Commonwealth and Council

Big, Pig, Power

Doug Ischar


Doug Ischar comes on strong. Three barks and a snarl—or is it a whimper?


Three curt syllables, and a last, muted one, swallowed rather than spoken. The bang bang bang of a brief commotion succeeded by the sizzle and crackle of its aftermath. 

With a title like that, one expects pornography: action, climax. If not daddies and their boys, spit-shined cocks and spattered sperm, then the aesthetic cum shot of a documentary photograph’s decisive moment, at least. Errrrr. Instead the work in this exhibition invokes the ellipsis of time’s passing, the murmuring deeps of memory, history. There our narrator, the subject, drowns. The story drifts free of his grasp, his objects lost.

The past’s undertow, its pull, is a lure and a debt. The trap here is sentimental nostalgia or a vaguely political injunction to remember. The narrative forms of memoir and testimony, however, fill in too many blanks automatically, deliver meaning too quickly, too fluently, and ultimately insulate us from the sizzling, crackling power of the lost objects we are seeking.

That’s the lure, the temptation, but the debt? We will return to that. First, let’s enumerate and describe some of those lost objects. A group of young, blonde men striking poses by a pool at the Pines, a Russian River resort in Northern California. Another blonde, likely fourteen years old, waving from a swimming pool. A light booth operator, named Curtis, in an Atlanta gay club. A last blonde, in his late teens or early 20s, hugging his pet, a black pig. Excepting the light booth operator, this cast of beauties are represented by photographic ephemera dating from the mid-to-late-1980s: Ischar’s forays into documentary photography as a young artist; Jeffrey Dahmer’s pubescent likeness, excerpted from his father’s memoir; and a snapshot of the artist’s recently deceased partner, Tom Daws. Curtis is represented by a cruisy note he passed the artist: “Someone. I would like to talk with you. I’m in the DJ booth. I don’t get off till 6am. I am running the lights.”

Although Ischar’s exhibition has an air of forensic science, none of his subjects are presented simply or straightforwardly, which is to say as single, autonomous images or objects. Dahmer is projected on a date due slip from a library book and animated to tilt every few moments, imparting artificial life to his gesture of hello. The photo of Ischar’s partner is displayed in a plastic sleeve along with an envelope from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Onto Curtis’s note, Ischar projects footage of sunlight caught on super 8 film—repurposed from found footage the artist used in forget him (2009)—and a fragment of text about blonde hair, sunlight, and youth from The Troubled Midnight by Rodney Garland. Further, the latter work, Someone (2013), is accompanied by subdued strains of the disco song, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and the intermittent, stentorian interruption of typing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

Even the archival photos from the Russian River Resort, printed large and framed, possess secondary details or supplemental embellishments that leave one with the impression that meaning in Ischar’s exhibition is in motion, volleyed amongst images and objects, through myriad frames, across time and space. The various mini-projectors, tripods, and extension cords criss-crossing the gallery reinforce this notion, literally embodying arteries of mediation, conduits of power—and meaning.

Back to those photographs of poolside blondes in Northern California: they are seemingly of a piece with the two archival bodies of work Ischar recently revisited, Marginal Waters (1985/2009) and Honor Among… (1987/2011), depicting mid-1980s gay cruising grounds in Chicago and San Francisco, respectively. In Go Unnoticed (1986/2013), the four young men, wearing only bathing suits and towels, absorb themselves in their sunlight-kissed bodies. Three of them glance down at their own torsos and the last arches his body with eyes closed. Linger (1986/2013) shows one of these men playfully pulling a towel over the face of another, who lies in a pool chair. As in the previously mentioned historical bodies of work, these pieces share an originally documentary intention—the young artist’s in 1986—and ostensible value today as historical representations, portraying rather sweet moments of gay leisure during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The resemblance is misleading, however. Ischar performs a bait-and-switch, trading a politically-minded cultural mnemonics for something both more personal and abstract. What was latent in Marginal Waters and Honor Among…, is now manifest in the current exhibition—namely, the significance of the slash along which we slide between 1986 and 2013, itself another artery or conduit.

In the lower right-hand corner of Go Unnoticed, the artist has projected an animated detail of a painting of Diamond Head on Waikiki by his aunt, her signature overlaying a passage of ocean water. The Pacific’s waves undulate—like young Dahmer’s hand—and her name, V. Ischar, fades every dozen seconds, as if submerged in the water’s element—much like the text in Someone gives way to the harsh ambience of sunlight overpowering vintage film stock. This detail hardly goes unnoticed: the tripod and projector are stationed mere inches from the framed print. And its seeming non sequitur halts any unselfconscious and too-pleasurable absorption in the photograph itself. The departure from protocol in Linger is less intrusive: its diptych format splits the captured moment into a before and after: the towel placed on the man’s head, and then draped across his face. The effect is one of doubly underlining the depicted action, thereby releasing symbolic tension: the towel converts into a death shroud; and this candid moment of flirtatious play echoes instead as tenderly tending the dead.

The artist’s partner of a decade, Tom Daws, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in the early months of 2013. Dahmer’s appearance should have indicated that something intractably darker occurs in the shadows of this sun-drenched show. (Recalling that the killer’s likeness is borrowed from his father’s memoir, it should be added that Ischar is the daddy of all these diabolically pretty boys, as well as the titular pig.) The Dahmer piece, Siren, is dated 1996/2013, another slash marking a fissure in time. In conversation, the artist confessed to being bothered about the original work; lacking resolution, he could not leave it alone. The semblant theme of blonde boys presumably provoked the revision, but it is Ischar’s tenacious inability to leave it alone to which we ought to pay attention—it being not only this particular picture, of course. As mentioned earlier, Boy, Pig, Power (2013) consists of a photo of the artist’s late partner as a young man beside an envelope addressed to the latter from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, presumably a utility bill but in fact a refund—both enclosed in a plastic sleeve. We might speculate that the economy of meaning in this work, arguably the quiet centerpiece of the exhibition, is one of boom and bust: hands full one moment, empty the next.

Ischar projects images from the past—a personal history that overlaps with a larger shared one—onto the thin surface of the present, beyond which, of course, lies the open air and sunlight of the future. Following this metaphor, the movement in his images—both literal and figurative movement—is not inherent to the images themselves, but to the surface on which they drift and float. That movement figures insistently in this exhibition as a wave: waves of water, but also light and sound; waves of power, of electricity; waves of greeting and farewell; waves of abundance and want; waves of time and memory; and waves of grief.

Ischar’s pursues his lost objects with both childish persistence and somber reverence. “Let me tell you…I’m trying to capture the fourth dimension of the now-instant…” That is not Ischar but his beloved Clarice Lispector. Although her subject is an absolute present-tense of writing, we might imagine Ischar mouthing her words, inflecting them with the pain of time’s passing, its having passed: the wave of one “now-instant” overcome by the next. “I want to possess the atoms of time.” Ischar’s work lyrically embodies such a desire, but also allegorizes the impossibility of its consummation.

—Elijah Burgher, 2013

Doug Ischar (b. 1948, Honolulu, HI; lives and works in Chicago) first premiered Boy, Pig, Power at Peregrineprogram in Chicago (2013-14). Ischar’s work was recently included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and his exhibition At Large is currently on view at Night Club in Chicago until July 25, 2015. Other exhibitions and screenings include: Golden, Chicago, IL and New York, NY; Eli Ping Frances Perkins, New York, NY; Poor Farm, Waupaca, WI; 2nd Floor Projects, San Francisco, CA; Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Gothenburg, Sweden; Malmö Konstmuseum, Malmö, Sweden; Institute of the Visual Arts, Milwaukee, WI; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, IL; List Visual Arts Center, MIT, Cambridge, MA; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL.