THE PRIVATE LENS OF ANONYMOUS ATTRACTIONS:
JO ANN CALLIS’S OTHER ROOMS
Sex is such a secretive and untranslatable activity – at once universal and private, delicate and unruly. Moreover, sex is inextricably wedded to touch and to sight, yet another unruly instinct which opens up avenues too risky to explore, but too irresistible not to contemplate. In her essay for Jo Ann Callis’s Other Rooms, Francine Prose describes sex as “the ultimate earworm, that song or musical phrase that we, our species, can’t get out of our minds.” The unwavering specificity of sexual drives and private attractions run like bedrock through the photographs in the book. They thrill in the incontrovertible force of physical attraction, which is embodied with great frankness, wry wit and artful invention.
Photography’s engagement with the depiction and sexualisation of the body emerged from painterly and sculptural traditions. In the turn of the century photographs of Bellocq, Stieglitz and Weston, the nude body revealed was always an implicitly feminine subject. The space within which the body was studied conformed to the order of a cloistered boudoir, or to scenic milieu of earthly and sculptural abstraction. The identity of the photographed subject was similarly shaped by diametric extremes, in which the subject was either an anonymous vessel of sensual form, or a facet of the autobiography of the artist.
Callis’s photographs depart from these conventions, both in the plurality of their subjects, the anonymity of their relationships, and the insistently theatrical setting of the work. In Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe we are given the outlines of a partnership replete with affection, doubt and strife, while in the nudes of Edward Weston we see the body rendered as a pretext for the triangulation of light, shadow and form. In Callis’s photographs we are thrust into the anti-autobiographical gesture of unbridled imaginative attractions, which are performed collaboratively in bizarrely non-descript interior spaces.
The sensual strangeness of Callis’s work flows from its microscopic theatre of bodily gesture, and from the emanating pulse of her pictures’ vivid and visceral colour. This colour tends toward a register of fleshly skin tones and warm golden light, and is counterpointed by an emphatically sexual use of shadow. While the setting of these pictures is definitively interior, the warmth of the lighting and the patterning of textures depart from conventions of domesticity. In Callis’s photographs we are placed within a private space that is loosely quotidian, and recognisably private, but utterly unconnected to any plausible intimation of domestic life.
Callis’s photographs neither have a basis in painterly conventions of the artistic nude, nor pretend to or reveal a diaristic relationship to the autobiography of an artist’s life. As Johanna Burton argued of the late work of Cindy Sherman, Callis’s photographs do not evoke an “illusion of familiarity … based on conventions” and do not “refer to any kind of stable codes.” Rather, their telescopic abstraction, and their frequent omission of outward indices of individual identity place us in an uncertain relationship to the body of an unknown subject. Her pictures are energised by an unwavering specificity, which mimics the fantasy of individual desire in the way that a romantic poet would rhapsodise the contours of the suprasternal notch.
The other rooms in which Callis’s pictures transpire seem sparse but credible spaces for an experimentation with desire, and her collaborations with each individual subject mirror the tender revelation of sexual fantasy. These spaces are energised by specific gestures that invoke the heated interplay of sexual attraction, and each object or element in the frame seems responsive to all others intersecting with it. Thus the thrusting brightness of a white-sheeted bed, which protrudes diagonally into a shadowy yellow room seems to mirror the unveiling of an unbridled and off-kilter assertion of desire. The ballooning shadow of the pillow and mattress emanates like an undercurrent along the base of the frame, as though the bed were dispersing some unconscious drive into the vignetted brightness of the room.
In Sand and Glove, or Woman with Black Line, the constriction or the languor of the prostrate nude body seems a direct response to the allegorical stimuli that trace the sweeping curves of naked flesh. A pile of grey dust may intimate gunpowder, as a thin black line draws our eye toward the slope of the spine, but these markings and residues recall to us the intimate sexual dance between subjection and mastery. The contrition of the gamine body in Woman with Black Line is echoed in the military propriety of the male back in Man with Lines, but subverted by the impish gathering of fabric in the cleft of his arse.
Thus Callis conveys a sense of the explosive dynamics of fetish, while lightly intimating the pleasures of the viscera that accompany the expiation of sexual desire. While her pictures are typically diminutive in their scale and framing, they express a tender fascination with the complexities of human touch, and show an obsessive attentiveness to the pliability of body and the malleability of the imagination. Fantasy is here indivisible from attraction, just as coercion is shown to be tied up with the generative thrill of vulnerability, in a series of pictures that Prose accurately describes as “either the prelude or the aftermath of an imagined act.”
The sense of sight conveyed in these images is that of an involuntary, creative and appetitive instinct, whose vicissitudes can be strange even to those who are authors of its own creations. Sight is unbridled and directed as in Woman with Open Shirt, or delectably performative as in Woman on Sofa, or seductive and playful in pictures like Hand in Honeyand and Figure under Bedspread. The frankness of each title mirrors the directness of each image, and they place us in proximity to the intimate obsessions of desire’s creative freedoms. These freedoms are indulged in an interior but adaptable and theatrical space, where great beauty emerges from some point between fevered dreams and the vestiges of remembered experience.