Doug Ischar

Toronto

Doug Ischar: MW 19 (1984/2009), from the series Marginal Waters (1984-85): Images courtesy Gallery 44, Toronto, and Golden Gallery, New York.Doug Ischar: MW 19 (1984/2009), from the series Marginal Waters (1984-85): Images courtesy Gallery 44, Toronto, and Golden Gallery, New York.By Matthew Ryan Smith

Doug Ischar
Gallery 44 and Vtape
May 3 – June 15, 2013

Doug Ischar’s recent exhibition, Undertow, is partitioned into three distinct but interrelated sections comprising photography, installation and experimental film. At issue in the works is the politics of queer representation, particularly how queerness relates to masculine archetypes embedded within American culture. This politic is marked by the emotional pain that accompanies loss and the terror of AIDS.

Undertow covers three decades of production in Ischar’s oeuvre. The first section, from the artist’s photographic series "Marginal Waters" (1984-85), displayed in Gallery 44’s main space, documents gay men on Belmont Rocks, an area of Chicago’s seawall noted for being, at one time, the most visible gay beach in North America. Many of the pictures buzz with uninhibited sexuality: young and old men in Speedos and swim trunks (or nothing at all) bare their flesh under a hot sun and beside Chicago waters. Essentially, Ischar’s pictures represent a certain unpolluted autonomy and abandon. This applies to the gay men suntanning in the photos as much as the family enjoying a picnic directly beside them. Ultimately, these pictures are as much about interactions, about family, as they are about queered masculinity.

Surprisingly, most critics have ignored or overlooked the connections between "Marginal Waters" and Nan Goldin’s celebrated photographs of queer men and women as they live and breathe on beaches in New York and Massachusetts, which are, I would argue, more impactful. This is in part due to Golden’s proximity to her subjects. Ischar’s subjects seldom, if ever, acknowledge the presence of the camera, rarely match its cold gaze, whereas Goldin’s subjects return the gaze of the viewer through Goldin’s own eye. Her photographs are more intimate, more enveloping, while Ischar’s pictures appear somewhat distant and removed, mainly because many of his figures are rendered anonymous either through cropping, covering their faces or turning away from the camera. Why? The strange dichotomy of "Marginal Waters" is that it offers views of an unpolluted autonomy and abandon without clearly identifying those who lived it.

Doug Ischar: Tag (1993): Lacoste shirt (altered), hanger, video projector, tripod, digital media transferred from Super 8 film, 24 x 71 x 28 inches, edition of 2.Doug Ischar: Tag (1993): Lacoste shirt (altered), hanger, video projector, tripod, digital media transferred from Super 8 film, 24 x 71 x 28 inches, edition of 2.Ischar’s installations were created in the 1990s and exhibited in Gallery 44’s small gallery behind a weathered old off-white canvas veil. As sculptural objects with video elements, they’re often beautiful, even poetic, while others carry the threat of violence or aggression. For example, in Lapse (1995), Ischar stood a brass belt buckle upright on the floor of the gallery and projected a black-and-white image of a man in profile nodding his head to invite someone over. Taken together, material and image speak of sex without arriving there completely, something close to the origin of poetry itself. In another work, Tag (1993) an altered Lacoste collared t-shirt is hung by a white hanger on a wall by a single nail. A projected image of a crocodile attacking a man is cast inside the shirt. The man in the image responds to the attack by viciously stabbing the reptile before he himself drowns as a result of his wounds. Conversely, the digital media used was transferred from a 1920 work produced by Castle Films entitled Crocodile Thrills, in which men capture or brutally kill wild crocodiles with blunt objects, sharpened sticks or hatchets. At the end of the film, when a fake crocodile overturns their boat, one man is captured swimming to safety as a the puppet follows closely behind. It is this clip that is pulled from the film and projected onto the shirt. Ultimately, the work can be read in many ways, perhaps in terms of AIDS itself; however, in the context of Ischar’s Marginal Waters series, the crocodile seems to represent a heteronormative metaphor for the queer men who frequented the shoreline and (falsely) threatened safety and social order. Be that as it may, Ischar’s installations successfully navigate loaded conceptual devices with complex physical materials.

The third and final part of Undertow is staged in collaboration with Vtape. Here, two of Ischar’s more recent films, Alone With You (2011) and Tristes Tarzan (2012), nuance the aesthetic vocabulary of queer desire. Both films engage with such desire as it exists in the cultural zeitgeist of Americana: the first through professional wrestling, the second through the myth of Tarzan. Each are concerned with usurping conventional cinema by doing away with traditional narrative devices, emphasis on sound and rigid editing practices. It’s often frenetic then idle, referential then vague. In other words, Ischar’s experimental films are messy, like sex should be. In this, they achieve their aims.

Though Undertow generates pause for deep reflection and remembrance, the work is also a powerful source of strength and resolution.