He must have paid for a power he never held to have warranted a refund. In the work that lends Doug Ischar’s exhibition at Peregrine Program its title, the artist’s late partner Tom Daws holds his pig instead, and is held in turn both in 1989 by the photograph and in November of 2009 and Los Angeles by a receipt from the Department of Water and Power, suspended in a transparent sheath of colorless acrylic. He offers us his face without fear while the other photographed figures in adjacent pieces turn aside, hidden behind layers of shadow and washes of shining hair. He smiles, recumbent in grass, not yet twenty. The pig nuzzles a hand on which he can smell himself.
Behind me, a rapid sound like gunshots, and each is a dark letter.
Someone might have sent Ischar a proposition, in slanting script, from a DJ booth. The speakers on the floor register a quiet echo of club music, and it’s probably the eighties. His note, small and hung low on the wall, is overlaid with a pink vignette of projected light and then a brief animation simulating typewritten text, each letter ricocheting out of the sound system. The characters resolve into derision for a man forgettable except in his resemblance to a chandelier. He had only his male youth to recommend him, and the hair that accompanied it – that borrowed vehicle for the gathering and diffusion of light. His head had no face, no content, only a fleeting decoration, beneath which he was obscured. I look at the blondes lounging in a nearby photograph, but they shrug into their soft pink towels and lower their lashes to shade their young cheeks. They will not return my gaze. Like the works in the room, they echo themselves, a pack of impenetrable blonde men, united by their likeness, their arrangement, and their turning away from me, towards each other.
I watch them less as boys than as dancers. Their poses are studied, they have grown old enough to see themselves from outside. One is draping a towel over another’s face as tenderly as a shroud, keeping the sun that licks his soft body away, and the gesture of the recipient, guiding down the shade, is of theatrical acquiescence. The light glances over a nipple and tattooed arm, into a tilting glass of blonde liquid. My desire for them is not as men, with bodies that sweat out their margaritas and take on that scent of hot sunlight. I do not reach for their damp trunks, or to pull aside their forelocks. I watch them here, crystalized and dappled with that particular exposure that bleaches body hair transparent. These are not boys, but pictures, and our touching is light, incidental.
How can I love the bathers? It is a precarious thing. I must be concealed. I must wear a new body, or none at all. I cannot be pictured in the photograph, but only projected onto it by a viewing apparatus, an iridescent rectangle in the lower right corner like an artist’s signature, superimposed but unassimilated, rippling with a different form of time; a collapse not experienced by the subjects of the photographs, but only by the subject that views them.
I cannot check into The Pines, so I must to watch the bathers from the dusty California forest, or perhaps serve them drinks, or maybe it’s my job to bleach the towels when they’ve left them, limp on the dry sand. I recognize that I have not been invited, but I find that someone attends. Where are you off to, young man? For I see you, I see your blonde hair shaken back, commanding its invisible light. You’ve got a buzz now. Slip your long feet loose from your sandals, toss back the last of your piña colada, arch away from the plastic strips that suspend your body in the frame of a deck chair. Dancing and laughing along the beach comes the transparent bather. The rest do not see him, but he sees them and loves them. He runs out of the frame and into the water, shattering it into glittering fragments like a chandelier. The young men float above the patchy sun, their lashes sticking straight out into it. They do not ask who writes them invitations, who dips his hips in time, who washes their white bellies with light. They do not think whom they souse with spray.
On the floor, another object is protected in clear plastic. It is an index card from the slot in the back of a library book, marked with a series of due dates given in month but not year, in which time is invoked but never fixed. The life of the absent book is only legible by season. It is popular in November, but what does November mean for the Russian River in California, where, seen from a Midwestern snowstorm, every day must be rum white and eucalyptus blue, each shrub perennially full? There were seasons, though, in Wisconsin, where Jeffrey Dahmer lived. A veil of light recreates his guileless blonde smile on the face on the card, where it waves slowly, like a palm at poolside. More than the others, more than each photograph, he grins with the power of catastrophe. He holds death out into the room.
And, as my stomach falls, I wonder where the victims are, and what are the costs of answering the proposition of a stranger. Dahmer, in the infancy of desire, is a silent siren, luring. His victims, mostly men of color, are invisible here, hidden under the surfaces of this blonde echo chamber. Dahmer, who will get drunk, get tired of the Midwestern cold, and want to catch a little sunlight. Dahmer, who will teach himself to see people as objects, who will want them to be still, to have sole possession of the power to move, and to move others into position as he chooses. Dahmer, who will ask his victims to be photographs. They do not think whom they souse with spray.
I return, then, to Daws, his pig, his water, his power, the last apartment he kept alone, and for the first time I feel my body to be Ischar’s, sealing away these still traces of the man I loved to stand as fragments, an echo, an incomplete return, something always lost in its motion as it bounces from surface to surface. I know, here, as Dahmer did not, that the still lover is not the lover at all, and that possession of that fragment is a grasp of void. Dahmer built a collection so elaborate that the chief medical examiner at his trial compared his apartment to a museum installation. But Ischar’s altar leaves all the power cords ungaffed, the prosthetics exposed, the inaccessibility of the whole aching like blood rushing to the surface of the skin where it has been slapped or sucked. Ischar’s photographs carry the deaths of their subjects, but they also carry a new life in their perennial invitation to take the risk of contact, to lift a veil of hair and see what face was waiting beneath.
With kisses to Walt Whitman (c. “Twenty-eight young men” from the poem eventually titled “Song of Myself”) and Roland Barthes (c. Camera Lucida, 1980.)
Doug Ischar: Boy, Pig, Power at peregrineprogram, Dec 8, 2013 – Jan 26, 2014, 3311 W Carroll Avenue, #119 Chicago, IL 60624. http://www.peregrineprogram.com