SITE EIGHT / 22 February to 4 March 2011
The Gift and the Curse explores masculinity and vulnerability through the photographic image. Drew Pettifer combines the materiality of paint to allude to bodily fluids and castration and to question acts of violence in the guise of modesty.
During my meeting with Drew Pettifer, his phone was abuzz and alight with incoming calls and texts from his seemingly unlimited gang of youthful, inner-city male friends. Mixing business with pleasure, Pettifer organises social meet-ups with them at a range of locations; these spill into photographic sessions, in which the young men remove their clothes so that Pettifer might document a moment in their sexual and social lives.
However, these activities result in neither the intimate, cinematic documentation of a real life group of friends or the tongue-in-cheek constructed portraits of male vulnerability we have seen from other artists (including Nan Goldin, Larry Clark and Lyndal Walker).
Instead, Pettifer's models awkwardly stand amidst ordinary rooms full of second-hand furniture, towel racks, CD cabinets, pot plants and Bunnings Warehouse shelving, lending the photographs a casual realism. While some men stand astride with youthful pride, others, such as 'Kieran' (wiping his chin in the shower) seem as if they've been spontaneously snapped. The affably smiling Jono, on mantle, and the winsomely gazing Simon, beneath Hills Hoist, pose in ways they might have fully clothed. In their raw state, the photographs have an almost amateur, boy-next-door-appeal, but Pettifer quickly sets about dismantling that.
In the safety of his own studio, he violates them with black enamel paint. Splattering his models squarely in the genital area, Pettifer allows the paint to pool beneath their legs. Though Pettifer's use of 'action painting' may be to rupture the sense of reality a photograph simulates, to this viewer, it seems more like a form of territorial marking that approximates tar-black, congealed semen stains. In either case, it suddenly alerts us to the men's liquid primacy, while seemingly threatening them with encroaching age, impotency, disease or death.
Aristotle attributed semen's whiteness, frothiness and shine to its heat, arising from men's youthful vitality and vigorousness. He also believed that semen was form giving and active, embodying spiritual qualities. However, once exposed to the cool air outside the bodily vessel, sperm quickly became "impure matter", turning fluid and dark, like female menstrual blood.
Since Aristotle, philosophers Derrida, Bataille and Barthes have continued to explore this quintessentially male substance, wielding terms such as dissemination, expenditure and bliss in their studies of masculinity. Even feminist theorist Luce Irigaray, in her book This Sex Which Is Not One, calls for a "reckoning with sperm-fluid" suggesting that semen, concretely visible as a liquid, can function as an object in its own right, and bring new thinking to an outmoded gender history focussed on the phallus. Meanwhile, in the 2007 book Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning, Murat Aydemir provides this thorough assessment of sperm fluid's potential through the lens of philosophy, art, literature and culture, citing photographer Andres Serrano's work as key in repositioning the metaphoric power of bodily fluid.
Pettifer's previous photographic work The Decisive Moment initiated his own engagement with the materiality of sperm. Pettifer captured the faces of men ejaculating, and presented their semen in film canisters alongside the photographs, suggesting semen constituted an important element of their identity, providing, like the photographs, a physical and psychological reminder of the men's bodily experience.
By hovering the prints of his subjects in The Gift and the Curse precariously on door frames, Pettifer refers to another substantive moment; the transition between youth and adulthood. Since most of the models aresix to twelve years younger than the artist, who at their age, first "came out" as a queer man, he seems focussed on re-capturing identities still fluctuating between fluid and fixed. While some of the men are straight, or "mostly straight", others are gay, bi, or "mostly gay". All of them are "questioning", or acutely wondering about and role-playing the place of sexuality in their lives.
In the novel Peter Pan, the youthful Peter is described by JM Barrie as a beautiful boy with a beautiful smile, "clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees". Pettifer's care and capture of his own 'Lost Boys' are deeply inscribed with this same sticky liquidity, camaraderie, and emphasis on maintaining youth. Yet by muddying the 'waters' he pours over them, the artist seems to be signalling the fleetingness of life in general and mourning the future moment when the photographs will be all that remain.
Kate Just is a Melbourne based artist, lecturer and writer.
The framing is almost always the same—the feet severed, and often a compositional device in the background—a painting, a bookshelf, a door. Additionally, the images all bear the hallmarks of the sharehouse—the inoffensive cream walls and bobbled brown-and-orange furniture, the Hills Hoist, the product-crowded shower. You get the feeling that these boys know their dicks are going to be occulted in the final image, so what we as viewers are observing in their stance is not so much the idea they have of being viewed in their nakedness by an unknown audience, but their reactions to being viewed by Pettifer specifically. In this way the works are as much studies of Drew as they are portraits of his subjects. This is where the splat comes in, for it is the device responsible for the disjuncture between the position of the artist and that of the audience. It would be difficult to argue for the authenticity of the paint splatter as an act since artists such as Kippenberger and Oehlen rhetoricised the painterly gesture; Pettifer in his turn is employing these glistening splats as prohibitive devices rather than revelatory flourishes. It is not right to say that they are prudish; it is something more to do with ownership, the experience of the subject replete with the artist's act of censorship, which act is connected to, indeed must be seen to stem from, an art-historical playing out of masculinities. (Of course the most obvious of paint-splattering male artists to come to mind is Pollock, who seems on one level to have been about saying 'dick' as clearly and loudly as possible without actually saying 'dick'.) Pettifer's work seems to be staging a collision between competing New York schools which Graw describes as 'on one side ... the "Pictures Generation," influenced by poststructuralist theory and favoring media such as photography and video; and on the other, their ultimate bugbear, the Neo-Expressionist painters.'1 The repetition within Pettifer's body of work reinforces this sense of staging. What I find most enjoyable when looking at the work through this lens is the prospect that such a collision of masculinities should produce so vulnerable and personal a result. This is to a significant degree on account of context, for the art world no longer operates through such stark dichotomies; when bringing past polarities into pluralistic contemporary structures, the wind will invariably be taken out of the former's sails as dispersed and variegated readings disrupt the prior idea of order.
Helen Johnson, 2010
1.Graw, Isabelle – High Price, 2009, Sternberg Press, Berlin, p. 98.