'And so all those reminders of the premium placed on Youth mesmerised me, made me focus on that particular summer, as, later, I would try to focus on whatever particular season it was. I cancelled out the future - or tried to - as if only the Present existed and would go on forever.'
City of Night, John Rechy, 1963
30 years on, Jack Pierson moves through Rechy's cities, creating a contemporary travelogue of a place that was once a dark and secret corner of the world. Spliced together and run through a projector, a wall of his photographs could be seconds in a loop. One minute of a walk on the beach, broken apart and isolated. The sky is blue, it may rain, his mouth is magnificent to someone, somewhere beyond the frame.
When I was about 14 I stumbled onto a cache of contact sheets in my father's closet. Hidden photographs signalled danger, and I remember opening the folder slowly and squinting. Embarrassment grew stronger than curiosity, and I quickly put back the tiny pictures of my mother naked on the beach. Jack Pierson's Chris 1993 is standing in a burnt orange hallway. Maybe he's come from the shower, maybe he's going to bed. As he poses with his arms behind his head, one leg juts out. He has no clothes on and he looks just like my mother. The picture is lush, serene and surprisingly uncharged. Unlike Robert Mapplethorpe's male nudes, where genitals are flowers to be arranged and sitters are characters in someone else's drama, Pierson's bodies are indeterminate. There is no feeling of confinement, and their image never seems owned, just momentarily borrowed.
The world that draws Jack Pierson in is packed with these young men. Whether sleeping, standing by their trucks or stripping down, they pose uncontested. While most of the texts in his drawings are genderless, it is clear that men are the focal point of his work. This is not to suggest that he views women as unnecessary (they do exist in his pictures, albeit sporadically), but rather that the need to construct a multi-dimensional homocentric identity is so immediate. On the cover of his book Angel Youth, Pierson's head looms above the body of a seated man, Narcissus to a male Echo. Pierson is in and out of the frame, simultaneously posing as a model and as a photographer in a set up studio. The inclusion of the working photographer throws into question the origin of his pictures. That which looks random, or appears as documentation, may actually be fiction. In some ways everybody is a self portrait, and every portrait an image through which Pierson is able to reformulate his own image. Homoerotic in the strict sense of the term, his pictures are an exercise in locating sameness within a sphere of desire.
The sometimes balmy, other times detached sensuality that envelops Pierson's portraits is always present in his still lives and interiors. He has a strong sense of place and colour, a fascination he shares with 70s photographers like Stephen Shore and William Larson. Bouquets and flower fields are lusciously draped, trippy in unreal shades. Using colour like a painter, Pierson drenches window-sills and corridors in hyper-concerntrated tones to highlight moods, to invent different kinds of beautiful within a frequently mundane schema. For formalists like Shore and Larson, the backyard or front of a house were distanced from their occupants. Pierson elevates the background. His is a quiet politic, one that strives to locate subjects within a complete world.
I call Pierson to ask for slides and we talk about the art community's perception of his work. I don't want to prompt you he says, but I feel like I 've been pegged as doing this hustler On The Road kind of work, which is fine, but the direction the work is going in is a more happy, love of life kind of thing. The Kodak moment. He's right - it's always been more enticing to focus on decadence than the Kodak moment. We want dirty heroes. We want them because they can do what we think we cannot. Through them we make a catalogue of memories that make a safe second order experience. That's why it's so desireable to cast Jack Pierson as our Jack Kerouac. To be sure, some of his work invites this comparison. An occasional picture, some of the drawings and the low-rent feel of his Angel Youth book embrace a certain sordidness. But when one looks closely, we may find that it's one's own imagination that is completing this perception.
Pierson's trepidation of being pigeon-holed is justified , given the usual definition of homosexuality. It is addressed through his photographs, fleshing out a terrain frequently demarcated in fragmentary terms. They illustrate a kind of hybrid identity; a love of gay references and history alongside an attraction to the fantastic ordinary existence entitled to heterosexuals. Pierson plays dangerously with these set notions, swaying back and forth between two inherited traditions. It may threaten some that a posture so seemingly foreign could metamorphose into one that is shared by those who see themselves outside his realm.
Later in his studio I ask Pierson to show me some of his magazine work - the kind that predates his recent success as an artist. Before doing so he downplays the relevance of his work. He tries to quantify the pictures, to let me know just what they aren't, as if not to disappoint me. He tells me that he was interested in making a different kind of pornography - less aggressive or distant. After skimming through a few issues of Honcho, I see what he means. Pierson's models are handsome and approachable. They look more like lovers than performers. There is a shot where one boy leans his head on the other's shoulder, and I notice something I see in a lot of his photographs - a winsome prettiness; a peaceful moment through which an undercurrent of sadness sweeps gently and relentlessly.
This is not hardcore stuff, not the stuff of myths. It's actually quite touching, almost a subversion of what one has come to expect from pornography. The sentimentality and romance that flows through his artwork is at his most resonant in these pictures, which operate as one of the foundations of his 'art' photographs. Elements of one seem to bleed into the other, which may account for the feeling that what one sees may be something else. He says the thing that really interests him about porn photography is seeing fragments of real life in the spreads. He shows me some shots of two men posturing on a couch, and points the little details, the information, the small world behind the tumble. In his artwork it is these details that assume importance. He picks through the trappings of subculture and suburbia and scatters what he finds, revealing a less plotted common ground.
These themes play out well through Pierson's apparently careless handling of the camera. Although the saturated washes of colour and occasional blurry imaging point towards an amateurism, these techniques are predetermined. That they look like family snap shots - simple, unprofessional, sometimes even bad - is integral to his strategy. His pinned-up enlargements take on the effect of a mural, a vast landscape that appoints no heirarchy. Unlike Diane Arbus, who believed that one image could tell a viewer everything, Pierson would offer that the perfect photograph is irrelevant. A picture of an empty studio or of cocks in a yard is as meaningful as a portrait of a person. One may wish this environment to be seedier than it is, to be the underbelly of something worth gawking at, in order to satisfy a certain curiosity. But it's not.
Oddly enough one may locate the On The Road aura not in the photographs but in the almost vaporous drawings Pierson makes. Although never stated, there is a man here who seems to be caught between two worlds - a man with no place to go. He is temporarily stranded, like the journeyman of Rechy's City of Night:
Recurrently, around the others hustling those places, I felt a particular overpowering guilt because I was not trapped by that world, as I was certain they were. Yet there were those other times when I felt even more hopelessly a part of it for having searched it out. It was a quandary so strangely disturbing - so difficult to understand - that I tried not to think about it. Perhaps because I sensed even that the answer to the riddle would entail something much too harsh to face.
Pierson's tracing of a telephone dial ring with the words 'Poor little dude' inscribed, details a static malaise more than a sense of desperation. Photographs like Neal and his Tunafish Salad (1993) are polar to many of these texts. A portrait of a man in a yard holding a dish of food is the flip side of Some(body) One Else (1991). The pencilled words are read vertically, and the key word One has been effaced -Exed out and replaced. A disposable entity without name or face. Almost all of Pierson's drawings are little sketches, as if notations or doodles on the margin of the page. An essential fragment, carved out of a place so basic that they seem to flutter like castaway thoughts. Pierson's pace is that of a long-jumper who inches ahead, training years to get to one crucial increment to the next. One of his strongest, yet slightest pieces is Hollywood (1991), pencil on paper. The drawing is the scrawled word Hollywood. That's it. Squiggly, childish, shaky. Someone is dreaming of Hollywood. A page ripped out of a Raymond Chandler pot-boiler, Hollywood is a message or a meeting place. The word itself is so loaded that an image would actually limit the implications.
Pierson's drawings have a sedimentary nature, and after a few encounters with them they start to assume a substance greater than their materiality. He tends to keep these two bodies of work separate from one another. Perhaps he's afraid the drawings might be reduced to captions or that the photos will become dependant on an explanatory text. Instead he may couple one of these bodies with a third group of works made up of large metal, wood or plastic letters. Similar to phrases found in the drawings, only more confident in their size and form, these sculptures act as a directorial cue, one which involves the viewer more closely in his installations. It is a useful manoeuvre, for as much as the drawings and photographs inform one another, Pierson's work operates best when references are drawn from memory, when one's own character becomes entangled in a place suddenly made familiar.