Thursday, 30 August 2012

Collapsing the Private and Public in Cruising by Chad States

BJ2, from the series Cruising © Chad States
 Chad States's recently published book Cruising is a collection of photographs that depict gay men looking for a sexual encounter with other men. Photographed in parks, wooden roadside groves or public restrooms across America, the photographs represent a hidden yet equally visible act of sexual transgression that operates on code words, gestures or simple eye contact. By literally uncovering gay subculture through the foliage of trees and bushes, the photographs are as visually compelling as they are provocative.

Into the Hole, from the series Cruising © Chad States

States's series of photographs alludes to an intriguing power exchange: the subjects that he photographs are on the lookout for anonymous sex, yet the photographer, too, is on the lookout for taking photographs of complete strangers. It is quite evident from the photographs that those frequenting these spaces are there to look but also to be looked at. The photographer thus becomes a willing agent between an act of voyeurism and an act of exhibitionism. The fine difference between who is the voyeur or exhibitionist is at times unclear. Indeed, the most eerie images in the series are those in which the gaze of the subject is directed back towards the camera. The photographer, or the hunter, metaphorically becomes the hunted by his subject.
The lush greenery in many of the images visually situates the work in post-impressionist painting. The work of Henri Rousseau, for instance, similarly draws the viewer's gaze into multiple planes of opulent nature and 'wilderness'. Rousseau often emphasized the wild with predatory animals such as a tiger strutting towards the foreground of the image. In States's photographs, the men's bodies partially visible through trees and bushes signify the predatory dimension in cruising. Rather than nature, it is the sexual transgression, the promiscuity and perhaps the randomness of this encounter (between strangers but also between the photographer and his subjects) that signifies the 'wild' in States's photographs.

Pine Tree Grope, from the series Cruising © Chad States

While complicating a distinction between voyeurism and exhibitionism, States's photographs also collapse a clear distinction between the private and the public. The parks and woodlands in the photographs are, by definition, public spaces. Yet partial nudity or vague allusions to sex constitute an activity more commonly associated with a private setting. In other words, if States's photographs are provocative, I would argue that it is not as much what they depict, but rather, it is that they collapse the assumed boundaries between a private act literally performed in public.

Here, States's work has more in common with the paintings of Édouard Manet. Particularly Manet's influential painting The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe), which depicts a female nude and a scantily dressed female bather on a picnic with two fully dressed men, can be seen to similarly interrogate the juxtaposition between the private with the public. With this body of work, States is clearly pushing against historical, social and cultural norms associated with sexuality and gender. States does not completely inverse these norms as much as he questions them via the photograph.

Marco Bohr is a photographer, writer and founder of visualcultureblog.com.

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