Marginal Waters at GOLDEN in Chicago exhibits 13 of the works in the series by Doug Ischar. The backdrop of Chicago’s own Belmont Rocks, since destroyed, sets the stage for the documentation of gay men in the 1980s.
The first room in the impeccable space presents three large framed photographs. The titles of the images are sterile and indexical, simply numbered. MW 19 (1985), the first piece I confronted, is a portrait of a scattered group of men, sunning on the rocks by the water. Two men are standing close, just of the verge between friendship close and intimately close, and there are men stretched out sunning on towels. Besides the incredibly dense colors, there is something about all of the photographs that is so captivating; the latent sexual desire rubbing up against the innocence of an afternoon in the sun. The subtle hand on the thigh, the peak of underwear beneath impossibly short shorts, the glint of a nipple ring, or connection between two bodies that speaks to the audacity of a normally closeted culture behaving freely in a public arena, almost like Sunday In the Park on poppers.
The dual landscape of bodies and the rocks was elegantly captured in MW 22 (1985), a portrait of two men embracing on the ground. The curve of the shoulder, knee, seem to act as an extension of the terrain. Also in this image is a lone can of Miller High Life, just one of the many cultural artifacts that look planted in the compositions. Other images include a Diane Arbus book, a Vanity Fair, walkmans (walkmen?), and many ten speed bicycles. There is a subtle illicit implication to the images, an innuendo of illegality.
This feeling of “getting away with something”, as opposed to just being or doing is represented extremely well in the one video piece in the show, Forget Him (2009). This single channel video is extremely compelling and layered. Silent footage found by the artist in a Chicago area flea market in 1990, originally shot in the 1960s, is kept in its entirety with only the playback speeds altered. Ishcar adds captions of Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street, as well as a beautiful section from Heirich Schultz’s Symphoniae Sacrae (1629) . This video serves as a present day reflection on the project from the 80s. It begins with footage of a backyard flower garden, has spaces of blank footage with dust and scratches, and then segments of two men at the rocks. The men are changing, one taking off his pants and donning a jock strap, the other removing his fishnet shirt and khakis and dressing in the tightest shorts you have ever seen, struggling to zip them up. The whole time they are looking around, and the gaze of the camera catches passersby in the distance. This seems like a getting ready ritual that would contemporarily be done in the home, to get ready for a club, but takes place in the open space of the Belmont Rocks. The word from the text, “lovesick, sick, sick”, echo on the screen, seeming to allude to the previously believed “illness” of homosexuality, as well as the consciousness of the AIDS epidemic.
The gallery itself, located in a classic Chicago graystone in Boystown, (apparently one of the first officially recognized “gay villages” in the United States) is incredibly appropriate, adding to the sense of history and urgency of preservation felt in the show. There was also a neatness to the images that worked extremely well in the historic yet well-groomed space. Jacob Meehan, director of GOLDEN, says that many of the neighborhood homos who showed up for the opening this past weekend actually thanked him for showing the work, and reminisced over the images. I think that this show is a great way to begin the year, and to make a meaningful connection with the community.
There is going to be a catalog for Marginal Waters, which will include all 26 of the images in the series as well as text by David Getsy, Steve Reinke and an interview with John Neff. The exhibition has been extended and there will be a closing and catalog release reception, the dates of which will be posted on the website.
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