Sitting down to write this essay, on recent works by Boston-based artist Steve Locke, I am repeatedly engaged by an overwhelmingly tangential force. In his 2nd solo exhibition, you don’t deserve me, at Samsøn, an array of textual signifiers—including distinctly truncated titles, painted portraits, and sculptural forms, rendering the figure in both two and three-dimensions—intersect with and diverge from the discourses of painting and sculpture; signifying a mediated relationship between the subject and the artist. In the past, Locke portrayed the results of looking. In his single and group installations of portraits of men we look at them, they look at us, and at each other. In his version of the portrait, subjects aspire to be the objects of desire. In this desire-seeking network of looking we often leave ourselves behind. Locke’s new series of portraits liaise with the self-set pace of a tangential passage—the urge to look at, desire, lust after, and wonder about the other in a wandering state—creating the potentiality of intersections within the matrixes of glances, gazes, stares, suppositions, propositions and gestures—in the present.
How to present the gaze without objectifying it, redirect the prospect of narrative, or convey a message without having to reveal all of the details to the viewer? Locke’s new works mediate in pursuit of these questions. They burgeon on the edge of portraiture, installation and sculpture, evading categorization within a particular genre. Instead, Locke harmonizes modernist tropes with his own unique sensibility to the human form. Fragmenting both the titles of his works and the formal enterprise of portraiture, he presents glimpses of a lexical system of text, images and forms. He presents a mode of looking that is supported by Julia Kristeva’s “notion of intertextuality” which “replaces that of intersubjectivity;” where the tangential force of Locke’s new works shift to “occupy the status of mediator, linking structural models to cultural (historical) environment.” 1 This notion of looking from a space of intertextuality evokes an unstructured, exteriorizing and evasive non-objective gaze that has the potentiality of being momentarily steadied amongst the tangential scatter within which Locke’s works function.
The intersections of text, portraiture and space in Locke’s new works can be examined using Kristeva’s concept of the word within the space of texts; where the sculptural portraits named after their fragmented titles are “signifiers for different modes of (literary) intellection within different genres or texts puts poetic analysis at the sensitive center of contemporary “human” sciences—at the intersection of language (the true practice of thought) with space (the volume within which signification, through a joining of differences, articulates itself).”2
you don’t deserve me is comprised of several portraits of men; a genre that has been present in Locke’s work for over a decade and is a central focus of his practice. In the past six years, the particular gesture of a man’s open mouth with his tongue hanging out has appeared exclusively within this greater context. He employs this visual trope in order to explore aspects of the gaze and modes of looking exchanged between and among men.3 In these new works, there is something strikingly new about the way Locke presents the notion of looking; the portraits are away from or tangential to the wall and are supported in space by poles and pipes that Locke anchors into the surfaces and into panels and plinths that are placed onto the floor. This causes the viewer to have more of a participatory role in how they experience the works.
The formal elements of the sculptural portraits are varied; some are tiny painted portraits that loom precariously atop multiple sections of one half-inch hinged steel piping, and look down onto the viewers; others are more closely associated with the spectator’s viewing height; while further portraits hover slightly above the ground creating the impetus to look down, thus casting our gaze downward. The bases of these portraits recall the modernist square, inflecting idealized historicisms onto the forms that support the structures. Simultaneously, the industrial poles attached and inserted into the substructure evoke the semblance and function of the body’s internal anatomy.
The portraits that make up the ‘heads’ of Locke’s sculptural ‘bodies’ seem to emerge from the color saturated surfaces of the panels. Locke applies an opaquely pronounced series of gestural marks that fade gradually into the background. This creates the illusion that the heads are floating precariously in space. The loose, wide opened mouths and vacant or closed eyes on the faces of the painted portraits inflect impressions of desire, exhaustion, exertion and ecstasy. The heads that seem emerge from the thick broad strokes of paint that Locke lays down over dry hazy brushes on the panel’s surface, reveal the lustful yet simultaneously abject expressions on the figure’s faces. This dichotomy of gestures and sumptuous content suggest how Francis Bacon described the importance of the interconnection of the painting’s image and the paint itself in his 1953 essay on the work of Matthew Smith.4 Locke’s portraits converge on the concept of looking, but his gestural variations in mark making expose the relationship of his practice to more basic bodily functions.5
Facing the figure-like portraits—statuesque, leaning, diminutive, and imbued with gesture both in their three-dimensional forms and in the expressively painted faces of the men—the viewer’s perspective within the space changes. The paintings of men that hang on the wall seem to want to defy the traditional posture of portraiture. Locke pushes each of them physically away from the surface of the wall by fashioning a beveled edge in the rear of the painting. He emphasizes the separation by painting the sloped edge with an extremely bright hue, which presents a soft halo around the angular edges of the panels. Locke’s modified panels distance the painted surfaces from the walls similar to artist Donald Moffett’s postmodern practice of cutting into his panels and canvases to foreground their sculptural presence. Like Moffett, Locke interrogates the historical conventions of painting by extending the traditional two-dimensional frame and shifting the perspective of the paintings’ surface. This provides the viewer with a heightened awareness of him or herself amongst the varying modalities of portraiture and its historical connection to notions of looking.
Aware of modern and postmodern practices, Locke cross-examines and obfuscates the definitions of painting and sculpture. His sculptural portraits reside in the interstices between abstraction and figuration. Brushing up against history and the present, and idealized and abject representations, situated alongside modes of looking and subjectivity, Locke expresses a revitalized spatial approach to looking in his work. Firstly, the paintings are taken away from the wall. Some are tangential to the right angle of the wall and others orbit independently within the space. In separates and equals (2010-2012) and will never let you down (2012) the poles supporting the square portrait panels lean back slightly onto the wall. By doing this, Locke asserts that the wall remains a symbol of support amongst contemporary reference to historical portraiture. Locke’s tendency to tilt these two works against the wall evokes the transition of material within the genre of portraiture in the same way that Roni Horn’s leaning text sculptures in the Key and Cue series shift the rendering of written text. Locke and Horn both use language in the visualization of tangential forces. However, Horn uses it as a catalyst to arrive at a visual, while Locke assigns bits of text in language to illuminate the visual and provide an intertextual jumping off point for the viewer.
The truncated titles Locke uses redirect meaning. In its most concrete form, separates and equals is clearly missing a subject while simultaneously void of an action. This leaves the viewer open to predicate upon a myriad of interpretations; the work could refer to disconnect and the balance shared between painting and sculpture; the political underhandedness of racial separatism and deceptive inflection associated with the phrase “separate but equal;” issues surrounding concepts of self and other, just to name a few. The fragmented phrases and broken visual syntax leads us to a core concept of Locke’s new works, that of “expressing the things that people don’t want to talk about”.6 In essence, utilizing the methods of diversion to arrive at, or rather to continue to engage in the vast potentiality of contemporary portraiture. Erin Dziedzic
1 Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 66.
2 Ibid., 65.
3 Steve Locke, artist statement.
4 Francis Bacon in Matthew Smith: Paintings from 1909 to 1952, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1953, 12.
5 Chris Stephens, Apprehension, in Francis Bacon, edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 121.
6 Skype with artist, Apr. 1, 2012.