David Rimanelli on Dean Sameshima’s “Outlaw,” 2003
GIVEN THE RATHER MARKEDLY heterosexual lineups that are taken as the wellsprings of both Minimalism and Conceptual art, one wouldn’t immediately assume that these movements—tendencies or inclinations might be better words—would prove fertile for art with a pronounced gay or queer agenda. Yes, the Gay Agenda—perhaps you’ve heard of it? But a number of queer contemporary artists have indeed proceeded from Donald Judd and Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt and John Baldessari. I’m thinking of Tom Burr’s reinventions of Minimalist and Land art precepts as filtered through gay cruising and the public restrooms that might have facilitated it, or of Henrik Olesen’s user-unfriendly collages—works that typically eschew the representational concerns of much gay-inflected art in favor of strategies derived from Conceptualism’s idées fixes about documentation, enumeration, and typology. These are relatively recent attempts to “queer” the canon of 1960s vanguardism, but in many ways they follow that other relentlessly used and abused avatar of that decade in art, Andy Warhol—yeah, him—who was exploiting these resolutely “dumb” procedures at the very same time as those artists listed in the catalogue for “When Attitudes Become Form,” Harald Szeemann’s magnum opus of the ’60s. Seriality is the Warholian preoccupation par excellence from virtually the outset of the artist’s “professional” fine-arts phase. The replication of the grieving Jackie Kennedy in various formats. Elvis split into three overlapping images. The Campbell’s Soup cans. We might also consider Warhol’s preoccupation with endurance and real time (à la Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow, Vito Acconci, et al.), and his penchant for a certain kind of anesthetic or anti-aesthetic photography (pace Jeff Wall’s 1995 essay “Marks of Indifference”).
The Los Angeles–based artist Dean Sameshima partakes of both Minimal-ist and Conceptual art legacies, as well as, indubitably, the Warholian one. A certain kind of documentary photography is often at work, as are serial procedures. There is a foregrounding of typology, a procedure genealogically linked to Hilla and Bernd Becher, though I wonder what they’d have made of it. Perhaps the work by Sameshima that’s most familiar is his series “Outlaw,” 2003, a group of seventeen photos of a cute, presumably gay guy demonstrating the American Sign Language gestures for, oh, let’s see: mutual masturbation, climax, gay, blow job, erection, ejaculation, well-hung, group sex, testicles, etc. Sameshima had discovered these images in an early ’90s issue of the gay-porn magazine InTouch; he then rephotographed the pictures and displayed them in either a grid or as a sequential row. If the result points toward precursors of the ’60s and ’70s, it also mines the less cerebral terrain of quasi-medical brochures and pornographic “sex manuals.” In such images, the aesthetic patina is seemingly accidental, the by-product of various agendas and unknown hands (or if they are known, it’s not to the art history department, but to human resources).
“Outlaw” is stand-alone, but, like Père Warhol, Sameshima has worked in many different media. He’s done zines. He’s made T-shirts. Gay magazines, skater magazines, i-D, and The Face: Those are as much his background as the requisite October subscription and vintage Avalanche. He made a painting of the Winter 1989 issue of October recently. He must have known about John Boskovich’s painting of October’s AIDS issue: Signifiers for Being Smart #1: Disco October, 1999.
A hyperawareness of art-historical precedent is something inculcated in certain young artists by a fine-arts education. Sameshima got his MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in 2001. Especially in that decade, a degree from this school was regarded as a reliable predictor of future critical and institutional success (the very near future, one hoped, given the expense); monetary rewards would occur as a mere side effect of one’s interventions in consciousness. I met Sameshima at the end of his tour of MFA duty. We chatted, I looked at his work—as I recall, photographs of the same epicene young man in varying states of color correction, a disquisition in the making on the intersection of homoerotic fixation and photomechanical processes. There was desire and repetition, but the upshot wasn’t so much Deleuze and Guattari as it was naked men, over and over and over again.
The upshot wasn’t so much Deleuze and Guattari as it was naked men, over and over and over again.
Naked men: It’s a good subject; even I like it. Sameshima frequently makes projects from his collections of archival gay-interest imagery, from naturist nudism to physique pictorials, pre-iPhone nude selfies, teen fanzine pics of the young Argentine fashion model Iván de Pineda, and other ephemera with an avowedly fetishistic character (young men in gas masks: sultry). Once more, we canvas an archivist’s terrain, like that adumbrated in the “vintage” Conceptualism of the Bechers, Dan Graham, and Douglas Huebler. The picture, presented in toto, sidesteps the banal if understandable homilies of Lift Up the Queer Race, instead giving up a sort of highly personal yet objectively sourced image of what it meant to be a male person of “inverted” sexuality.
I wish a good arts publishing house would collaborate with Sameshima to bring us a Big Book of Bad (Very Good) Homosexuality. That would be a true public service.
David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.