Peter Hujar – [↑] Reclining Nude on Couch (1978); [↖] Robin Brentano {1} (1975); [^] Sarah Jenkins with Head Brace {3} (1984); [↗] Bill Elliot (1974); [+] Fran Lebowitz at Home in Morristown, NJ (1974); [↙] Candy Darling on Her Death Bed (1973); [↓] Lucia Rudenberg (1979); [↘] Pregnant Nude {Lynn Hodenfield} (1978)

When one of my classes stipulated that I would be required to see one from a list of five current big ticket exhibitions in the San Francisco area, it wasn’t a choice–at least for me: Peter Hujar: Speed of Life all the way.

He was not only phenomenally gifted, I count him as one of my personal art heroes. (He also made one of my favorite photos of all time–the center image in this photoset I posted back in 2015).

The show is at BAMPFA through November 18th and I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it’s always great to get a chance to look at work actually emanating physically from the body of any artist you adore.

My sense of the show was that the curators wanted to downplay the degree to which Hujar’s being gay during the AIDS crisis up to an including death as a result of AIDS related complications of pneumonia informed his work. The things I walked away from the show thinking about had to do with the way he chose to install shows (arranging the framed photos two high and then stretching the length of the wall in such a way that no portrait would sit next to another portrait, and no landscape would share an edge with any other landscape, etc.) as well as the fact that he apparently loved taking pictures of animals just as much as people. (There are a lot of cow pictures, for those of you who love mammals of the bovine persuasion.)

There was at least one great anecdote: apparently my aforementioned favorite photo caught Richard Avedon’s eye during it’s exhbition. So much show that he got in his car, zipped over to the gallery, double parked and ran upstairs with a handful of cash to buy it.

I was talking with my teacher about it and he at first didn’t agree with my characterization of the show but subsequently relented that he did find it odd that the show didn’t mention that apparently Hujar held Robert Mapplethorpe in abject contempt. One problem, it seems Mapplethorpe was desperate for Hujar to be his friend. (So much so that he used to give his work to Fran Lebowitz in an effort to get her to mediate some sort of relationship between them. I take fiendish pleasure in this story as I def. prefer Hujar to Mapplethorpe.)

The other thing I thought is that I’d be quite frankly shocked if Hujar didn’t wield an outsize influence on Joel-Peter Witkin, actually. The photo of Sarah Jenkins with Head Brace (above) predates most of Witkin’s work and shares a very similar tone and aesthetic.

Peter HujarThe Piers (198X)

“Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.”
—Jose Muñoz

I apologize in advance: this will be scattered. But by attempting to get at something I don’t really have any idea how to say, I’m fighting against my default setting of shying away from the prospect of saying things poorly and making a cluster fuck of everything.

The above quote came to my attention a little over a month ago when Andy Wachowski came out as Lilly. (The statement she released is exceptional and very much worth the read.)

Like any truly revelatory insight, Muñoz admonition has never really drifted much further than the periphery of my thoughts since then. I’ve thought about it as Republican controlled state legislatures enact hateful and hypocritical legislation against LGBTQ folk–or, as I think of them: my people.

A good number of these laws are couched with a simple premise–protecting religious liberty. Nevermind the fact that religious freedom is firmly and irrevocably protected by the first damn amendment of the constitution. Nevermind that these strictures are specifically designed to protect those who would chose to pervert their religious beliefs as a means of justifying indecency and bigoted hatefulness towards those with whom they disagree.

If one examines this impetus from the standpoint of armchair psychology, it’s easy to dismiss hate as a defense mechanism against engaging with difficult questions regarding individual agency, institutional sexism/homophobia, what the fuck notions of gender and sexuality actually entail in theory and/or practice.

I don’t buy this perspective. If nothing else that famous study that Chomsky was involved in where he suggested that with the depth and complexity of the ability of your average everyman to engage with sports statistics suggests that the galling lack of familiarity with world politics among the average citizen has less to do with any inherent ability and more to do with a lack of engagement.

This is something I encounter frequently with my family–who are all very conservative if not also fervently religious.

For example: my mom and I argue all the time about this or that consideration. Invariably, she adopts the stance that the end of the world is nearing and there’s nothing to do but get right with ‘God’.

I think that’s really the larger problem. The focus of so many people is on the destination–instead of the journey. So many folks are innured with this belief that a life of piety leads to eternal reward.

It’s not that I don’t buy that–being raised in an Evangelical Xtian milieu really programmed some fucked up shit into my head that I’ve had a hard time completely shaking; no, it’s more that I object to the lack of personal agency and responsibly this perspective seems to very nearly universally foster.

But what does any of this have to do with Hujar’s photography?

I think it’s easy to dismiss his work as hedonistic and transgressive for the sake of transgression (not that the later is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). Yet to do so, seems to be to miss an opportunity to study the world through someone else’s eyes.

There’s an unflinching, non-judgmental immediacy to Hujar’s work. The ugly, the beautiful, the graphic, the mundane–and always a reverential quality to the gaze, employed with rigorous consistency across the work.

Hujar always manages to find the few glowing embers scattered among the ashes–not unlike the mythical phoenix.

Finally–on a personal note: I’m extremely interested in the way both Hujar and Tress use doors, apertures and other openings as a means of interrogating notions of participation vs voyeurism. Additionally, I find their impetus for exploring abandoned, ruinous locations to be starkly different from folks nowadays who seek to document similar scenes as a means of projecting an internal state externally or as a means of serving a particular tonal ambiance or aesthetic.

As someone who dabbles in urbex activities, I feel a resonance with the queer use of neglected spaces far more than I do with the glut of shooters making highly stylized nudes in empty warehouses, asylums, etc.

To me there’s something extremely gratifying about people seeking out liminal spaces to not shrug off or externalize their feelings of marginalization but to feel connection in spite of them. I may be projecting but there is something thrilling about embracing what it is to be alive and free and to stage that in an environment which so clearly exemplifies death and decay so perfectly resonates with the little death some of us pursue as a means of coming to terms with the on big death towards which we inextricably slip.

Peter HujarBruce de Sainte Croix Triptych (1976)

The central image here served as my introduction to Hujar’s work. (I posted about it 2.5 years ago–misattributing the subject and excerpting just the one image from the grouping.) But, I recently discovered that I was familiar with another of his photos well ahead of that–probably the photo most commonly associated with Susan Sontag was made by him.)

I keep coming back to his work, though. I guess the reason I do is due to his patently even handed approach to all subjects. From portraiture, to landscapes to erotica, he invariably affords his subjects a calm dignity which more often than not edges over into a flash of stubborn pride.

As if in the mid-to-late 70s and big bad eighties in Manhattan with the specter of HIV and AIDS stalking the gay community, there was a camaraderie and joie de vivre that you just don’t really ever see. (And to be clear, I have no intention of romanticizing. It just strikes me that the romanticization of much of the work emanating from the downtown scene possesses an openness an candor that was bred as a result of surviving, the creation of which was clear eyed and unpretentious and for those who didn’t live through those years in that climate read as charmed in a way that was never intended by the creators.)

His tone and frank presentation of ‘high’ and ‘low’ subject matter with the same, quietly incisive approach are things I would very much like to achieve in my own work.