Body of work
The curator of the University of Nevada, Reno's art galleries has an off-campus exhibition of very personal artwork
“Damn,” I think. “I hope no one walks in.”
I’m in a tiny, square gallery bleached by desert sunlight, looking at what is basically gay porn, full-frontal male nudity in frames on four close walls. There’s no classy drapery in the pictures to give me an art-historical justification, no luxurious lighting that would invite terms like “sensual” or “fine-art nude.” Just young, buff models, framed without heads, posed on beds, looking ready for intimate contact.
If someone walks into this room, it’s going to be awkward. It’s not because the models are nude. Heck, I’ve been to art school. It’s because they make me feel alternately like a welcome voyeur and an intruder at the same time. The artist, Paul Baker Prindle, photographed unabashed views of male bodies, then built in clues and signifiers that say “keep your distance”: low lighting, fuzzy focus, glass so reflective it adds the viewer’s own face to the picture. The way the exhibit is installed adds a couple of more layers of barriers. A pile of gleaming white, cast porcelain human femur bones on the floor makes it so that you have to view a row of Polariods from awkwardly far away. The Polaroids themselves are hung so low you almost have to stoop to see them.
These pictures are definitely not one-liners. There were clearly some stories behind this work. Some of them, it turns out, are as simple as: My friends came over, took their clothes off and modeled for me. Others go a lot deeper into gay identity and culture.My own private Wisconsin
Two days later, Baker Prindle, as gracious as his work is audacious, pours a cup of French press coffee in his office behind the Sheppard Contemporary Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is the gallery director, and spins upward of 1,000 words per picture.
He’s a Wisconsinite who credits a lot of his particular perspective on culture to the fact that he grew up gay at a moment when the very idea of growing up gay was changing rapidly. He went to high school in the 1990s.
“My generation was the last one to have lived after the height of the AIDS epidemic, to become sexually active after that, and so we were the first to come out of it and also the last to have a really solid memory of what it was like,” he said. “When I was in high school, you could still be arrested for having sex. But when I went to grad school, it was totally different. It was decriminalized. People were getting married in certain states. It was a whole big deal. Once I got to grad school, gay life totally changed. Everyone wanted a gay best friend. There were gay people on TV.”
Coming of age at this moment of transition gave him something of an insider/outsider perspective.
At a teen, he frequented a gay bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Sunday nights, when the Chicago DJs would appear to cap off the weekends. “I grew up in the last few glory years of Chicago House,” he said. The sensory details are still with him: “It smelled like coke and poppers. There was this element of danger. There was this whole ritual, getting ready and going out, those huge raver-bottom pants. The humidity of the room hit you as soon as you walked in. There was always this confetti pile of wrist bands.” Because many patrons were underage, they’d take off the club-issued wrist bands as soon as they arrived, so they’d be in no danger of forgetting to remove the evidence on the way back to their parents’ houses.
He loved the look of clubs like that. “Gay bars were always in these tired, formerly glamorous places that nobody wants anymore, so the gays would move in and take it over,” he said. “That’s kind of our M.O.”
At times of day when the bars were empty of patrons, he’d photograph them, reveling in the peeling paint and aging fixtures. “You know something amazing had happened there,” he said, but during the light of day they looked, to him, appealingly abject.Fantasy life
Among Baker Prindle's chief art-historical interest are heavy, sparse, minimalist sculptures by American artists such as Carl Andre and Richard Serra—and the visually indulgent Southern Baroque of 17th-century Europe, which he picked up a taste for when he went to college in Rome. The two styles look nothing alike. What Baker Prindle likes about them is, “Both require the viewers to do work to understand the work.”
That “work” involves seeking out stories. The places he photographs look anonymous until the backstories bring them to life. Without hearing about the club scene in Green Bay, you might not notice that his photos document the site of a thrilling, thriving underground culture. Another series of photos look like they’re about ordinary bathrooms in ordinary Chicago parks, until you know they’re cruising grounds. Even Baker Prindle missed that detail when he first saw them. He said, “I couldn’t understand what people were doing at eight in the morning, guys in suits walking out from the woods back to their BMWs. Getting a little dose of nature before you go in to the office?”
“I tend toward looking at art that looks into another world,” he said. “Fantasy is a really important element to me.” Not always the happy kind, however. In his most chilling series to date, a scruffy, suburban house and an empty school playground appear downright sparse, and a stretch of wire fencing in a field is, at first glance, so uneventful it’s practically ho-hum. Until you learn that they’re murder scenes, and that the fence is the one in Wyoming that made headlines when gay college student Matthew Shepard was killed there in 1998. Once the viewer has this knowledge, the photos’ ordinariness becomes terrifying in that it-could-have-happened-to-anyone way.
A long-running question for Baker Prindle has been: How do image and memory work together? He points out that it’s our memories and our cultural conventions that give the photographs their power, and that’s a lot of what he’s addressing with his current series.
Hence my discomfort two days before having learned all this, standing in the tiny gallery trying to process the porn-like nudes, hoping not to have to share that experience with a stranger.
Baker Prindle said any way of reading his work from that series would have been fine with him. “I’m not going to be mad at someone if they just want to look at naked dudes. I’m not one of those fascists who says you have to look at my work this way,” he said. Meanwhile, he’s made as good a case as I’ve ever heard for settling in for a good, long story behind a body of images.