IN 2000, THE ARTIST Catherine Opie was commissioned to produce a new suite of works for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, the sale of which would benefit the organization, as well as support the continued work of her friend, the performance artist Ron Athey. The resulting Large Format Polaroids — restagings of past performances by Athey and his collaborators — are lush, textured tributes to the artist and his contributions to S&M performance. In one portrait, Athey takes on the role of Saint Sebastian: suspended from scaffolding above, his intricately tattooed flesh is pierced with spinal tap needles adorned with arrow feathers; his scrotum bloated with saline solution; his face and thighs dripping with blood. Another Polaroid shows Athey and Divinty Fudge (Darryl Carlton), who sits with his head down and back to the camera, while Athey, facing him, makes cuts across his skin. Both scenes refer to Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994), originally performed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. This event flung Athey to the center of the culture wars: a writer who had not even attended the performance falsely reported that the audience had been exposed to HIV-positive blood. Because the Walker had received a $150 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the performance, Athey found himself defending the notion of public funding, while he and his work were criminalized on the floor of the Senate.
Large Format Polaroids are rich in color and texture, at once sharp and sumptuous, formidable in scale. They are tender portraits of a fellow artist, who, as Opie explained in an interview in Art Journal, represents a welcome and essential voice in queer discourse and for the queer community at large. The pictures present a marked change from Opie’s earlier, well known photographs of her queer friends in Los Angeles, which include gorgeous portraits of cross-dressers, tattooed dominatrices, female-to-male transsexuals, and drag kings. In Polaroids, Opie again deploys traditional conventions of portraiture, but here Athey is an active subject, performing his portraits through Opie’s lens. Large Format Polaroids — a result of true collaboration between the two artists — are charged, extreme, intensely sadomasochistic, and, for many, hard to look at. “I thought it might be shut down,” Opie remarked in the interview, shortly after the Polaroids were first exhibited in New York in 2000. “I was shocked that it got no press. Maybe if the images had been shown at the New Museum of Contemporary Art or at the Brooklyn Museum it would have gotten slammed. Everyone's scared to death to take that work on. It terrifies them.”
If Large Format Polaroids remains a difficult body of work, Ron Athey’s place within them has been obscured even further. Very little has been written about the project. What has been written rarely, if ever, engages Athey as a subject, or looks to the history and friendship between Athey and Opie (Opie has for many years participated in Athey’s underground performances). Most telling, few have addressed the hard-core gestures Athey performed for Opie’s camera. In 2006, The Research Institute at the Getty Center in Los Angeles hosted a conference on “the aesthetics of risk,” and one of the Large Format Polaroids — a portrait of Athey, crowned with thorns, posing as the late Leigh Bowery — served as the lead promotional image. However, the conference’s conversations featured Opie but not Athey, pitting Athey’s practice at a cautious remove, while veiling his own “aesthetics of risk” within Opie’s frame (and as they are, the Large Format Polaroids are perhaps the least shocking representations of Athey’s performances). For Athey, who is almost never included in public presentations of controversial art, Large Format Polaroids and their circulation have become a telling indicator for the difficulty of his work. The controversy that surrounds his performances has come to define an understanding of his art, perpetuating his misrepresentation, as well as a dulled, narrow perspective on what the artist’s truly intricate, generous practice really is.
Jennifer Doyle, a friend and long time supporter of Ron Athey, stands among few scholars intent on recuperating the artist’s place within the annals of recent art history. She devotes much of the real estate in her new book, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, to this cause, dedicating the title to Ron himself. And yet, while the two have worked together in the past — in 2009 Doyle invited Athey to perform his intense Resonate / Obliterate at the University of California, Riverside, where she is a professor of English — she admits to a long-time struggle to write about his art practice. Getting past the shroud of controversy was one thing: on Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, Doyle writes, “[the NEA controversy] nearly obliterated the queer architecture of the performance, leaving us with that one image of Athey standing over Divinity’s scarred back instead of the even more complex geometries of gender, sex, and race which structured the evening’s performances.” With a focus on that critical limit, and in a close examination of the original events — attendant as much to the experience in and of the audience as to the complex gestures and dynamics enacted on stage — Doyle turns our attention to difficulty itself, and what it means. While his performances have long been misrepresented by a phobic press, the horror expressed by Athey’s critics reveals an essential truth about his work: “Four Scenes in a Harsh Life [...] has the blood-and-flesh poetics of art practiced in the shadow of the AIDS pandemic.” She continues:
Athey’s performances are intense not only for those uneasy with the sight (and smell) of blood. They sometimes hover over intensely masochistic scenes and foreground the unnerving intimacy of aggression and desire. And his audiences are drawn to that.[...] The enduring difficulty of Athey’s work is more closely tied to the way that it mixes pleasure and pain — and does so in spectacles that speak to larger social experiences of belonging and alienation, care and abandonment, hope and despair.
The work is difficult, Doyle argues, because it demands from us “vulnerability, intimacy, and desire” — and compels us to face ourselves as social subjects.
This analysis — along with a close look at a small group of specific works by other artists — make up the core of Doyle's book. In it she explores the conditions of difficulty in art, ideologies of emotion, and how emotion plays out in art practices whose foundations feel at once personal and political. Drawing from the way "difficulty" is deployed in poetics and music, Hold It Against Me engages works of art on the margins, those that have been clouded with controversy, and those that explicitly engage emotion, identity, and politics. She eschews the narrow interpretations that often surround the work of artists like Athey and proposes an understanding of these practices tied, instead, to their emotional fabric. Throughout Hold It Against Me, Doyle performs the challenging and intricate task of addressing works of art that have left her (and others) pained, unsettled, or fraught, with particular attention to artworks that have eluded her own analysis in the past. While the book offers cogent readings of and new perspectives on important (and marginalized) works of art, Doyle has also offered us a demanding text that feels deeply personal.
She opens Hold It Against Me with the disclosure: “This book began to find its focus only when I started to pay attention to the nature of the difficulty of writing about these works: in each of the works that I was drawn to, difficulty itself was an integral part of its emotional landscape.” Works like Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle (2006), Carrie Mae Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–1996), and Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Hujar Dead) (1988–1989) are teeming with affect — a term loosely deployed by Doyle to suggest “the diffuse nature of emotion and feeling, how a mood can saturate a space” — but lack any traditional displays of expression. None of these works, she adds, “can be explained as a representation of how the artist feels.” These artworks “feel political,” says Doyle, “but why they do is complicated. They are unnerving, depressing, or upsetting; none offers the positive message one associates with political art, and they each (differently) reject the basic geometries of identity and politics that normally ground discussions of art, identity, and politics.” Doyle describes the unstable ground on which many of these artworks stand, and the conditions that frame what she envisions as their fundamental difficulty. She prioritizes those artistic practices that lack institutional support (in the form of exhibition or critical reception), stage institutional critiques centered not on the apparatus of Art but of History, and form dense spaces of affect, in which viewers are compelled to contend with an intense emotional field.
For Doyle, the difficulty of the artistic practices she addresses in the book is rooted to the “emotional and identificatory geometries” that define them — and it is a misreading of this condition that stunts most critical reception or scholarship of such work. For artists like Athey, crying controversy virtually guarantees that no space will be made to discuss his work’s complexity beyond the shock it provokes. Even as the nature of its difficulty might be the cause of such scandal, few have confronted the work itself, how it challenges us, and what it means. Further, Doyle claims, because this kind of work is saturated with “narrative, feelings, and politics,” it is often framed by critics as “naïve and propagandistic, especially when race and gender are on the table.” Doyle proposes that the fatal literalism ascribed by some art historians to those practices concerned with history and identity — and often by artists of color, feminists, and queer artists — “reflects a critical limit, and not a limit to the work itself” (notable exceptions include the recuperative work of scholars such as Amelia Jones and Darby English, whom Doyle holds, as do I, in high esteem).
Looking, then, beyond the problematic demands made by mainstream art criticism on artists working in the margins, Doyle proposes alternative disciplines that might inform a more productive reading of difficulty. Although (to my disappointment) she devotes only a little space to the idea, one of her most compelling suggestions embraces the complex relationship between music and noise:
The affective density of the works discussed in this book may be understood as one way of working with noise, in which case affect appears as an interference, as a rupture in which the viewer is thrown back onto, into a disoriented self. That noise feels like the other side of art.
While much of the more academic discourse in the book is relegated to the endnotes, this is a strong example of Doyle’s disciplinary approach. She proposes that we experience this art by shifting our gaze to the complex social spaces that surrounds it. Transposing the role of listener to spectator, Doyle demands, “One actually must look away, and look around.”
“Writing about Athey’s work,” she reveals, “I am acutely aware of the aspects of the experience of it that get away from me. So I try, mainly, to give the reader a sense of what happened and where and how those memories of the event travel.” Hold It Against Me is broadly structured as a series of focused essays on individual works of art, through which Doyle rehearses the critical language she has claimed on behalf of difficult art. Her first three case studies offer new and persuasive perspectives on works that have been largely defined by the controversies they ignited: Ron Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle (2006), Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic (1875), and Aliza Shvarts’s Untitled (2008), an undergraduate thesis project at Yale’s School of Art, in which the artist claimed that she repeatedly inseminated herself and induced miscarriages over a period of nine months. Doyle moves on to address the relationship between emotion, identity, and politics in four key works, including Franko B’s I Miss You! (2003) and James Luna’s The History of the Luiseño People (Christmas, La Jolla Reservation 1990) (1990–1996, 2009). Still intent to dismantle the “strange attitude” of contemporary art criticism to this kind of work, Doyle centers on the relationship of emotion to identity, and explores the ways in which discourses on emotion, identity, and history converge.
Doyle rightly identifies the “deep suspicion of identity politics” that informs accepted forms of art criticism whereby the mere presence of identity politics (and race especially) as an interpretive factor “is enough to wipe out a work’s difficulty and the complexity of its relationship to its context. Worse, the oblivion (which reduces work about racial discourse to a moment of racial identification on the critic’s part) is more often than not presented as some sort of critical insight.” For Doyle, to engage emotion and art demands a concern for the nature of expression, just as it demands an exploration of how identity is produced through and subsumed by emotion. “The deeper we get into this subject,” she states, “the closer we get to the issues at the core of art history and the challenge of acknowledging a broader spectrum of viewers, seeking a wider range of experiences that those recognized by traditional articulations of that discipline.”
Doyle’s thinking about difficulty and emotion is largely architectural — she frequently refers to geometric structures when describing how emotion operates in and around art — and her key to these constructions are the matrixes built by political and historical stakes. In a surprising but highly effective move, Doyle closes the book with a look at two photographic works: Carrie Mae Weems’s series of appropriated and altered 19th-century African and African-American portraits, commissioned by the Getty Center in 1995, and David Wojnarowicz’s collaged portrait of his friend Peter Hujar, comprised of shots of Hujar’s body moments after he died of complications from AIDS. While the history of photography, and questions surrounding the ownership of the image and the object of the gaze, lay the contextual groundwork for Weems’s series, Wojnarowicz engages the possibilities of photography’s deadening click, as described by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Further, in both works, text overlays image, bodying the passive viewer into the space of reader and active participant in the “structure of spectatorship.” Yet for Doyle, what is crucial to a deeper understanding of these works is where we as spectators stand in front of and within these sites of historical trauma. The emotional territory of the art is doubly registered: on one hand, within the context of institutional and disciplinary frameworks and the complex discourse around race and the AIDS crises in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and on the other, where we as viewers belong in the spaces of historical and personal loss.
Doyle reads the emotional field of these works — which are indeed deeply moving — within political and historical conditions and shows us why this is important. These works describe “how it feels to occupy a position, to be in a specific kind of body, to belong to a certain community, to survive, to experience, or to be asked to embody the experience for others.” For Doyle, emotion comes to play beyond the expected boundaries of the political frame, fracturing our critical distance, our conditioned response, and bringing ideological stakes to a space where they can do their most intimate work.
At times, it can be difficult to parse lucid descriptions of feeling, fields of emotion, and her ontology of difficulty from her focused essays on individual works of art, as Doyle attempts to weave (and build) her argument through an accumulation of disparate case studies. This results in a thesis that sometimes feels dissipated or disjunctive. Also largely hidden from view (or at least made less explicit) are the promised new and interdisciplinary models for reading difficulty — drawing from music and poetic theory for instance — in favor of rehearsing rigorous, but fairly routine, forms of art historical analysis. Where Doyle’s argument packs its most powerful punch occurs wherever she pushes emotion to the foreground of our reading. Moving beyond the claim of a work’s “difficulty,” she opens a space for such art to move us, to wound us, to let us grieve, and to help us understand the possibilities for the political and historical stakes in ourselves. “Not all emotionally intense work is difficult,” she writes, “but some is difficult exactly insofar as it questions what emotion is, where it comes from, to whom and what it belongs, and whether it can be thought of as ‘belonging’ at all.” Looking to the ways in which “tears migrate,” she describes a fluid field where emotion is deeply intersubjective, and how we can give art the agency do to its work when we allow ourselves to understand how we feel and why.
Artists have long explored the poetics of how emotion outlines the boundary between the self and the other. And as Doyle points out, it is emotion that “brings these boundaries into being.” In the 2006 essay, ““Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?” artist Andrea Fraser described her experience weeping before Sandback’s installation at Dia:Beacon. The dyed acrylic yarn, pulled taught from ceiling to floor, created an invisible architecture, and hummed in the empty room. Indeed, Sandback’s installations describe an art of absence. For Fraser, it is also tragic: “The work of art, like the work of mourning,” she writes, “is a process of reconstructing lost and ruined objects, lost and ruined worlds.” The geometries Sandback delineates in space emerge and vanish as the viewer moves; the perceptual experience is fragile, impermanent, and mortal. “However, the impossibility and impermanence, fragility and disappearance of Sandback’s work are not only matters of the perception of form. They are also the facts of the works themselves.” For Fraser, to behold Sandback’s work presents “a place of affective possibility created by work that doesn’t ask me to feel, and so, I think, allows me to feel, and to be alone, in the presence of this art that’s so quiet and still, and makes too little in the way of demands. It is an art of objects without shadows.”
Fraser describes an affective field, a mournful experience, a sense of loss already well absorbed and championed in art criticism. The difficulty — more specifically, the illegibility or opacity — of nonrepresentational work, the economy of minimalism, and the specificity of institutional critique (including Andrea Fraser’s) has long been embraced in contemporary art practice. This is an art that, for the most part, forswears sentiment, but in its withholding, in its turning away, draws us in to experience the loss Fraser describes. And yet, so accustomed are we to this work (and to writing about this work), that in the end, its promise of difficulty disappears. Jennifer Doyle’s Hold It Against Me offers us a powerful and challenging new voice. The difficulty she describes emerges in work that turns to face us. We are no longer passive spectators but witnesses, and those spaces can be uncomfortable, vulnerable, and highly personal. These artists have largely not been fostered by institutional support, but instead within queer, feminist, and punk underground discourse and environments. Just as Ron Athey’s practice cuts a space to experience the unsettling intimacy of violence and desire, pleasure and pain, he embodies an experience for us, and invites us to consider our selves, belonging and alienated, nurtured and abandoned, longing and ecstatic. Doyle has opened up a critical and much needed space for this work and these experiences. She demands that we consider the political and historical stakes in ourselves, to embrace what is intimate and fraught — and that is no easy feat.