone in a pile of dead leaves evokes an open-ended narrative that is more compelling than a typical “beefcake” shot. As the passive object of the viewer’s gaze, the vulnerability of his posture subverts the traditional role of the male sexual aggressor and prompts questions about sexual objectification.
Likewise, Mary Ellen Bartley’s black-and-white photographs from her “Standing Open” series, “Untitled Diptych (Neck)” and “Untitled Diptych (Hip),” give us an interesting take on traditional scopophilia. Her images offer fragments of the female form, glimpsed between the pages of a book that resemble vertical window blinds. Not only a reference to erotic literature, these voyeuristic compositions play with notions of the hidden and the revealed, and their combined effect on the erotic imagination.
Sexual obsession is also addressed by several artists, but by none more so than Jacinda Russell. These two altered images of Marilyn Monroe (“A Tale of Obsession: David C. Nolan and Marylin Monroe #15 and #10”) are part of a large collection of erotic photography owned by Nolan, who spent many years cataloging and captioning the thousands of images he hoarded and filed away. The back story behind this secret cache of erotica speaks volumes about the obsessive-compulsive psychology of desire and the need by some to contain and control it.
Looking beyond the representation of desire as expressed in the human form, Michael Grecco’s prints give us a more fetishistic approach. Inanimate objects in his “Pink Shoe” and “Eyelashes” display, respectively, a sky-high Lucite heel and false eyelashes adorned with feathers: portraits of the artificial trappings of lust. Without the usual sexual body on display, we are left to consider these items as sexual accessories and to ponder the power that these and a myriad other sex-related products contain, if only through suggestion.
In “Tender Lover Control Panel,” Grecco takes this one step further. The playful image is of a low-fi, toy-like instrument panel contained within a small case; its knobs and buttons seemingly allow the user to adjust frequencies, add music, etc. It is unclear whether the functions of the case are meant to augment or displace the physical body of the desired. In either scenario, the introduction of these electronic “bells and whistles” suggests that our libidos are being amplified by technology, albeit it a slightly amusing way.
Another artist in the group who explores the evolution of desire as seen through the lens of technology is Evan Baden. His photograph “Alex,” a voyeuristic look into the pink, pop culture-littered room of a teenage girl, may be the most challenging work in the show.
We see a partly clad teen posing provocatively in front of a laptop camera, an act of self-objectification that is mirrored by the sexually suggestive imagery of pop stars like Britney Spears that adorns her bedroom walls. Not only does this picture suggest that young women are culturally encouraged to regard themselves as sexual objects, but also that technology has made this easier than ever before. In essence, the “male gaze” has never had it so good. With this unsettling image, Baden asks us to consider our notions of sexual privacy and intimacy versus the ramifications of the kinds of sexual exhibitionism that the Web encourages, especially in young women.
Although much of the imagery on display here handles the theme in very conventional compositions, the more successful works challenge as well as seduce the viewer.