Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 25, 2017
Wade Guyton One Month Ago Edition of 500. New York: Karma, 2014. 368 pp.; Many color ills. Paper $45.00 (9781938560743)

On January 13, 2013, the contemporary artist Wade Guyton visited a blog on Tumblr, the less-is-more, image-driven social-media platform that resembles an online corkboard. He downloaded thirty days’ worth of the blog’s contents and transposed them into that good old thing, the book, calling it One Month Ago. The title refers to the way in which Tumblr automatically tells website visitors how far away they are, temporally speaking, from the post they are currently looking at (from, say, one hour ago, to one week ago, to one month ago, and so on). The Tumblr in question is not your typical Tumblr, however, and its contents bear no obvious relationship to the work Guyton is known for: large-scale abstract paintings made of linens and other materials printed with inkjet printers. It belongs to one “sfcrewcut” and consists mainly of photographs of a variety of gay kink scenes centering on adult BDSM, rubber, leather, skinhead—from mild to wild to, well, extreme.

While after the initial discovery of a blog visitors may spend some time browsing through recent posts and the archives, in subsequent visits they are more likely to be drawn to the updates—new posts that show up on one’s feed or are announced via email. The seriality of the blog keeps one hooked, in anticipation. The printed book, on the other hand, because it is a static object incapable of updating itself, gives one all it’s got at once. In page after page of One Month Ago, readers encounter the different variations of the play sessions, the different configurations of bodies in different gear, an onslaught of sexually charged “scenes.” The initial response—and the book is most likely to elicit strong, even visceral responses from most readers, from attraction and arousal, to aversion or even disgust, depending on the reader—at a certain point wears off, as the images become repetitive, despite or perhaps because of their explicitness.

Seriality and monotonous variations of a theme: this may also be where we can begin to place One Month Ago in relation to Guyton’s oeuvre, which is often premised on replication. For example, in the paintings for which he is best known, the artist starts with a single image file and one printer and produces endless variations through the vicissitudes of the imperfect machine (and the artist’s manipulation of it). This approach is in line with the impulse to erase the self—what the artist Robert Morris calls “agency reduction” (Robert Morris, “A JUDSON p.s.,” [December 31, 2012]:—that students of post-Cagean aesthetics will be familiar with (Guyton studied with Morris at Hunter College). sfcrewcut’s agency clearly precedes Guyton’s in that the blogger chose the images and the ten-posts-per-page configuration. Tumblr’s faceless algorithm, too, had a hand; it determined the layout of each page, taking into account each image’s size.

Since Cage, if not before, agency reduction has been precisely that, reduction. The artist cannot seem to let go (or, as some might argue, even the decision to bypass agency is itself agency). Indeed, Guyton maintains control over the finished product, expressing, for example, a sure sense of design and composition. Consider the minimalist typeface, tastefully placed on the top left of the cover, in black, contrasting with the all-white covers and spine; the empty space left on each spread to give visual rest amid the onslaught of “hardcore” stuff; the black background extending to the left page, but with approximately an inch of margin on the left in white: a perfect imbalance. For Interview magazine, the artist David Armstrong noted a “deliberate element of style” in some of his works, to which Guyton responded, “Well, art has to be sexy” (David Armstrong, “Wade Guyton,” Interview [June 8, 2009]:

Sex and art go way back, of course. In contemporary art, Robert Mapplethorpe immediately comes to mind as a predecessor vis-à-vis the artistic brush with kink. However, whereas eroticism takes up a huge part of Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre, One Month Ago is a bit of an anomaly in Guyton’s world. But a more significant difference is that for the former, the photos by and large fall under the documentary category. They capture something that happened. They also, in this sense, indexically refer back to the artist, the man behind the camera. They announce to the world, through the physical access to the scenes that allowed the photographs to be made in the first place: this is my world. Guyton, more “post-” (perhaps also more coy), is different. For one thing, the public discussion of Guyton’s work and life does not intersect with the history of queer identity and social life in the Unites States that Mapplethorpe’s life and work invite. This is not so atypical of today’s internet-driven queer life-world, including, too, kink subculture. The technical specifics of how One Month Ago was made elude me, but it is quite certain Guyton would have been able to make this work without leaving his studio, his computer. That is precisely to the point. While in line with the dominant narrative about the artist’s hands-free, printer-becomes-brush aesthetic, One Month Ago raises another, and to me more interesting, issue. Today you can partake in the world that Mapplethorpe went out to experience, and photographed in his studio, without leaving your room, abetted by blogs like sfcrewcut’s. The physical analogue to this is the move away from public gathering spaces to private encounters mediated by apps. Images—“pics”—become social mediators and currencies of desires as they are traded online. The importance of pics, and the advancement in phone-camera technology, also explain the proliferation of sometimes very polished images blurring the line between amateur and professional depicting a variety of BDSM practices by the community. Photographs shot by everyday people, in fact, make up, I believe, the majority of images on sfcrewcut’s blog.

There has been much discussion about the loss of solidarity and community in LGBT communities in the wake of the app-based individual hook-up culture that, some argue, is rendering public spaces regrettably obsolete. Yet the internet has also facilitated unprecedented penetration: from metropolitan clusters, to the suburbs, rural areas, isolated communities, and back again. Automation breeds obsolescence. Automation also democratizes, much like how anyone can take pics, start a Tumblr. For most visitors to sfcrewcut’s site, the blog, it is safe to say, provides at least two use functions, one quite obvious, self-determining, another more network-dependent, social, and imaginative. The blog, and the reblogs of others that sfcrewcut posts, and the others’ reblogs of his stuff, the “notes,” the likes, the sharing, the links—these become part of the communal fabric of a subculture.

On the other hand, Guyton’s transposition of mediums from the get-go alters the use-function of the contents, rarefying them to the limited-edition book shelves. We might ask what the intended use of One Month Ago could be. With the original forty-five-dollar retail price tag—and now going for hundreds on Amazon since it is out of print—the pristine white cover, and the glossy paper, you do not want to “dirty” this book which ironically contains all the kinky things that “dirty” minds come up with. And while leafing through it in order to contemplate its aesthetic merits may be possible, the strong reactions that the images have the power to arouse keep the book away from the realm of Kantian disinterestedness. The two more democratic use-functions of the blog are lost, while what is gained is, cynics would argue, perhaps more self-serving: from public Tumblr to commodity objects.

Still, how sublimated can you be when you are looking at an image of, say, a guy in a leather harness acting out the role of a human urinal, the rubber funnel gag firmly attached to his mouth? The day Guyton downloaded the Tumblr also coincided with the closing of his mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the show that confirmed his position at the forefront of contemporary art. There was no explicit imagery at the Whitney show. Could One Month Ago be read as a nonconformist statement of difference after the coronation? Could this unassuming artist’s book, with its clean look, have made it, guerrilla-style, into a collection of coffee-table art books and exhibition catalogues of proper names? I am inclined to read the book as Guyton’s rebuke to the line of criticism that positions him as basking in the limelight without making a difference in the privileged art world of abstract paintings. The fact that it is a book makes it circulate in a different economy than his paintings (some now selling at seven figures). On the other hand, a limited-edition book in practice has much less reach than big paintings endlessly reproduced on Google images. He seems to want to have his sexy cake and eat it, too. This is not dissimilar to the way Guyton starts his work processes digitally but always ends with physical products, many to be viewed on a museum or a gallery wall. Even if the pics are immaterial, the prized encounter still happens in the physical realm. At least for now.

Paisid Aramphongphan
Early Career Academic Fellow, Leicester School of Art, De Montfort University