Chip WillisNathalia (2015)

When it comes to Willis’ I harbor mixed feelings.

His work is singular (+1); his compositions are arranged compellingly (+1) and always imbued with a strange sense of existing as a prelude to sudden, dynamic motion (+1).

There is, however, no getting around the degree to which the work is tied up with male gaze governed expectations. (-5)

…except while trying to figure out what I wanted to convey with this post, I think my perspective has shifted slightly–the trouble is I don’t know quite how to translate from mental impression to language.

The first part of it has to do with the fact that he seems to be producing less work these days. Now, this is only my impression. I don’t follow him super closely and Tumblr is (unfortunately) a platform increasingly hostile to folks who make work in line with his–thus it’s entirely possible that he’s migrated to another platform.

Interestingly, when you look over his work–his learning curve remains impressively near-vertical. It doesn’t all work and I think there is a strong argument to be made for him developing a more contemplative approach to editing–the work is all distinct and eye-catching but there are times when it feels as if more ends up being less. (Take the scene above–I can’t find the original post of this photo but there are a half dozen frames from the same shoot; not one of the others is as captivating as this is.)

The second piece of my reaction to this is tied up in notions of evolution. This one is larger due to bringing my own baggage to bear subconsciously when I engage with (i.e. decode) visual documentation.

At present most of my friends are in their early-to-mid 30s. (I’m in my 40s, fwiw.) And I am starting to notice a trend wherein there seem to be two potential outcomes to any longstanding commitment to the project of self-determination: there’s a degree of comfortability which begins to entice. A still small voice saying: you’ve done the hard work for so long–time to ease up and enjoy the rewards for which you have worked so very hard.

The focus becomes how do I maintain what I have and when you get right down to it doubt and the nitty-gritty of personal reflection and growth are actually inimical when it comes to preserving the status quo.

It’s a perspective I–quite frankly–do not comprehend. Willis’ work signals (at least to me): that the status quo is BS and that the only thing worth pursuing is the dissolution of sedentary compulsions in the embrace of chaos, uncertainty and discovery–whatever its costs.

That last bit actually ties into another consideration–when I talk about the ‘intersections of art and pornography’–although I am definitely questioning the mutually exclusive nature the framing is recapitulating the framing it supposedly denounces.

I’m not sure I’ve found a better way to convey what I mean just yet. But I do think Willis’ work functions as an imposition of the artist of the question if the debate about art vs pornography might better be considered in terms of both and neither instead of either/or.

Practically, I’m not sure the long term implications are all that much different. However, once you see that sort of pioneering spirit as motivating the work–it renders the work all that much more enticing. (At least that’s my response.)

Chip WillisNathalia Rhodes (2015)

As someone fluent in only one language (English); and who therefore is in the habit of reading left to right, this image caters to my expectations.

I wish I had the time to super impose angled rule of thirds indicator markings similar to what I did with this photograph by Igor Mukin. It would be immediately clear that what I’m guessing is an out-of-focus towel rack in the lower left foreground, the inside edge of the tub and the mildewy grout-line between the tub and the wall separate the image into thirds diagonally.

As a westerner who’s first language is English, I read left-to-right. thus I scan this image starting from the top left. The repetition of the diagonal draws my eye down and right, along the outside edge of the tub.

What’s interesting here is that unlike the Mukhin image, the diagonal of the top of the diagonals of the top and bottom of the mirror and the front and back of the toilet lid don’t align with thirds–but they do represent the most dense range of contrast with in the image.

In the absence of the second set of guiding third indicators, The angle of Rhodes legs functions as the compositional element that redirects the eye from right to left. (Notice: that the angle of her legs forms the base of an acute triangle of which the reflection of her face is the vertex.)

I’m not ready to attribute to this a status of some next level visual shit. It is inspired though. The pose and boots all scream tired porn tropes. However, the effort to include the face–anytime you shoot with mirrors you’re introducing seven different flavors of hell to the process–subverts the seeming unmitigated sexualization of the body as object. (In other words, even though Rhodes is effectively chopped in two by the frame edge, her holistic totality is at least illustrated.

The more I look at this the less I see it as gratuitously graphic. There are details that command attention: the black bobby pins against the white porcelain toilet lid, the strategic placement of the the rear hem of her dress and her gaze focused on the photographer instead of the camera are all inspired touches.

This is the first of Willis’ images I’ve seen where I’m convinced that my suspicion he uses porn tropes in a critical instead of incidental fashion is on the right track. And the fact the above is maybe a little heavy handed in its efforts to conflate fashion editorial work with pornography; however, the criticism is too stunningly on-point/fiendishly executed for me to even thing of docking points.

Chip WillisKelsey Dylan (2014)

I’m having one of those aha moments where the incandescent bulb over my head flickers, falters and then begins to glow bright.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, if you participate in the Tumblr art nude/erotic image community, then you know who the fuck Chip Willis is. The list of model with whom he has collaborated might as well be the Tumblr model A-list.

Honestly though, I’ve always felt meh-ish at best about his work. I mean, don’t get me wrong: it’s quality; it just hasn’t ever really moved me.

This image connects somehow. And I think it has to do with the fact that it features Kelsey Dylan.

The first image I ever saw of hers was the incredible Polaroid diptych by rabbits. This is one of those times where my thoughts don’t align all that well with language. But the aforementioned photos resonate with an unnerving curation of representational identity–looking at them my body has this strange psuedo-synesthetic response where I physically itch in a way that is half mosquito bite, half throbbing erogenous arousal. It’s an experience that bypasses critical/conceptual academnification via an impossible, coup de grace killshot, the bullet lodging in the liminal space between the thinking mind and the feeling brain.

It’s not just the Polaroid diptych, the majority of Dylan’s work seems to have a similar effect on me.

Therein lays the bait. But by the time I’ve realized it, the hook is set–or more accurate Willis’ image becomes something of a labyrinth I must now learn to navigate because I have found myself unexpectedly at its center.

If you know you’re in a maze, you just pick either the wall to your left or right and you as long as you follow that wall without deviation, you will eventually find your way out.

This image provides two clues as to how it is to be interpreted–and looking back over Willis’ work, these seem to hold true throughout:

  1. The image maker is aware of the voyeuristic slant the content contributes to the image,
  2. The image represents an effort to sublimate tropes and tableaux customarily relegated to the realm of pornography by employing methods associated with Art practice.

I suspect Mr. Willis would probably object to the second point. He might contend that he’s interested in presenting a narrative. But as with every image maker who uses an image’s potential to convey a story, the truth is: indubitably narrative images tend to be the exception not the rule.

What possible narrative could this image entail? What reason is there for such a pose? Is Dylan being fucked by the light pouring in through the open window? Hardly.

The futon is positioned with more a mind to mise en scene than interior design and the framing of the doorway imposes a sense of voyeurism on the proceedings. That it is a wide shot–presenting a more or less complete context–shifts it away from its pornographic trappings and towards a mediation on representation of physical identity, sexuality and objectification.