A brick column – part chimney, part tower, part Edgar Allan Poe-inspired nightmare – stood at the back of the Taxter & Spengemann gallery. Downstairs in the basement, the dread character of the tower was made concrete: a mechanism incorporating sadomasochistic straps dangled from the wall, equal parts erotic nightmare and fantasy. Basements have long been the reserve of secret and unsavoury dealings. Those associations reached a possible apotheosis in the recent case of Josef Fritzl, at least one lesson of which is simple: every manicured tower will have a messy, perverse fantasy operating at its base. As if to drive home this point, one kind of fantasy was actualized by Putnam in a performance that involved S&M restraints, but also – and perhaps more crucially – a durational and gravitational element that consisted of the artist hanging from the installation for a set amount of time.
In this sense, it’s clear that the power of Putnam’s work is not simply derived from the collective reservoir of S&M fantasies, news items and true-life crime stories. While he may draw from obvious ideas of sexual unrest, Putnam also uses a degree of workmanship in his construction of desire, both in material and durational terms, as signalled by the brick-by-brick construction of the tower New York, New York (2009). In this way, the artist declared himself to be a pervert in the technical sense of the word: the overwhelming concern of his work is in the organization of his desire.
The world of sexuality is at once rife with metaphor and literalness, and Putnam represents both aspects in his work. On the one hand the construction of desire is apparent in the overflow of architectural motifs in his drawings: stairwells, ladders, towers, colonnades. Putnam effectively externalizes interior and psychological spaces, locating their material expression. But even as this gesture seems grounded in a deliberate literalness, a plethora of metaphorical motifs also appear, each of which carries the freight of its own particular significance: mirrors, voids, phallic objects and the like.
Having mapped this territory, Putnam inserts his body into it. In previous works, he has staged a series of performances that took place in the studio or the gallery, and were somewhere between private and public events (though, in both cases, documented in a single photograph). In Stilts (2000), his body formed the apex of a triangle set by two wobbly pairs of stilts; Dish Cabinet (1997) featured his sizeable frame crammed into a cupboard shelf. Although neither of these works was featured in the exhibition at Taxter & Spengemann, they relate to Putnam’s ongoing attempt to couple his understanding of desire with larger, loose and vaguely existential dilemmas, trying to make sense of the meaning of his own body by using the apparatus of architectural space.
For all the hard edges of Putnam’s work – the suffocating mask of the Tapeface (2009), the refracting surface of Mirror Face (2009), two photographic works that again act as distillations of private performances – there is a concurrent sensibility that is simple and playful. His sense of internal worlds is hardly restricted to the dungeon and the basement; for instance, in Green Hallways (Magic Lantern) (2007), his installation at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, he created a dreamlike environment of reflected light and colour using the most basic of tools: theatrical lighting gels, mirrors and light bulbs. Similarly, some of his works reflect nothing so acutely as the simple passage of time. A lovely series of what the artist refers to as ‘sundials’ use light and shadow to create images of three-dimensional space, on the floor or the wall. And the precise, technical way in which Putnam produces his photographs – often using a pinhole camera or hand-printed c-type prints, wherein the material printing process is comprised of layers, each representing a distinct ‘frame’ of time – also imbues these images with a sense of time passing and time already lost.
Much of that sense is indistinct, but it lingers alongside – and perhaps beyond – the more shocking sensations Putnam’s work produces. In this sense, the shocking is directly materialized into theatrical sets and images, while the more quietly destabilizing remains unstated and unlocatable. The relationship between these two seemingly contrary facets of his work is perhaps the most powerful thing at play here. Among the uneasy things Putnam says is that the world of nostalgia and childhood are inseparable from the world of sexuality and desire; that within or without the basement, the two worlds continue to collide in sometimes beautiful, but often troubling, ways.