Essays: The Subject Looks Back

THE SUBJECT LOOKS BACK | BRAD FRASER

It’s supposed to be a simple photo shoot for a charitable event.

Walking into G. Elliott Simpson’s studio on a hot afternoon, I am greeted by a friendly guy with ginger hair and an open, engaging manner. I am immediately at ease despite the presence of what looks like bondage gear spread out over various surfaces and hanging from hooks; dark, gleaming fabrics, the flash of glass and the glint of metal teased here and there by the light.

We shoot the shit in that way photographer and subject do when meeting for the first time, trying to establish something like comfort in what begins invariably as an uncomfortable situation. Brief biographies are exchanged, beverages are offered, a certain trust is established, and he mentions he was in a medically induced coma for a period of time, brought on by misadventure of some sort. In a typically Canadian fashion I murmur something sympathetic and don’t pursue it. Nor does he offer any further explanation. We get down to business. He opens a portfolio and shows me his work.

It blows my mind.

Not only because of the conflicting beauty of the images, but because there’s something in them I almost recognize, like the visual vocabulary of a recurring dream I’ve had since childhood – the oily sheen, the reflective surfaces broken by soft flesh, hints of machinery, sinister gas-masks and reflective goggles. I understand these images on a visceral level. I make it clear I’m happy to do whatever he wants me to do, despite my reservations about the erotic beauty of his work and my own then fifty-year-old body. Like any great photographer, he convinces me I am perfect for what he wants to do and before I know it we’re creating a costume using pieces he pulled before my arrival. After we arrive at an outfit that pleases us both I strip down and he coats my entire head and body in black latex paint.

The experience is entirely professional but erotically intimate. He stands close as he paints me, breathing against my skin. The wide brush strokes every part of my body as I disappear beneath a layer of glistening black. This is not the black of race. This is not the black of skin. It is the black of oil, the black of decay, history and oblivion; the black of anonymity. I am transformed into another being entirely, one that might exist in old negatives, where the dark and light are transposed.

As the costume is assembled I am transformed into Mad Max by way of the Exxon Valdez. Rubber shorts, a distressed shirt, metal arm bands, greaves over my shins, an Australian outback hat and some sort of rebreather that covers my mouth and nose. My body feels both confined and powerful. Beneath the components the paint moves just slightly out of sync with my body, like the skin of a snake feeling the first itch to molt.

Simpson suggests poses. The camera clicks. Absolved of the need to somehow project myself, I do so with more freedom than I’ve ever known. I am aware of my body, my bulk and silhouette, in a whole new way. The way in which the rubber shorts cling to my cock and ass is arousing. But it’s not the bondage or leather vibe you might expect. There are suggestions of kink and fetishism, but the experience transcends them. While what’s happening is about power, it’s about power shared, not surrendered or demanded. Visually I am his creation, but my mass and movement give his creation life. Photographer and subject are on equal terms.

When we’re done I feel like we’ve just completed some very male athletic event which we both won. I shower and the paint slides off my body and down the drain. I feel slightly sad and slightly weaker as my pale human flesh returns. We part warmly and he promises to send me proofs once he’s had a chance to work on them.

In some ways Simpson works like a film-maker. The initial photographs are just the beginning of a much longer, highly labour-intensive process. Backgrounds are painted, figures are retouched, distorted, changed. Viewing the final print is different from seeing the original proofs in the same way that seeing an artist’s initial storyboards differs from viewing the finished film. The artifice that began with the costumes and props from the original shoot becomes so enhanced that the images take on a convincing naturalism authentic to the artist’s vision and world view. The photo he has taken of me, under the paint and armour, is not me at all, and yet is totally me as well.

Of his process Simpson has said, “In my photographs I’m responding to this particular cultural alchemy of fear and fascination, a strange collision between sex-sells-commercialism and ‘Thanatos’. I never know at the start of a session what or who my model will become. Creation is complex and dirty. The charge for me comes when the figure is complete, the result itself not unlike solving a puzzle or equation.”

Like all gay men of his generation, Simpson has been affected by the AIDS crisis. Concepts of decay and death exist side by side with ideas of life and carnality. The bodies he photographs are not in any way grotesque, they are as beautiful as any commercial creation. It is the images and textures in which he traps these divine models that make him unique.

The bodies manage to be both protected and vulnerable. For every leather/rubber/metal covering there is an open area of flesh, painted perhaps, but still vulnerable to penetration, desire and disease. Some have the skeleton of the subject transposed to the outside of the body, bringing representations of the living and the dead into a stunning harmony. Other bodies are trapped in ropes and puddles of a milky, viscous fluid that suggest staggering amounts of cum, snot and spit. Some depict two men involved in something that suggests both a sex act and a battle. Tenderness, like unadorned skin, is only glimpsed beneath the tribalism and savagery that permeates the pictures.

While Simpson cites a number of influences, ranging from Caravaggio to Bacon, it is Goya who speaks to him most personally. “I felt a similar disturbing mood when I first encountered Modigliani’s work in person – I’d always known Modigliani from my art history but the sense the empty eyes evoked in me when seeing the work in person… I found them to be extraordinarily haunting and have tried to draw that into my work too if I can.”

These images also reflect some of the darker areas of popular culture. Any comic book reader will respond to these images as echoes of the “dark and gritty” movement in mainstream super-hero comics, which, like the AIDS crisis, emerged in the eighties and exerted a powerful and questionable influence for an inordinately long time. Memories of Spider-Man’s black, alien costume, the homicidal, revenge-driven Punisher, Frank Miller’s depiction of Batman as an aging dark knight, Captain America’s newest frenemy the partially bionic Winter Soldier, along with many others, are recalled in these pages. So too are those Calvin Klein/Soloflex style ads that have proliferated since, making the exploitation of the male body for advertising purposes as common as that of the female body.

What keeps Simpson’s imagery modern is the way he fuses the body and those things that enhance it in a manner that is sensual and cyborgian while appearing entirely organic. Hoses and tubes both enter and leave the body, connecting the interior organs to the exterior covering. The painted skin provides a slightly inhuman transition from the human being to the stylized carapace.

As I can attest, the transformation is arresting, and Simpson knows it. When speaking of the part of the process he finds most satisfying he says, “I suppose the end, where I get to see the piece printed, mounted, and hung on a gallery wall — and also to see the model’s reaction to that same moment. Most of them, even though they are fitness models, have never seen themselves the way I’ve reinvented them. There’s always a bit of disbelief on their faces, like they don’t recognize themselves anymore, and that’s a remarkable experience to be able to give to someone (and entertaining too).” In deconstructing and destroying beauty, Simpson also highlights and exalts it.

In these sorts of introductions there is often a temptation to ferret out and share those experiences and life-events that seem to somehow reveal the artist. I have resisted that urge, seeking instead to capture and convey what participating in and witnessing the artist’s process was like. If there are ever any answers to be found to the ideas and conundrums an artist poses, I believe they are found more in the process than in the final result.

However, given the specificity of Simpson’s vision, I can’t help reflecting on the time he spent in a coma. It lasted seven weeks, and during the final four of those weeks he was awakened once a day to monitor his condition. Of his time in the coma Simpson remembers only blackness. No dreams. No images. But when they woke him he experienced terrible visions drenched in vivid, distorted, religious, human and mechanical imagery.

Is there truly a time when the brain is completely inactive? Even filled with drugs, does it ever really go blank? Just because we don’t remember something doesn’t mean nothing happened. We think of our waking time as reality and our dreaming time as illusion, but we need both to survive. What then is the reality of a person for whom unconsciousness is the only reality? Were Simpson’s hallucinations what our reality might look like to the brain that hasn’t seen it for a while? Or were they an after-image, a visual hangover, from another reality he no longer remembers? Are these photographs the attempt of the subconscious to reconcile something that agitates the waking brain, or the attempt of the imagination to reconcile a profound physical and psychic injury?

We can no more know the answers to these questions than truly understand an artist’s impulses and processes. All brilliant artists are valued, not for the answers they provide, but for the questions they ask. That G. Elliott Simpson is an artist with a singular vision, and brilliant, is something I do not doubt.

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Brad Fraser is a playwright, director and television host whose award winning work has been produced around the world. Plays include “Love and Human Remains”, “Poor Super Man” and “Kill Me Now”, to name only a few. His film work includes “Love and Human Remains”, directed by Academy Award Winner Denys Arcand and “Leaving Metropolis”. His television work includes three seasons as a writer/producer on the American version of “Queer As Folk” and two seasons hosting “Jawbreaker; with Brad Fraser” for Canada’s first gay TV network. Further info can be found at www.bradfraser.net