Alvin Baltrop: Sex on the piers and other formal abstractions – thoughts on “Dreams Into Glass” at CAMH
(quoting from a recent email to a friend)
Dear X (Spencer Douglass),
WHILE YOU ARE IN HOUSTON YOU HAVE TO GO SEE THIS SHOW: http://www.camh.org/
Have a blast in Texas. Tell me stories when you return.
So right. Before the fun of seeing naked bodies, the initial attraction was that I was seeing photographs, small size rather than printed large. Then it was that many of them are black and white (I am a sucker for the lovely crispness and contrast of b/w photos) (eek, and then I started to freak out about the beauty of the color photos!) and then my breath began to catch at the back of my throat, for even as I appreciated the beauty and abandon of the characters in his photographs, grief rose in my heart at the fact that many of Baltrop’s subjects in the piers photos died in the AIDS pandemic when it first swept the country and my community. I wasn’t there, I didn’t die, but AIDS touched everyone I knew. That someone who was present in that place and time cared to take pictures and save part of the experience feels like a great gift.
Writer Oso Atoe, at Colorlines, offers some perspective on Baltrop: “At the age of 26, Alvin Baltrop began photographing what was going on at Manhattan’s West Side piers. The area, full of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated industrial piers, became a temporary home for queer teenage runaways and a cruising spot for gay men. It was a place that was under the radar. People went there to do drugs, muggings were common and so, unfortunately, were rape, murder and suicide. Baltrop’s camera captured gay public sex, the public art of muralist Tava, various unknown graffiti artists, as well as pieces by David Wojnarowicz, who also visited the piers. Baltrop documented homelessness, death and the stark decay of run-down warehouses with depth and grace.” Continue reading…
The slideshow soundtrack was of phone interviews Baltrop did with people who hung at the piers, and I think also with people during the AIDS crisis and in its aftermath. These stories were variously mundane and transcendent and often were triumphant in the sense that voices survived.
The sense of the personal was all over this show: Baltrop’s life and the lives he chose to photograph were seamlessly embedded in his art, as were his aesthetic decisions. Given that at the time, as today, conceptual strategies for making photos predominate, Baltrop’s work feels very political. To me Baltrop was a great artist because his photos point to and come from life, they bring up all the fascinating, charged questions of humanness and queerness and form and color and identity and love and hate and economies and distribution of goods and he photographed art outside museums and people inside them and he learned from other artists and he die not make photographs as signifiers or simulacra; he did not make art about art. Given the current prevalence of photography for art’s sake in Los Angeles and elsewhere, I would recommend this show and the catalog to everyone who is concerned with looking at art. http://www.camh.org/archive-publications/publications